From the construction industry creating unsafe buildings to political appointees with no expertise leading relief operations, Turkey’s earthquake response was made far worse by the AKP’s negligence
The devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria caused tens of thousands of deaths and mass property destruction that will leave the region reeling for years to come.
While natural disasters cannot be defended against, corruption within Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, exacerbated the devastation.
During our recent livestream on the matter, Defne Dalkara gave us a fascinating insight into the endemic corruption of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, from the construction industry creating unsafe buildings and political appointees with no expertise leading relief operations, to media censorship and the gutting of civil society organisations hampering humanitarian efforts.
“It’s important to remember under which circumstances the AKP government came into power,” Defne began.
“The [AKP] party was founded in 2001 and they came to power one year after the foundation of the party in 2002.
“They came at the aftershock of two very important events: one was the 1999 earthquake. That was a major earthquake that caused up to 18,000 deaths officially – most probably more – and of course, on the backdrop of a major economic crisis that Turkey went through in 2001.
“So already the Turkish government was in crisis, the economy was in crisis and then came the 2001 crisis which crashed the economy and got rid of the government of the time and brought in the elections that brought in Erdogan.
“There was austerity, deflation, very hard times for everybody, big crisis, reeling from the earthquake, reeling from economic pressures and, if this tune is sounding similar, it’s because, ironically, this is also exactly how it is today.
“The Turkish economy has been suffering and people have been suffering from high inflation for quite some time now.
“And there’s now been a major earthquake. So it’s interesting how things have turned out. Erdoğan’s government arose from this backdrop as anti-austerity, and that ‘we will build, build, build’ with this type of very specific ‘developmentalism’.”
“The AKP is the Justice and Development Party, with very neoliberal ‘developmental’ ideas, with private partnerships. And it’s also important to understand that Erdogan, although he came as a populist leader, he was in no way less populous as we would understand it.
“He was basically the revenge of the old Islamic oligarchy against the secular oligarchy of Turkey.
“Not so long after, the AKP became construction and construction became the AKP.
“They grew a massive class around the construction industry, and so this is what makes also this crisis so remarkable.
“Also, the government has made very strange claims, trying to clear themselves, protect themselves of these very obvious truths that everybody knows, by saying that ’98 percent of the buildings that collapsed were from before his time’. Or some strange, ridiculous number, that nobody who thinks for more than two seconds could believe.
Delayed relief assistance
“So this is the backdrop, and now I like to also talk a little bit about what happened after the earthquake – it was extremely delayed responses, people were devastated, for two days there was almost no aid coming to these regions and every day, people were on social media, on news channels saying, ‘where is the state?’
“The state was almost like: ‘Wait, us?’ as if these kind of public structures and institutions and aid have become a forgotten concept. Because, for the state, [things like] construction, building, military power, intrusion and all these things of care and maintenance have been long forgotten, even though Erdogan had come into power by criticising the previous governments on their failure of the 1999 earthquake.
“And we also saw the typical cronyism and corruption in what very little institutions that were left, like these search and rescue institutions were filled with party members and their relatives which mostly lacked any kind of expertise and it showed on the ground, nothing was planned. It was really surprising, the scale of the chaos and the confusion almost of the State.
“And of course, since there was no state [assistance], it was people and solidarity that was trying to prevail, and this also panicked and scared the government for some reason, because I guess polarisation has been such an important part of their politics for such a long time.
Social media censorship
“So at the height of the second day, where people were really communicating through social media, trying to organize their own aid, their own extraction teams, the government decided to close social media and the internet.
“It was really incredible to witness. But these are the few reflexes this state has: just block social media, do PR – they already own all the media – so, really like a ‘the emperor has no clothes’ moment.
Army goes AWOL
“And the other shocking thing was the absence and very delayed response of the army. So normally in big catastrophes, as we most of us have seen during floods and fires in our own countries, the resources the army has could have been directed to these regions. But the army was not deployed for an unquestionable amount of time, and I remember one of the interviewees in Maraş said: “The first time I heard a helicopter sound was the helicopter that brought Erdoğan to the region.”
“A reminder that we are NATO’s second largest army! This is insane. We have all the army power and determination to attack brutish regimes in our own territory, in Iraq and of course, in Syria. And these regions know what the army is capable of and then when they needed the army, the army was not deployed.
“Yet the only solution that government officials were saying online was: ‘Don’t worry, we will construct everything back in one year’ which terrified people even more, because the extremely harmful ‘developmentalism’ and urbanism that the AKP had directed has played such a big part in this disaster.
“And the State was somehow thinking this would reassure people while it frightened and angered them even more.”
Defne then shared a tweet from a girl called Shema, a message that echoes ever louder on the back of the horrible earthquakes.
“In 2020, after the earthquake in Izmir, she tweeted: ‘As someone who lives in an earthquake-risk country and one of the high-risk towns, when I look on TV and see Izmir or Elazığ, I say to myself: If one day, this is me or my family, don’t whitewash this by saying ‘oh, they became angel’ please avenge me and look after our rights’.
“Unfortunately, she died during the earthquake.”
Watch the full discussion here
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