Turkey’s Earthquake: The Buck Stops with Erdogan

Turkey’s Earthquake: The Buck Stops with Erdogan

Ankara has to answer why it wasn’t prepared for the earthquake that has devastated Turkey, and what will its response be over the coming weeks.

Turkey may have just experienced the most devastating natural disaster in its history. Ten provinces in the country’s southeast were flattened by powerful earthquakes in a matter of hours, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Temperatures are freezing and survivors are in danger of freezing to death before rescuers can dig them out of the rubble.

The disaster is still unfolding. There is now a massive homelessness problem. Even in cases where houses were not destroyed, many will be uninhabitable due to structural damage. The sheer level of urban destruction is so vast that, in addition to losing their homes, inhabitants of the region are likely to have lost their jobs too.

While natural disasters such as earthquakes are unpredictable, the Turkish government should and could have been better prepared to avoid this worst-case scenario. In the coming days, citizens and opposition politicians are going to demand answers to three uncomfortable questions.

The first relates to the availability of emergency funds, specifically intended for earthquake relief. Following a deadly earthquake in 1999, the state imposed a permanent tax on all Turkish homeowners to contribute to a fund, so that the country would be financially prepared for the next destructive earthquake. Estimates suggest that the state has collected close to $40 billion. Where are these funds? In 2020, reporters asked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this very question. He replied with a non-answer, remarking “We spent the [funds] on what was necessary. I really do not have the time to explain what the money was spent on.” Since 2012, public disclosure of government spending has been censored, thereby making it virtually impossible to determine how these funds were spent.

The second question relates to building regulations. Following the 1999 quake, the state imposed more stringent building regulations, specifically designed to ensure that buildings are as resistant to earthquakes as much as possible. The destruction of entire city blocks in towns like Hatay, Antakya, and Iskenderun strongly indicates that buildings were not up to code. Who is responsible? The government will be tempted to vilify individual contractors and builders, but not the party officials that run municipalities and thus issue building and zoning permits. In other words, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan will do everything it can to escape the embarrassment and blame. It will be interesting to see how they pull that off in light of the public infrastructure that has also sustained severe damage. Scores of municipal buildings and hospitals have collapsed.

The last question focuses on the government’s emergency response, or lack thereof. Admittedly, the magnitude of the earthquakes was so vast that any prepared government would struggle to mount a meaningful response. Yet citizens in the affected areas are complaining about the total lack of emergency services, prompting some to ask, “where is the state?” In the initial forty-eight hours, the government hesitated to deploy the Turkish military, which has significant resources such as personnel and heavy lifting equipment. This hesitation may have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives Moreover, the country’s premier emergency response agency (AFAD) is under increasing public scrutiny. The organization is accused of mounting an unacceptably slow response to a major national disaster.

Right now, Erdogan’s primary concern appears to be political optics Two days after the disaster, Erdogan declared a state of emergency for two months in the affected areas. The timing is awkward, to put it mildly: the emergency will end one week before the intended date of Turkey’s national elections. Coincidentally, a state of emergency will allow the government to control the media—specifically, control over negative reporting that might lay the blame for subsequent rebuilding and humanitarian challenges on the government.

Erdogan likely understands that this earthquake may be his greatest political challenge yet. In a fiery public appearance, instead of acknowledging the level of public trauma the country was facing, Erdogan warned that he would target individuals “spreading lies” about the national disaster.

With so much devastation and so much at stake politically, Erdogan could try to pump the brakes on holding the elections slated for May 14. Many of the public buildings where citizens usually vote have been damaged. Even if they are intact, citizens will be primarily concerned with rebuilding their livelihoods. The government may thus try to exploit the situation and forestall what was slated to be a close election by citing citizens’ inability to participate in the voting process.

Such a strategy could backfire rather badly. The earthquake has gained international attention. Should the government fail to address the needs of the people and then attempt to cancel elections, this could be too much for the Turkish population to bear. And their frustrations will be obvious to the international community that is working overtime to raise funds for the beleaguered people of Turkey.

What well-wishers may not quite understand is that Erdogan and the AKP have been in power for twenty years. And while the political elite may not be responsible for a natural disaster, the aftershocks are as much political as they are seismic.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). He is also an Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Command and Staff College-Marine Corps University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Image: Mustafa Kirazli/Shutterstock.com.