On the night of February 6th, an earthquake shook the lives of the southern parts of Turkey. Cities all the way from Antakya in the south to Malatya in the east were affected. Footage from Kahramanmamaş, one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquake, looks like something straight out of a nightmare. The citadel, which was a trademark for cities in southeastern Turkey, has crumbled in Gaziantep. Antakya, the ancient city in which mosques and churches have stood side by side for centuries, has been almost decimated. The death toll has since reached over 50 000 in Turkey and over 8000 in neighboring Syria. This is the story of how the Turkish government caused thousands of lives to be lost.
Earthquakes are a common phenomenon in many parts of the world. In a great deal of earthquake-prone countries such as Japan, buildings are constructed to withstand them, in order for them to have as small an effect on public life as possible. Turkey is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. It lies on the Anatolian Plateau which borders four tectonic plates. In spite of this, much housing lacks earthquake-preventative technology.
Following the 1999 İzmit earthquake outside İstanbul, in which over 18 000 people lost their lives, the Turkish government started collecting an earthquake tax to prevent similar disasters in the future. However, the government’s response to the crisis was slow and the tax money suddendly seemed non-existent. The government required all aid to go through one of its licensed agencies, effectively giving it total control over aid distribution. Additionally, it blocked a number of websites and social media platforms such as Twitter, which became increasingly problematic as many survivors trapped under rubble used these platforms to communicate their location. As a result, many villages were left without aid and emergency services for days.
A lot remains to be asked of a government that left millions of its citizens in death traps. The Turkish government outsourced the construction sector to private actors with close ties to Erdoğan and accepted payment from citizens in exchange for allowing them to live in poorly constructed houses. When a deadly earthquake hit the Kurdish-majority city of Van in 2011, Erdoğan criticized the neglect of construction safety measures in the area and blamed the state for not protecting its citizens. Twelve years later, Erdoğan now claims the death of over 50 000 can be attributed to the plans of God, a statement most likely used to downplay his own responsibility in the crisis. To prevent these deaths, the government could have spent the money collected via the earthquake tax on renovating housing to ensure that residential buildings in the most earthquake-prone areas would be able to withstand a certain level of seismic activity. Because after all, earthquakes don’t kill – buildings do.
Tomorrow, elections will be held in Turkey. It remains to be seen if the anti-government attitudes developed after the earthquake will lead to an electoral defeat of Erdoğan and his AK party. The so-called “table of six” opposition has nominated Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as their candidate and is attempting to secure votes from the entire political spectrum. This risky tactic relies heavily on the electorate being displeased enough with Erdoğan to vote for an ideologically jumbled opposition block that consists of everything from social democrats to ultra-nationalists. Only time will tell if the tactic succeeds.
One thing is for certain – while earthquakes rock the physical landscape we live on, often for the worse, elections have the potential to rock the political landscape for the better.
By Leonard Bektas