Erdoğan races to avoid political fallout from earthquake – POLITICO

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Facing re-election in May or June, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is acutely aware that his political fortunes depend on a swift and decisive response to Monday’s earthquake and its aftershocks that devastated towns in southern Turkey and killed thousands of people.

After all, Turkey’s recent history provides a clear cautionary tale that indecision is politically perilous. When a massive earthquake shook the Izmit region near Istanbul in 1999, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit – paralyzed by the scale of the disaster – was widely condemned for not mobilizing quickly enough. Some 18,000 people died.

Erdoğan seems determined to avoid the same mistakes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t major potential pitfalls for him.

Hours after the first tremors, he struggled to make it clear he was now taking charge and appeared visibly angry and frustrated with the authorities’ initial efforts to organize rescue and emergency operations.

Speaking at the country’s disaster coordination center in Ankara at a hastily organized press conference, he said the country had been engulfed in the biggest natural disaster since 1939, when a major earthquake struck the eastern province of Erzincan, leveling or severely damaging over 100,000 buildings. and killing an estimated 33,000 people.

“Everyone puts their heart and soul into their efforts, although the winter season, the cold weather and the earthquake that occurs during the night make it more difficult,” he told reporters. . And on Tuesday, too, Erdoğan was in front of the cameras, announcing a three-month state of emergency for the 10 provinces most affected by the deadly earthquake.

He unveiled details of relief and humanitarian efforts so far, saying some 54,000 tents and 102,000 beds had already been sent to the affected areas.

But the more recent 1999 İzmit earthquake — rather than the 1939 quake — may have been on Erdoğan’s mind, said Gönül Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank.

Speaking to POLITICO from Hatay, one of the regions rocked by Monday’s earthquakes, Tol said the press lashed out at the government in 1999 for the poor emergency response. Likewise, she said, while the earthquakes this time could not have been avoided, the suffering was compounded by an inadequate response in the hours immediately following their strike.

“The tragedy has been compounded, especially for people like me who have lost loved ones,” said Tol, who lost two loved ones in the earthquakes. “I was there and there was no rescue team. People were trying to dig up their loved ones themselves trapped under the rubble. So for hours and hours we couldn’t find anyone to help us. It was freezing cold, there was no food, no water, and we couldn’t see anyone from the government, we couldn’t see anyone from any state institution, no first aiders, nothing,” she added.

She said there were echoes of the earthquake in Izmit, whose epicenter was just 80 km east of the outskirts of Istanbul. This deeply shook the country’s institutions and reshaped the country’s politics in a way that later helped Erdoğan to power. In the subsequent parliamentary elections in 2002, Ecevit’s centre-left Democratic Left Party, the Nationalist Action Party and the Centrist Fatherland Party – the factions that had dominated Turkish politics in the 1990s – n failed to pass the 10% vote threshold needed to win parliamentary seats. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory.

Ecevit was numbed by the scale of the destruction, falling “into a prolonged state of shock”, according to historian and former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer in a 2001 study of İzmit for the Middle East Quarterly.

Rescuers and civilians search for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, a day after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the southeast of the country on February 7 2023 | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

“Instead of immediately jumping into a helicopter to inspect the disaster area and then ordering his aides into action, he spent days telling anyone who would listen that everything was under control and that he was not nothing to worry about,” Kinzer added. “Army commanders who might have been expected to deploy thousands of troops to the disaster area have also stood idly by. Quickly, it became clear that although Turkey sits above some of the world’s most dangerous geological fault lines and is rocked by earthquakes every few years, its government had no plan to deal with it, no disaster relief agency, no civil defense network, not even a designated official to take charge of such moments,” he added.

To add insult to injury, the government’s earthquake relief fund was empty, containing the Turkish lira equivalent of just €4.45.

“Government officials stumbled aimlessly, unable to grasp the dimensions of the disaster. Prime Minister Ecevit then sought to excuse the slow government response by saying the roads were too congested to allow rescue teams to reach the devastated towns,” Kinzer wrote. Ministers blamed the press, accusing journalists of distorting events and slandering the government.

Erdoğan now seems to be learning from this slow response. Unusually, Erdoğan wants to be filmed at the center of a disaster.

“You know how much he loves the cameras, but every time disaster strikes the country, he disappears,” Tol said. “He usually leaves his ministers and those around him to handle the problem. So if something goes wrong, he can blame them,” she added. This time, however, Erdoğan publicly intervened faster than usual and appealed for international help.

But whether he can escape the political fallout remains to be seen, analysts say.

“A single building collapses in a known earthquake zone, it’s a tragedy,” said Borzou Daragahi, nonresident senior researcher at the Atlantic Council. “If dozens of people in several major cities collapse, it signals a preventable tragedy. Turkey has pledged to implement changes in its building practices following the tragic 1999 earthquake that left 17,000 dead. He instituted new building rules and instituted mandatory earthquake insurance for all buildings. Architects and planners have been warning for years that the rules are not being followed strictly enough,” he said. -he adds.

Many regions that were destroyed by earthquakes, such as Gaziantep, Hatay and Şanlıurfa, have experienced a construction boom over the past two decades encouraged by Erdoğan, and which he mounted electorally. The huge construction projects have involved companies with close ties to Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. If it turns out that newer buildings and apartment buildings have been disproportionately more vulnerable than older buildings, then Erdoğan’s party might be to blame.

And Erdoğan has another political challenge: quickly finding temporary accommodation for survivors and the injured.

In this regard, he may regret cracking down on NGOs and forcing many civil society organizations to shut down, Tol said. “At least in 1999, many civil society organizations were present on the ground and working with state institutions. Not this time, because he has essentially wiped out all civil society groups except, of course, those promoting his agenda,” she added.


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