How oligarch's one-party rule killed upwards of 30,000 residents of Turkey and Syria after earthquake.
From Financial Times:
How Corruption and Misrule Made Turkey’s Earthquake Deadlier
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hollowed out state institutions, placed loyalists in key positions, and enriched his cronies—paving the way for this tragedy.
In the southern Turkish city of Antakya, Behzat put a blanket and an umbrella over his father, who was trapped under the rubble after one of the most devastating earthquakes in recent history hit the town and destroyed Behzat’s childhood home. He dug his father out with his bare hands and promised the old man, whose legs were stuck under a concrete block, that help was on the way.
Twenty-four agonizing hours later, Behzat asked his wife, my sister Gokce, to check on him. “I cannot look him in the eye anymore. I told him help was coming. It isn’t.” Behzat’s father died, as did his mother, his cousins, and thousands of others, because there was no one there to provide the needed help.
It wasn’t just loved ones who were buried under the rubble but also the promises of good governance, a corruption-free country, and a state that is responsive to the needs of its people.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made those promises after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power following another devastating quake in northwestern Turkey in 1999, when thousands of people died due to the government’s slow response. He blamed all the ills of the 1990s on widespread corruption, dysfunctional governments, and unresponsive state institutions and pledged that, under his rule, things would change radically.
They have, and they have not. Gone are the days when internal squabbling among coalition partners paralyzed government decision-making. In his two decades at the helm, Erdogan has centralized power in his own hands. To do that, he hollowed out state institutions, placed loyalists in key positions, wiped out most civil society organizations, and enriched his cronies to create a small circle of loyalists around him. The culmination of all those things paved the way for the tragedy that struck my country on Monday.
The sheer magnitude of the quake made it deadly, but academic research shows that earthquakes kill more people in countries affected by widespread corruption. The Turkish economy under Erdogan rode high on the back of a construction boom. He enriched a small circle of close associates from the construction sector by awarding them infrastructure projects without competitive tenders or proper regulatory oversight.
These companies embarked on a massive building spree, constructing infrastructure and homes in earthquake hot spots without following proper building codes. In Hatay, one of the areas hardest hit by Monday’s quake, residential buildings, hospitals, and even the local branch of the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), many built by Erdogan’s cronies, were either leveled to the ground or suffered massive damage. The town’s only airport runway, built on top of a fault line by a company closely tied to Erdogan, was split in two by the earthquake.
The practice of granting government infrastructure projects to Erdogan’s allies, many of whom cut corners on safety, has led to other tragedies in the past. Last year, a snowstorm hit the western city of Isparta, causing extensive damage, leaving residents without power for weeks, and leading to several deaths. The city’s utilities had been privatized by the AKP and sold off to companies owned by Cengiz Holding and Kolin Holding, firms controlled by Erdogan’s closest associates. The companies did not take steps to ensure the infrastructure was resilient to such disasters, failed to respond when the snowstorm hit, and rejected any help from opposition parties in neighboring towns, sparking protests by residents and opposition parties against the corrupt tender system.
In 2018, as a result of a lack of maintenance work, a train crash in the northwestern town of Corlu killed 25 people, including children. In 2014, 301 miners were killed in the Aegean town of Soma after an explosion sent carbon monoxide shooting through the tunnels of a mine while 787 miners were underground. The chairman of Soma Holding, Alp Gurkan, is another close associate of Erdogan’s. The company benefited from privatizations during the AKP’s years in power, branching out into the construction sector and receiving contracts worth billions of dollars. The miners and opposition parties said the company did not take necessary security precautions. Only 20 days before the explosion, Erdogan’s AKP had thwarted an opposition-led parliamentary motion to investigate conditions at the mine.
While Erdogan and his cronies’ disregard for safety regulations makes disasters more common, the government’s slow and inadequate response makes them more lethal. In 2021, wildfires ripped through southern Turkey, killing at least nine people and forcing thousands to flee their homes. Erdogan came under intense criticism over the government’s apparent poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires. Opposition parties and residents accused the government of failing to procure firefighting planes while channeling billions of dollars to construction companies that have little regard for the environment. The government later admitted that it did not have a firefighting aircraft fleet and that the existing planes were not in usable condition.
The government’s response to Monday’s earthquake was once again slow. In Antakya, my family had to dig out loved ones trapped under the rubble with their bare hands. AFAD staff showed up 48 hours later, only to tell us that they couldn’t help because they had orders to focus their rescue operations elsewhere. The Turkish military could have played a role here, too, but Erdogan did not dispatch troops early enough to help with the search and rescue efforts. Turkish civil society organizations, which played a critical role after the 1999 earthquake, were not there, either. All these failures are the result of Erdogan’s policy of centralizing power in his own hands, sapping institutions of their independence, appointing loyalists who lack the necessary background to key posts, and wiping out civil society organizations that do not back his agenda.
For a country like Turkey, which is prone to earthquakes and natural disasters, AFAD is a critical state agency. Yet its budget is much smaller than that of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which was originally created to exercise oversight over religious affairs but has expanded under Erdogan to become a tool to provide religious legitimacy to government policies. The person in charge of AFAD’s natural disaster emergency response is a theology graduate with no previous experience in disaster management.
The Turkish military, which was on the scene to help carry out search and rescue efforts within hours after the 1999 earthquake, has also been weakened and politicized under Erdogan since the failed coup in 2016. Erdogan’s government dissolved a protocol enabling the armed forces to respond to disasters without instruction, one of the factors that explains the slow dispatch of troops to areas affected by the quake.
Powerful earthquakes kill people, but they are more deadly in countries like Turkey, where building regulations aren’t enforced, unqualified loyalists fill key positions, independent state institutions do not exist, civil society organizations have been wiped out, and the interests of a corrupt few are prioritized above all else.
While my sister and her family were trying to pull the bodies of their loved ones out of the rubble to give them a proper burial, Erdogan was calling those who complained about the slow state response “dishonorable” on national TV. He wants us to accept the current tragedy and the ones that came before it as “fate,” but more and more people are beginning to think that the country’s compounding problems have a first and last name.