Turkey’s Statequake

On 6 February, southern Turkey and northern Syria were shaken by two massive earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.7 respectively. At the time of writing, the death toll has climbed to over 47,000, with more than 110,000 buildings either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. For Turkey, this represents the worst natural disaster in modern history. The scale of state failure, however, has been just as striking.

Erdoğan’s regime frequently boasts of having overseen a massive construction boom, in which airports, bridges, metros, highways and innumerable housing units were built – supposedly in accordance with new regulations drawn up after an earthquake shook the city of Izmit in 1999. But it is now clear that those building laws were paper tigers. Erdoğan has asserted that virtually all the buildings that collapsed this month were built before the millennium, but satellite images and first-hand reporting appear to belie this claim. In the city centre of Kahramanmaraş, the worst affected province in the country, almost 60% of the population live in buildings constructed after 2001. Luxury developments – which were supposed to be entirely earthquake-secure – have been reduced to rubble. Key infrastructure, such as the Hatay airport and highways crucial for disaster relief – as well as schools, hospitals and municipality buildings – have been destroyed or rendered temporarily unusable. Prosecutors are currently investigating more than 430 people, including developers and engineers, over their role in the disaster. Over 130 are already in prison. Some were taken into custody at airports as they tried to flee the country.

As with the price shocks Turkey has experienced in recent years, the government is trying to blame this disaster on ‘evil businessmen’. Yet the state itself is also culpable. Regulations were not sufficiently enforced, and many building projects were able to circumvent them through the AKP’s construction ‘amnesties’ – which allowed proprietors and developers to escape any possible charges by paying a small sum. The government’s own figures suggest that around 50% of Turkey’s building stock are non-compliant with contemporary regulations. Nobody knows what became of the taxes – totalling approximately $38 billion – intended to make buildings earthquake-resistant. When asked about the the money, Erdoğan refused to give any details and snapped that it was used ‘where it was needed’.

In short, the imbrication of the state with rentier capital was a major factor in the fallout of the earthquake. As scientists and architects have pointed out, it is perfectly possible to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes of this magnitude. Yet there was apparently no will to do so, despite repeated warnings from the Chamber of Geology Engineers and other prominent researchers. Islamist-inflected hostility to science is an element here: the mayor of Kahramanmaraş reportedly told the head of the Chamber that he does not believe in the discipline of paleoseismology.

With earthquakes, the first 48 hours are crucial – survival rates drop rapidly thereafter. Yet the state failed spectacularly to organize emergency relief in the immediate aftermath. Independent reports note that, during the first day, there was almost a complete absence of official relief efforts on the ground. In cities such as Antakya, it took a full three days until disaster management was fully operational – and even then, it was limited to urban centres as opposed to the peripheries or villages. The reason for the incompetence is clear. It was not the cold weather, as Erdoğan claimed, but the fatal combination of neoliberal orthodoxy and the authoritarian degradation of public institutions.

In recent years, all aspects of disaster management in Turkey have been centralized within one body, AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency), which has been left with very limited resources after successive rounds of austerity. The organization was also restructured to promote AKP militants, chosen for their loyalty rather than their professional qualifications. When disaster struck, the person tasked with directly overseeing the intervention was a cleric, while the head of AFAD was a former governor. Neither had experience of disaster management. The incompetence was such that the government asked the previous, more experienced, chief of AFAD to take control in the Adana region. Anonymous sources from inside AFAD confirm that the first 24 hours in particular saw a complete lack of coordination, with senior AKP loyalists not wanting to go out into the streets for fear of a public backlash over their sluggish response. The AFAD is not only hamstrung by its lack of expertise, staff and equipment; its officials are also reluctant to take initiative due to their deference to Erdoğan. The decision was made, for example, to refrain from sufficiently mobilizing the armed forces, for fear that this would damage the government’s legitimacy.

The contrast with the response to the 1999 earthquake is stark. Back then, the scale of the devastation was likewise the product of state failure and the neoliberalized construction industry. Yet in its aftermath, civil society and state institutions – including the army – responded rapidly; the media was free enough to hold the government to account; and the actions of the executive were criticized by ministers as well as a parliamentary inquiry. Today, however, Turkey’s authoritarian settlement precludes even the slightest self-criticism. The iron fist of the state is being used to suppress independent reporting, with threats of retribution levelled at critical journalists. As with the Covid-19 pandemic, regime propaganda insists that the state response is beyond reproach. We are told that the destruction is ‘part of destiny’s plan’, and that no politician could prevent it.

Where the state has failed to intervene, however, ordinary people have done their best to fill the gaps. An astonishing wave of solidarity has swept across the country and the diaspora, with Turks volunteering in large numbers and sending money and equipment to the disaster area. Trucks loaded with desperately needed aid are constantly arriving in the province. Donations to independent bodies and political organizations have skyrocketed, reflecting the growing distrust in state institutions. For many, it feels like the spirit of the 2013 Gezi protests has been revived. The ‘other Turkey’, forever latent behind Erdoğan’s chaotic fiefdom, has become visible once again. While the government has made half-hearted efforts to restrict these grassroots relief efforts, it has refrained from stamping them out entirely.

Weakened by this calamity, the regime is trying to regain the initiative and reduce the political fallout through a theatrical display of national unity: ‘we’re all in this together’. So far, it is unclear whether his public-relations campaign will save Erdoğan’s regency, or whether, as Henri Barkey predicts, he will soon be submerged beneath a ‘tsunami of discontent’. In the end, only decisive political action can channel the current discontent to bring about his downfall.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads?’, NLR 127