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How Erdoğan’s one-man rule collapsed with the earthquake

Updated: Mar 17

Last week magnitude-7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes and a series of severe aftershocks struck the southern Turkish province of Kahramanmaraş, causing immense destruction in provinces in the southeast of the country.

After earthquakes in Turkey in 1999, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the Turkish state had collapsed because it failed to help earthquake victims.

This time, the Kahramanmaraş earthquake has exposed Erdoğan’s 20-year reign of corruption and subsequent destruction since the construction sector is at the center of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) economic growth model. Erdoğan now appears vulnerable as his “one-man rule” has proven unable to reach millions of victims of the disaster.

According to official figures, more than 40,000 people have died so far, over 80,000 have been injured and nearly 25,000 buildings in 11 provinces have collapsed or been severely damaged.

However, it is likely that the actual death toll is much higher than the official figure. In addition to Kahramanmaraş, the earthquake and aftershocks also devastated the provinces of Adana, Gaziantep, Hatay, Malatya, Kilis, Osmaniye, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa and Adıyaman.

Based on official data on the number of collapsed buildings, geophysicist Dr. Övgün Ahmet Ercan estimated on Feb. 14 that around 150,000 people might still be under the rubble.

President Erdoğan said last week’s earthquake was three times more powerful than the 1999 Marmara earthquake, which claimed nearly 20,000 lives.

At the time, Erdoğan, as a banned politician of the Welfare Party, sharply criticized the then-coalition government, saying that those in power had lost all sense of shame with regard to their responsibility for the high death toll. For the destroyed buildings, he blamed the government, saying, botched soil surveys as well as corrupt practices played a part in the destruction. Turkish opposition leaders, prominent journalists and experts are now ironically criticizing Erdoğan for exactly the same thing.

It is clear that the AKP has not learned any lessons from the 1999 earthquake and recent disasters. Nearly 20 million people were affected by last week’s earthquakes. Millions of victims are pleading with Turkish authorities for urgent help.

Search and rescue teams from Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) did not reach the hard-hit disaster areas until last Wednesday, two days after the earthquakes struck. Families expressed anger on social media that their family members were trapped under the rubble and that no one came to rescue them.

Many people in the earthquake zone blamed the government for the inadequate relief efforts, saying they had not received food, blankets, tents or medicine for nearly 48 hours during the freezing weather. Many victims say on social media that they still have not received tents, heaters or other necessary items. Victims have complained that there are not enough portable toilets and showers and that a water shortage is leading to an increasingly unsanitary environment.

Prominent Turkish infectious disease expert Prof. Dr. Esin Davutoğlu Şenol warned that better coordination is urgently needed in the disaster areas. She stressed that hygiene measures should be strengthened; otherwise, epidemic diseases such as cholera and dysentery could soon appear in the region in areas with destroyed infrastructure, as well as Covid-19 and other viral infections.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu accused Erdoğan of incompetence during his 20-year rule, especially in dealing with major disasters such as the Covid-19 pandemic, economic collapse, forest fires and now the Kahramanmaraş earthquake.

Kılıçdaroğlu criticized Erdoğan for granting permits for substandard construction under the so-called construction amnesty, which was introduced before the 2018 presidential election. The 2018 law allowed the AKP government to retroactively legalize informal construction and allow contractors to add additional floors to buildings.

Erdoğan can clearly be seen trying to defend himself, as videos show he encouraged contractors to circumvent earthquake regulations. “We have solved the problem of 144,156 citizens of Maraş with a construction amnesty,” Erdoğan said in Kahramanmaraş ahead of Turkey’s March 2019 local elections.

At another campaign event in the Turkish province of Hatay, which was leveled last week, Erdogan said, “We have solved the problems of 205,000 citizens of Hatay with the construction amnesty.” He also cited the construction amnesty as a government success in his speech in Gaziantep before the election. Erdoğan’s AKP has issued a total of 3,152,000 building permits under the controversial construction amnesty.

Award-winning Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who lives in exile in Germany, commented in a video message that Erdoğan came to power after the 1999 earthquake, when the then-coalition government lost support after the destruction and is now himself displaced by the recent Kahramanmaraş earthquake.

The Erdoğan government has been harshly criticized for preventing opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations from reaching out to earthquake victims. Erdoğan’s ally, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, and Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu threatened AHBAP, a charity founded by famous rock star Haluk Levent. Bahçeli called on people to donate to the state-run AFAD instead, saying, “These scammers should not be on TV.”

Turkey has also not allowed ‘Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) to provide aid. The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its work with populations in danger, but according to media reports, MSF had to end its activities in Turkey in 2016 due to the government’s pressure on its relief activities.

Ankara also rejected offers of assistance from the Greek Cypriots. Austrian, German and Israeli rescue teams suspended search operations due to security concerns, and Spanish and Slovak search and rescue teams left Turkey after the government allowed the use of construction equipment to remove debris in earthquake-affected areas, saying the move meant risking the lives of many people.

Erdoğan has so far managed to exploit every crisis or use the government-controlled media to cover it up and divert attention away from it. But this earthquake has proven too devastating for the AKP to contain.

According to the nongovernmental economic organization TURKONFED, the damage from the recent earthquake is estimated at $84.1 billion. Millions of people are angry that the Erdoğan government spent $37 billion in revenue from the so-called earthquake tax to build roads and bridges.

Erdoğan plans to postpone the elections scheduled for June, but staying in power would be even more disastrous for him given the current atmosphere.

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