Erdoğan on Wednesday in Kahramanmaraş
The dust from the earthquake has barely settled, rescue efforts are still underway and the country is in mourning. The finger pointing has already begun. Because is anyone to blame for all those collapsed buildings? And how is it possible that relief efforts started so slowly in many places?
The answers could have a major impact on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political future. There are elections in May, so Turks are keeping a close eye on how he and his coalition respond to the disaster.
Erdogan himself set the standard high. After the 1999 earthquake, which killed more than 17,000 people, he was just short of mayor of Istanbul. He then expressed strong criticism of the Turkish government, says Nienke van Heukelingen, Turkey expert at the Clingendael Institute.
“The prime minister of that time always said that everything was under control and that help was on the way. That turned out not to be the case. There was no national crisis plan and there was no disaster relief agency. Erdogan said: if you choose me and I Come on, I’ll fix that.”
And in 2020, on the day that the 1999 earthquake was commemorated, he posted the following message on Twitter. “Not an earthquake, but carelessness kills,” the tweet reads.
After 1999, a crisis plan, a disaster service and new building regulations were introduced in Turkey. Steps in the right direction were also taken under Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003 as prime minister and later as president.
“He came to power by criticizing the government’s actions after the 1999 earthquake,” says Van Heukelingen. “Now he himself is that government.”
The majority of the population lives in very vulnerable buildings.
Ihsan Bal, lecturer in earthquake-resistant construction
Despite all the improvements and stricter building regulations, thousands of buildings collapsed during the earthquakes. The deadliest were probably the buildings built before 1999, says Turkish lecturer Ihsan Bal, who conducts research at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen into making buildings earthquake-resistant. “The big problem is the pre-1999 buildings.”
“There has been a construction boom in the 1980s and 1990s. So in Turkey now there are many multi-storey reinforced concrete buildings, which are very vulnerable to earthquakes. And the majority of the population lives in them.”
The earthquake could be so deadly because of the way many buildings are built:
If a building collapses like this, it is extra dangerous
But: many newer housing complexes also did not withstand the quakes. “We certainly also saw buildings collapse that had only been there for a few years,” says Van Heukelingen. “How can that be if those building regulations have been tightened up so much in recent years?”
And despite the crisis plan and the existence of a disaster service, assistance from the authorities was slow to get started, Erdogan himself admitted on Friday. Because there were “so many buildings damaged”, he said it took longer for emergency services to act than the government would have liked.
It is striking that the emergency services were apparently insufficiently prepared. The area is generally known to be prone to earthquakes. “Scientists knew that one day there would be a major earthquake,” says researcher Bal.
And making all buildings earthquake-resistant is expensive, but could certainly have been done, says researcher Bal. For example, by means of flexible foundation. “You want essential buildings to remain functional after such severe earthquakes. Homes can be damaged, but without casualties.”
So it seems that the government, despite Erdogan’s promises in 1999, has failed. Van Heukelingen: “You hear ‘you promised that it would get better, didn’t you? Why do we still not see any aid workers in our village days after the disaster?'”
Critics point to the warm ties between Erdogan and the construction industry, which likes to build cheaply and a lot. The country has urbanized rapidly in recent decades. But, says Van Heukelingen, the blame may also lie elsewhere, for example with corrupt supervisors.
In any case, “the criticism is cornering Erdogan and his coalition,” she says. “We already see a focus on people who are critical of government action.” On Wednesday, the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter, possibly to silence criticism.
The aftermath of the earthquakes could therefore have major consequences for Erdogan’s chances in the elections. The leader of the Turkish opposition already aimed his arrows at the president on Thursday. “He hasn’t prepared the country for an earthquake like this in 20 years,” he said.
“We have to be careful about talking about political consequences right away,” says Van Heukelingen. Because it is still unclear how the population thinks about the actions of the government. In times of disaster, the population often rallies behind their leader. “Everything in Turkey is political, but the focus is still rightly on rescuing people from the rubble.”
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