Following the disastrous earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 and 7 February 2023, the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scrambled to save face as slow relief efforts and reports and videos on construction scams fuelled public outrage. With elections for the presidency and parliament just months away, the emergency powers invoked by Erdogan to deal with the aftermath of the catastrophe could curtail public opinion, gag the media, and even lead to the postponement of the elections.
The first earthquake, of 7.8 magnitude and lasting 75 seconds, struck at 4:17 am local time on 6 February, in the middle of a winter storm. Nine hours later, a second earthquake of 7.5 magnitude hit, followed by one of 5.6 magnitude and another of 5.5 magnitude on 7 February. Estimates by the Turkish government in the middle of March put the loss of lives in Turkey at more than 48,000.
Turkey lies in a region of high seismic unrest, and has been hit repeatedly by large earthquakes. In August 1999, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake shook Marmara for 45 seconds. The official death toll stands at 17,500. Three months later, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit Duzce resulting in 845 deaths. Since then, earthquakes of varying magnitudes have hit the country in May 2003, March 2010, October 2011, January 2020, and October 2020. After each calamity, the government gave assurances and made promises—none of which did much to prepare the country for what is turning out to be one of the worst natural disasters in its history.
The government imposed a special levy known as the ‘earthquake tax’ post the catastrophic 1999 Izmit earthquake. This ‘special communication tax,’ is a permanent indirect tax used not only for earthquake assistance but also for constructing roads, bridges, and hospitals. As mayor of Istanbul in 1999, Erdogan had been vocal in targeting the government for its bungled response to the earthquake. His promise to do better helped bring the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 1999. In 2009, Erdogan’s government established the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) as the primary rescue organization in the country.
The shoddy response to the earthquakes of 6-7 February has dashed all hopes that Erdogan’s government is better prepared. The AFAD produced a mandatory earthquake report within 45 minutes of the disaster, however, it took Erdogan more than 48 hours to issue the appropriate orders. The centralization of AFAD since 2009, and its over-dependence on the government for approvals, has paralysed the agency’s response capabilities. The government removed the Turkish army, which is better prepared for quick response, search and rescue, from the response plan in 2022. And earlier this year, the government reduced AFAD’S budget by 33 per cent in its 2023 national budget.
As the criticism mounted, the government blocked twitter, ostensibly to quash disinformation. While survivors watched in horror the unfolding of an unorganized official response and relief assistance, civil society, largely made up of private individuals from around the country, stepped up to distribute aid to the worst affected areas. Over a dozen countries have since reached out to offer support, with Greece being among the first to do so—a historic development given its strained relations with Turkey.
The political ramifications of the earthquake are yet to play out, but there is pressure to fix accountability for the misuse of the “special communication tax” funds amounting to around 88 billion 298 million TL ($38.4 billion) collected over the last 21 years. The critics have denounced this as technical bankruptcy and a moral collapse of the system. In 2018, the government had declared “construction amnesties” legalizing thousands of buildings that were unlawfully built without proper documentation and inspection. On a visit to Kahramanmaras, the epicentre of the February 6-7 earthquakes, in 2019, Erdogan proudly noted that the government had “solved the problem of 144,556 Maras citizens alone.” This incentivization or political fix to appease his constituents set a time bomb ticking. Approximately 160,000 buildings in Tukey are currently estimated to have either collapsed or been severely damaged after the February disaster, and officials have warned that around 90,000 homes in Istanbul could crumble if a strong earthquake were to hit the country’s largest city and its economic and cultural heart. While natural disasters are often unavoidable, poor urban planning and the disregarding of building codes by corrupt developers are responsible for the large numbers of causalities.
Mayors belonging to Erdogan’s AKP govern seven of the ten provinces in the disaster zone (Adiyaman, Malatya, Kilis, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaras, Osmaniye, Sanliurfa). Amid the national cost of living crisis, the earthquakes have hit Erdogan’s core constituency and could potentially hamper his re-election. Promises to rebuild homes in a year have surfaced, and arrest warrants have been issued against more than 180 building contractors. While politics preceded policy in Turkey’s response, many of the homeless had to wait for temporary tents even weeks after the disaster. As search and rescue operations continued to find survivors for days, tales of hope emerged from the rubble. However, the heavily damaged Armenian villages in Vakifli fear they will not survive another earthquake, and the country is yet to take stalk of the economic impact of the quakes.
As of March 1, 11,020 aftershocks coupled with the homelessness crisis could hamper Turkey’s recovery plan. On 15th March Adiyaman and Sanliurfa, two provinces grappling with the catastrophic earthquakes, experienced heavy floods. This continuous loss of life, damage to infrastructure should lead to a larger domestic debate on governance reform and disaster management. Tukey’s relations with the west are strained, its political instruments are incapacitated, and its stagnant economy is now burdened with the aftermath of the natural disaster. Social protests and political polarization amid looming elections could trigger unpredictable developments in the country and the region. But Erdogan is no stranger to political upheavals, having used the failed coup attempt of 2016 to establish his one-man rule.