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Will Turkey’s earthquake response threaten President Erdogan’s grip on power?

After the disaster, Erdogan’s decisions — past and present — are under scrutiny.

Thousands Dead After Earthquake Hits Turkey And Syria
People stand amongst the rubble of collapsed buildings on February 9, 2023 in Kahramanmaras, Turkey.
Photo by Aziz Karimov/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey this week is now one of the deadliest disasters in decades. More than 20,000 people have been killed in Turkey and Syria, with the toll expected to rise as wintry conditions and time foreclose the chance to pull survivors from the rubble.

In Turkey alone, an estimated 16,000 have been killed. More than 6,400 buildings have collapsed in an area that was prone to earthquakes and whose recent buildings were, if not earthquake-proofed, supposed to be better able to withstand the next big tremor. Which means now, as the emergency unfolds into a sustained tragedy, it looks as if Turkey was unprepared for a disaster that was a matter of when, not if.

In Turkey, this is raising questions about who is responsible — and right now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are facing scrutiny from survivors and opposition politicians for potentially making Turkey more vulnerable to the quake, and for the government response in the aftermath.

One of the big questions is about building standards — and whether the regulations that existed on paper were strictly enforced. Erdogan presided over a construction boom in the 2010s, and the industry was seen as the jewel and the driver of Turkey’s economic growth. It was also a source of political power for Erdogan, with the ability to dole out contracts and select projects. And now, with buildings flattened in southeastern Turkey, evidence of corner-cutting, and potential corruption, is starting to reveal itself.

And then there is the response itself. The scale of the destruction is so large, but survivors and opposition politicians have criticized the government’s response for being slow and disjointed. Twitter was restricted in some areas this week, a vital tool for search-and-rescue efforts. Though the government insisted the issues were technical, Erdogan has a history of clamping down on social media.

Erdogan has broadly rejected some of the criticism of his government. “This is a time for unity, solidarity,” he told reporters this week, while visiting an affected province. “In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.”

“Of course there are shortcomings,” he added. “The conditions are obvious. It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster. We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.”

Erdogan may have extra reasons to try to control the message: Elections are scheduled for May 14. Erdogan, who has led Turkey for 20 years, was already facing a difficult election because of Turkey’s profound economic crisis. He has become an increasingly authoritarian figure, tightly controlling the media, leveraging the tools of government to crack down on his perceived enemies and opponents, and stacking the government with loyalists. These tools have helped him retain power, but now the sheer scale of devastation from this earthquake may be enough to really challenge him and his hold on power.

Again, many of these questions don’t have answers yet, because the situation is still very much in flux. But Vox spoke with Sinan Ciddi, an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy at Marine Corps University and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, for an overview of some of the issues that have arisen in the wake of the earthquake — about the warning signs that existed before this crisis, and what the political fallout might be for Erdogan.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

I wanted to start in the past. In 1999, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck Turkey, near Istanbul, killing about 17,000. What were the lessons learned from that disaster?

Sinan Ciddi

There was a blossoming of geologists and seismologists coming to the forefront in the Turkish public mindset, basically telling us, as citizens and residents of Turkey: “Look, you know, these fault lines haven’t been active for a while, at least since the early part of the 20th century, but Turkey sits on two major fault lines, and most of our cities or major population centers are in harm’s way, to a greater or lesser extent.” Istanbul is one of them, but also the fault line in the southeastern part of Turkey, but also Syria. Seismologists essentially said that most of our urban planning, our building standards, our codes are woefully inadequate in terms of being able to resist such disasters if they were to come.

[Following the 1999 earthquake], there were all sorts of lessons learned: new building codes and regulations, urban planning, emergency evacuation centers, and gathering places — they set up things like container boxes in neighborhoods that will support emergency supplies, like blankets and medicine. We were told that all major infrastructure in these big cities would have to essentially be upgraded to be more earthquake-resistant. But over time, I think it’s just been forgotten about.

Since the AKP came to power, the temptation to essentially just give planning permission and building permission — to just allow construction companies to just build no matter what, without close adherence to codes and building standards — has prevailed, unfortunately. We’re seeing some of the effects of this obviously in the southeast, because what you’re seeing is the government’s claiming that a lot of these structures were old structures — that’s simply not a reflection of reality. People are just showing ... these entire city blocks and saying, “Look, these were built in 2010; this one was built in 2008.” There are emergency gathering areas, which were supposed to be empty spaces, and they’ve been filled with city blocks, tower blocks, residential — they’ve just completely been let go of any standards.

When the AKP did come to power, they campaigned on saying we would enforce strong building regulations. That was one of the things that rolled them to power. It wasn’t a major thing, but that was one of those talking points; they would significantly scale up urban planning and meet construction requirements. So they haven’t done that.

