A series of large earthquakes that devastated a vast area in southeastern Turkey and part of Syria have so far claimed the lives of about 30,000 people in Turkey and 5,000 in Syria, and injured dozens of thousands of victims. All these events, which at first glance do not concern politics, completely overturned the election plans of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For the first time in 20 years, the Turkish leader’s political future is truly at stake. Now he must prove that he is a leader who can achieve his goals and effectively mobilize the state to help those affected, help them rebuild their homes and their lives.
Many Turks are unhappy with the government, because after the devastating earthquake of 1999 (which killed about 17,000 people), a law was passed stipulating that all new buildings must comply with strict seismic building codes. Nevertheless, local authorities proved to be rather slack when it came to complying with the legislation, and many contractors used substandard materials and kept on building dangerous buildings, ignoring the relevant rules and specifications. Moreover, the government introduced a special tax, presumably aimed at strengthening existing buildings from earthquakes. Although more than $17 billion was raised, some people claim that only a small portion of this money was actually used for the stated purpose of ensuring seismic protection, while most of it was spent for unknown purposes. Turkey’s leading Justice and Development Party (AKP) also granted a controversial amnesty for illegal construction, which brought a lot of money to the state budget, while construction companies, which Erdoğan has always preferred, saved billions yet failed to protect residents from earthquakes.
The Turkish president tried to calm the anger of the earthquake victims by saying that “such things have always happened. It’s part of destiny’s plan.” He promised immediate assistance in the amount of about $530 to each homeless family, indicating that within a year the Ministry of Housing will try to build new homes for everyone who became homeless following the earthquake. However, this will require trillions of Turkish lira and will not be completed in a short time Erdoğan acknowledged that the response of the rescue services to the victims of the earthquake was far from perfect, and promised that “those responsible for the failures will be held accountable.” He also said that the government will take measures against individuals who engaged in looting and other criminal activities in the region affected by earthquakes. Victims of the earthquake, who were left without food and shelter for several days, booed Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ in the Yenisehir district in Diyarbakir province when he visited the site of the destruction.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), sharply criticized Erdoğan’s government and his AKP party for the huge destruction caused by the earthquakes. In particular, he stated that this was the result of government corruption in the construction sector and the fact that the authorities deliberately avoided supervision of contractors, forcing them to apply low construction standards. Kılıçdaroğlu said that Erdoğan’s government has not “prepared the country for earthquakes,” despite being in power for more than 20 years, and added, “That’s why I never thought about meeting with Erdoğan. I have never considered this problem (destruction caused by an earthquake) as something beyond politics. We came to this because of his politics. People have been paying earthquake taxes to the state all their lives, but they could not see this state when they needed it. Everything exists for the presidential palace. But whenever he destroys this country, he calls for people’s support. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him and I never will.”
To give Erdoğan credit where it’s due, he quickly and decisively ordered those responsible to be punished. According to press reports, 113 arrest warrants have been issued in relation to the substandard construction of collapsed buildings, including for contractors and architects, and 12 people are already in custody. But the damage has already been done. And many Turks view these actions as a desperate attempt by the AKP government, which at one time actively encouraged the mass construction of substandard buildings in earthquake-prone areas and turned a blind eye to violations of building codes, to shift the blame to contractors and architects.
The earthquakes have put President Erdoğan in a difficult position. A while ago, he moved the elections forward from June to May. But now he will probably be forced to move the elections further back several months, hoping that over time the anger of the people will subside, and he will be able to once again present himself as a capable leader who can successfully cope with any difficult situation. But to achieve this, he must show tangible and real results, and not just empty words. Only time will tell whether he can cope with the consequences of the natural disaster, calm the people and appear as an all-Turkey leader.
Meanwhile, he declared a state of emergency in 10 earthquake-affected provinces, presumably to help the government fight against a sharply increased wave of looting. But the real goal, as the oppositionists note, may be completely different. Erdoğan wants to control the distribution of aid in order to present the foreign aid sent to Turkey as aid coming from his government, and to prevent unfavorable reports about the terrible situation in an area where people are still deprived of food and shelter, complaining about the painfully slow response of rescue teams.
As hopes of finding people alive under the rubble disappear virtually a week after the earthquake, attention has shifted to providing food and shelter to a huge number of survivors. According to the Turkish government, about 1.2 million people have been accommodated in student dormitories, more than 206,000 tents were set up, and 400,000 victims were evacuated from the destroyed areas.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said 574 children recovered from collapsed buildings were found without surviving parents. Only 76 people were returned to other family members. One volunteer psychologist working at a child support center in the hard-hit province of Hatay said many parents are desperately searching for missing children. “We are receiving a flurry of calls about missing children,” Hatice Goz said by phone. “But if the child still can’t speak, the family can’t find them.”
In the destroyed Turkish city of Antakya, cleaning teams are clearing the rubble. The city was patrolled by police and soldiers deployed to prevent looting after several incidents over the weekend. “Send everything you can, because there are millions of people here, and they all need to be fed,” Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu ordered. The economic costs of the disaster could amount to up to $84.1 billion, of which almost $71 billion was spent on housing, according to a report by the Turkish employers’ Association Turconfed.
The Russian rescuers who participated in the search for earthquake victims and the dismantling of rubble in Turkey and Syria were highly praised by the authorities of these countries. The press secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov said, “Our rescuers, as always, worked professionally, heroically and effectively. They hold the flag of our Ministry of Emergency Situations high. This rescue service has long been showing its prowess, selflessness, and heroism. And our rescuers carry this flag high. We are all proud of them.” Earlier, the head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, Alexander Kurenkov, announced the completion of the work of Russian rescuers in the emergency zone. Following this, President Vladimir Putin decided to withdraw the EMERCOM group from Turkey. In total, more than 200 people were sent to the scene, including psychologists and rescue dog teams. A group of Russian rescuers provided medical assistance to 900 victims, cleared 8.4 thousand cubic meters of rubble in Turkey, the Il-76 Emergency Situations Ministry aircraft delivered 70 tons of humanitarian cargo to Syria and 36 tons to Turkey.
As noted Zvi Bar’el, a Middle East expert for Haaretz, noted, “From now on, great efforts will be made not only to pull out the dead and save the wounded, but also to create a favorable atmosphere for the ruling regime. The earthquake became an unexpected political player with the potential to significantly change the structure of the regime, or vice versa, further strengthen the power of Erdoğan and his party.”