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Better buildings could have saved lives in Turkey’s earthquakes. Are contractors really to blame?

Turkey is investigating and has arrested some contractors, but the entire political and economic system is implicated.

Buildings destroyed after the earthquake on February 13, 2023, in Hatay, Turkey.
Murat Saka/dia images via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Turkey is still in the middle of an emergency, reeling from the earthquake that killed at least 35,000 people last week. But the finger-pointing has already begun.

The rush to punishment comes amid the grief, but also the mounting fury and frustration over the Turkish government’s earthquake response. Much of that is focused on the emergency response — waiting for aid and rescue teams — but it is also extending to anger about policies before the earthquake, about how shoddy building construction may have exacerbated the devastation of the disaster.

Turkey’s Justice Ministry said this weekend that 134 people were being investigated for their roles in constructing buildings that collapsed during the quake — some advertised as complying with building regulations. At least 10 people were arrested, and a handful of others were barred from traveling abroad, according to the New York Times. Some of those arrested had tried to flee. Turkey’s Justice Ministry also said it was creating earthquake crimes investigation bureaus to probe deaths and injuries. (Vox emailed the ministry for comment but has not yet received a response.)

“We will follow this up meticulously until the necessary judicial process is concluded, especially for buildings that suffered heavy damage and buildings that caused deaths and injuries,” Vice President Fuat Oktay told reporters at a Saturday briefing.

This looks like an effort at accountability, but it is far from a robust accounting of Turkey’s earthquake failures.

Turkey sits along two major fault lines, and after a deadly 1999 earthquake, the country passed stricter building codes, but they were not consistently enforced. And that goes beyond builders and contractors cutting corners or using inferior materials. There are also likely inspectors and municipal and state officials who issued permits when they shouldn’t have, or who looked the other way. There are those who lobbied for (and the politicians who backed) amnesty laws for buildings, essentially overriding ordinances in the name of quick construction and profit.

“Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon. Yes, it happens. But the consequences of the earthquake are quite, I would say, governmental and political and administrative,” said Hişyar Özsoy, a deputy chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party and an opposition member of Parliament representing Diyarbakır, a city near the quake’s devastation.

All of this happened under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, along with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been in power for about two decades. Erdoğan made a construction boom the centerpiece of Turkey’s economic growth. At the same time, he has consolidated his power over institutions, the press, and the judiciary. This rapid economic growth, happening alongside democratic erosion, created layers of corruption and government mismanagement that allowed contractors to construct the buildings the way that they did.

“This is very much about the entire system that Erdoğan built — not just the politics of it, but also the economies behind it,” said Sebnem Gumuscu, a professor of political science at Middlebury College who has studied democracy and authoritarianism in Turkey. “The entire system is built around these corrupt networks, crony networks, and it is all levels: local level, national level, local branches of the party, local construction, developers — they’re all in this together.”

Accountability after the quake — but for whom?

In 2019, on the campaign trail, Erdoğan touted efforts to grant amnesty to builders. “We have solved the problems of 205,000 citizens of Hatay with zoning peace,” he said, according to NPR’s translation of Turkish news site Diken. These amnesty policies were a kind of red-tape cutting that allowed buildings to be built and certified even if they didn’t meet safety and code requirements. Developers had to pay a fine, but it was essentially an exemption to the rules.

The granting of these building amnesties predates Erdoğan, and also predates the 1999 earthquake that prompted Turkey to reform its safety and building standards to better withstand the next quake.

After the most recent amnesty law was passed in 2018, tens of thousands of amnesties were granted, including in earthquake-affected areas. Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, the Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects’ Chamber of City Planners, told the BBC last week that the number could be as high as 75,000 in the earthquake zone. (Vox reached out to Giritlioğlu for comment and will update with her comments if we hear back.)

Another amnesty law was awaiting approval in parliament before the earthquake, reports the BBC.

The amnesty is a window into the kind of practices that enabled the mismatch between what regulations and codes existed and what was actually enforced — and what allowed that gap to be so widespread. Even those individual policies, like amnesty, are hard to separate from the broader dynamics of the economy and politics.

As experts said, construction was the engine of the economy and so everything went into keeping that running.

That meant all layers of the political and economic structure, from the very bottom to the very top. Construction was also a source of political power for Erdoğan and the AKP, as major Turkish construction companies enriched themselves with government contracts and cozied up to the regime. That construction boom, which fueled other sectors of the economy, helped make Erdoğan and the AKP popular; that in turn allowed him to bolster his own authority, and helped put AKP into power at all levels of government, including state and municipal offices — often the ones tasked with overseeing permits or enforcing construction codes.

Politicians had incentives to approve things like amnesty laws. People enriched themselves through this ecosystem of cronyism, so there was no incentive to make sure earthquake-safe standards were applied. And the institutions that might hold these players and politicians accountable — the press, the civil service, the courts — were being hollowed out and eroded by Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian bent.

So, yes, developers and contractors likely were negligent, constructing buildings with cheap materials or designs that could not withstand a 7.8-magnitude quake. But these shortcuts couldn’t happen without the complicity or encouragement of government institutions, all of which knew the country’s vulnerabilities and pushed ahead anyway.

“Rounding up contractors is a deed to respond to public outcry,” Taner Yuzgec, a former president of the Chamber of Construction Engineers, told the New York Times. “The true culprits are the current government and the previous governments that kept the system as it is.”

The justice ministry’s investigations also could be an effort to take the pressure off not just the past misdeeds, but also the criticisms and complaints about the government’s earthquake response. Erdoğan has centralized many institutions under his control, which means many functions of the state run through him. Experts and critics have said that likely contributed to some delays in disaster response, including from the military.

These questions around Turkey’s response — felt most acutely by people waiting to find loved ones or sleeping out in the cold — are generating the most fury right now. Still, investigations targeting individual builders could take some of the pressure off Erdoğan, his party, and those tied to his government. “He’s doing a good job in going after some of the easy targets, to show that he’s serious. ‘I am looking after my people’s interests, and I’m going to make these people accountable for whatever they’ve done,’” Gumuscu said.

The question now is whether scapegoating a few low-level folks will be enough, or if this could potentially represent a decisive factor in Erdoğan’s political undoing. Elections are scheduled for May, and the country’s economic crisis and Erdoğan’s long hold on power already made him vulnerable, even with his deliberate erosion of democracy.

Whether the earthquake fully challenges Erdoğan’s hold on power is an open question, but what happens in the aftermath of the quake will determine Turkey’s future. Millions were left homeless after thousands of buildings and apartments crumbled. Those houses must be replaced. Turkey will rebuild. But how?

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