Jen Kirby

A construction boom was a big part of Turkey’s economic growth, and Erdogan had touted it as such. How does that fit into the larger story of the earthquake?

Sinan Ciddi

The Gezi protests [a demonstration over a planned development that spiraled into wider anti-government protests] in 2013 were built on the back of public outcry and protests against the sort of construction-frenzy-fed economic growth. People very much identified with the fact that economic growth supposedly was being fueled by the construction industry, which in turn was a means for the government to essentially develop its own bourgeoisie and pass on spoils to all these construction tycoons. Like, you know, Erdogan’s princes. There was a list of top 10 companies which [won] the most number of public tenders — and three or four Turkish companies out of that are on record for receiving the highest number of public tenders in the world. [Author note: The World Bank data found that in each case, the Turkish company’s biggest client was the Turkish state itself.]

Following the 1999 quake, homeowners have been paying what’s called essentially an earthquake tax since the early 2000s — [a fund to essentially have some money on the side to take the edge off the worst when it comes]. That was made permanent, and everybody pays that every year. Today, that money should have amassed to somewhere in the tens of billions of US dollars. And people are saying, “Well, where the hell is that money?” Erdogan was actually asked this in 2020. And he basically says: That money was spent where it needed to be spent. [I] don’t feel the need to explain myself to anybody any further.

The money seems to have gone toward what, we don’t quite know, because Turkey’s government spending reports have been censored since 2012. In the United States, where we have a GAO [Government Accountability Office] report of government spending, any citizen can basically go and ask for this and scour through the pages and look through where the government spent our taxes. Turkey had a similar sort of setup, and the government has been censoring that since the early 2010s. So we don’t actually know where that money’s gone. But people are suspecting payoffs? Construction? Who knows. But that fund’s disappeared. So this is one of the reasons why the government doesn’t seem to have emergency funds to tap into — not that that would have solved it. But it would be something. People are asking, “Where are my taxes?”

Jen Kirby

Knowing the political climate in Turkey, it’s not easy to be an investigative journalist, but have there been any major investigations in the past 20 years or so into corruption in the construction industry, the earthquake fund — anything that could give us a glimpse into what was going on?

Sinan Ciddi

There is good investigative reporting, mainly from external investigative journalism, that’s gone on throughout the past few decades. But in terms of actually tracing the monies — the procurement system, the zoning, the land tendering — that could possibly be made much more opaque.

But if you look forward to the next couple of days, or weeks, or months, you’re going to start to see the government absolve itself of responsibility, and spotlight the contractors who were tasked with building these buildings and try to basically scapegoat them as being the culprits. They’re going to make them forget things like: “Well, who gave you the building permits, and who checked that building, to see if it met code, etc., etc.?” And they’re going to try and whitewash a lot of that, because that’s what happened following the 1999 earthquake. The main culprits were identified as the contractors and the builders. Very little responsibility was essentially passed on to regulators and municipalities and states in terms of approving, whether the building was up to code, etc.

One more thing to mention: On paper, building regulations are very solid in Turkey — like before your apartment can get its zip code or be designated as a dwelling, it has to be up to code, it has to get a sign up for an inspector, it’s given provisional approval, and then when all the things are met, then it gets finalized. That’s all on paper. This is heavily open to corruption, bribery — and I think in the last 20 years, that’s really just let loose.

Jen Kirby

The warnings from 1999 — that there’s going to be another big one — at least on paper were implemented, and the framework was in place, but it sounds like it was being hollowed out from the inside.

Sinan Ciddi

By practice, it was just run roughshod. On paper, it existed.

Jen Kirby

How did Erdogan’s government respond once the earthquake happened?

Sinan Ciddi

Initially, I don’t think the government really understood the scale of how bad the tragedy and disaster was, in the early hours. They really didn’t, just based on their public statements saying the government’s in control, don’t worry.

But when you look at the sheer scale of this, and the affected areas, which include Syria — you’re looking at a landmass somewhere [around] the size of Germany or France. It is gigantic. It is unbelievably huge. And once they realize this, they also troubled [the response], I think, by wanting to remain [in] control, take the credit for any relief efforts, which delayed everything. The military was kept from deploying as quickly as they could be, which is the most resourced institution in Turkey, that could actually make a difference. Which left all citizens basically shouting, saying, “Where is the state?”

Social media is full of cries for help, which has been amplified by Twitter, independent media channels. Initially, as far as we can see, it was slow to respond, and when they did finally respond, you’re up against time now, the cold as well as people stuck in the rubble, without any heavy equipment, damaged infrastructure such as airports, roads, making access difficult.

Jen Kirby

Can you talk a little bit more about that response?

Sinan Ciddi

If you look at the premier institution for disaster relief from Turkey — which Turkey has deployed to other international disasters when it was necessary — that institution, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, or AFAD — they were delayed in being deployed as quickly as possible for some time. We don’t necessarily know why.

Erdogan is uniquely focused with the political fallout on this. And he sees the relief efforts as a function of his reelection data. This is not something he could have calculated. You’ve got about 8 to 10 million people affected in this area, all are voters, they’re angry. It’s a strong base of voters that traditionally the AKP would draw from, and he has not been seen as a competent leader that managed this well.

People are just not buying this; they’re livid. I think he’s trying to figure out how to control the message. That’s one of the reasons, where they basically prevented access to Twitter at this point, because they want to prevent negative images being circulated. Aid organizations are throwing their arms up in the air and protesting — “you can’t be serious” — because social media is the way that people that are caught in rubble or aid organizations are able to see messages, get it to people. It’s an invaluable resource. So you’re seeing international as well as domestic VPN companies providing free access to all Turkish citizens. But that still slows things down; it kills battery power if you use VPN. On so many levels, there’s a disconnect between the relief effort and [Erdogan’s] political calculations. [Author note: A Turkish official said the Twitter outage was due to “technical issues,” according to the Washington Post.]

Jen Kirby

Have there been any groups — either affiliated with the state or other organizations — that have filled some of the void?

Sinan Ciddi

It’s too early. We don’t know. The one thing that’s coming out on messaging that’s quite clear and seems to be doing well, is the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP.) The leader of the CHP is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and he is in the affected areas, along with two very popular figures, the mayor of Istanbul, the mayor of Ankara, who were thought to be two frontrunners in the presidential race against Erdogan. The municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul, which have deployed rescue teams also in the affected areas, are doing a really bang-up job. It’s getting a lot of public attention.

The CHP’s messaging seems to resonate with people as far as we can see right now because they are saying: “To hell with not politicizing the issue. You guys politicized it by granting illegal building permits, shoddy regulation applications. You politicized at the outset.” He follows through with this because that’s what people want to hear — people want accountability.

Jen Kirby

How damaging or how significant might this actually be for Erdogan?

Sinan Ciddi

Potentially, it could be devastating. It could be terminal as far as the government is concerned simply because of the amount of public pressure that is potentially there to be mounted. You’re talking 8 to 10 million inhabitants of the region — double that in terms of relatives and friends in other parts of the country and overseas, who are just absolutely fed up with this unaccountable and non-transparent and authoritarian regime.

Erdogan went on the airwaves, and instead of offering a message of reassurance to the citizens, he basically threatened the country, saying, “I’m going to keep record of all the dissenters and all the lies and fake news spreaders out there.”

That being said, I should also temper my opinion. He’s weathered a lot. This guy is known to weather calamities and crises. He’s outridden a coup. He’s outridden mass public protests in 2013, the Gezi protests. He has an extremely strong control of the mainstream media. He is in control of the state, the bureaucracy, and the agencies of the government. He has quite a lot of power under his wings.

What he does not have, though, I would say, is public consensus, public opinion on his side. I don’t know what that looks like going forward. But just looking at the fallout from this, on the level of the public — I don’t know what it looks like, but: Does he delay the elections? Does he keep the May 14 date? It’s unclear at this point. We have to be measured now in our judgment. It could go either way. But certainly the potential to lose power is there.

Jen Kirby

There is public outcry and frustration, but emergencies also sometimes give leaders a chance to consolidate power. Like, what’s up with this state of emergency?

Sinan Ciddi

He’s now passed a two-month emergency law, and it’s in 10 affected provinces. He’s said all affected people’s houses will be rebuilt in one year. I’m not a building expert, but you told me how you rebuild eight to 10 million people’s homes, and I just don’t get it. [Author note: Erdogan has also pledged emergency financial assistance to survivors.]

There have been a number of tragedies in the past, like a major mining disaster last year, that caused a lot of ripples in the public mindset in Turkey. The problem was with regulation of the coal mines and safety records, but the relatives were given sizable payoffs, in terms of compensation, so that sort of died away. Erdogan has a lot of rabbits that he could pull out of the hat that can incentivize people. But the scale here is — no one’s ever seen this level of destruction, and I don’t [know] to what extent they’ll be able to keep controlling this.

But in terms of authoritarian regimes, there is a lot in their arsenal, in their toolbox. They can first offer incentives. If not, they still have strong control of state apparatus, law enforcement, and punitive measures which they can deploy. But will that be enough to silence the people? I don’t know. And he’s so far been able to live through many political crises, and because he’s so uniquely focused on it. It’s too early to tell.

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