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The parallel universes of Turkey’s political earthquake

As the death toll continues to mount, could a pliant media help Erdoğan escape a tsunami of public outrage?

Image: The New European

Standing among the ruins of their hometown of Antakya, Veysel and his brother are angry.  The worst earthquake in Turkey’s modern history has killed more than 48,000 (including nearly 6,000 in neighbouring Syria) and made thousands of people like them homeless, and they feel let down by the Turkish government.

“We have been sleeping in our cars, because there are no tents, and have to stay near our homes because there isn’t enough security to prevent looters,” Veysel said. “But the partisan press doesn’t show our plight.”

He believes that rescue and relief teams arrived late to Antakya, capital of Hatay – one Turkey’s hardest-hit provinces – because it elected an opposition mayor in  2019 and the population includes non-Sunni Muslims who traditionally don’t support Turkey’s domineering president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

“We can take care of ourselves, we just need to be free of this man. Whatever bad has happened to us happened because of him,” said Veysel, who did not give his last name. 

Other survivors of the February 6 earthquake in southern Turkey, which measured 7.8 in magnitude and was followed within hours by a 7.5 tremor, pointed to further examples suggesting political motivations played a part in patchy rescue efforts. In one town, a government official was shown on video shooing away rescuers sent by Istanbul’s mayor, an opponent of Erdoğan. The lack of sufficient tents in Hatay forced victims back out onto the cold streets when new tremors jolted the Mediterranean province on February 20, killing eight people as already weakened buildings collapsed.

The fallout from the earthquake is laying bare rifts among a divided public just a few months ahead of knife-edge national elections. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP),  who have led Turkey for two decades, face their toughest election test yet in presidential and parliamentary elections due no later than June 18.

Before the earthquake, Erdoğan had said he would bring the vote forward to May 14. Now uncertainty reigns about how and when Turkey can stage an election in a vast expanse of territory hobbled by the disaster, with at least 200,000 survivors displaced to other parts of the country and unknown numbers of dead still buried beneath rubble. Nearly a million people are huddled in tents or container housing, fearful of the freezing winter temperatures.

As both the death toll and anger rise, a wave of criticism from the stricken zones could spread to other parts of the country,  challenging  Erdoğan’s hitherto unassailable command over Turkey.

A long-running economic crisis had already dented his support and energised a multi-party alliance that says it can unseat one of Europe’s longest-serving strongmen in the centenary year of the republic. But in a country where the media is tightly controlled, this may well depend on what news gets out.

The quake’s path of destruction has also reached into neighbouring Syria, where at least 5,800 people were killed. In Turkey, the official death toll stood at 42,310, according to the state disaster relief agency. The force of the tremors and the amount of affected territory – totalling around 100,000 square km in Turkey alone – inevitably complicated the emergency response. More than 13 million people live in the 10 Turkish provinces that constitute the earthquake zone. 

It was only days later that ill-equipped rescue teams reached some hard-hit cities, and the lack of sufficient tents and fuel have compounded the misery for many. Erdoğan has admitted to shortcomings in the first days after the quake, and has since introduced measures to ease survivors’ economic pain, including 14,000 lira (£614) in cash aid to each victim and a ban on layoffs at companies in the wrecked region.. 

He has blamed fate for the disaster, telling a survivor in the province of Kahramanmaraş, “These things are destiny’s plan.” No senior official has resigned over failures before or since the earthquake.

Erdoğan has beseeched Turks to show “national unity” while also going on the offensive, accusing his critics of attempting to exploit the calamity for political gain. His rivals contend that failings in the emergency response make ending what they call Erdoğan’s “one-man rule” even more urgent.

“If someone is chiefly responsible for this, it’s Erdoğan,” says Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party. “Over 20 years, this government has not prepared the country for an earthquake.”

First elected prime minister in 2003, then president in 2014, Erdoğan has concentrated vast powers in his office, enabled by a controversial 2017 referendum that sidelined parliament and gave the presidency control over many state institutions. Supercharged executive authority has come at the cost of once vibrant civil society and press, the rule of law and basic rights.

It also weakened the country’s ability to respond to the deadliest natural disaster in modern Turkish history, contends Meral Akşener, leader of the rightwing Good Party. She accused state-appointed governors of hampering the army’s deployment to the earthquake zone while relying on an insufficient number of personnel working for the state disaster agency.

“The main reason for the chaos and confusion is the one-man system. Loss of institutional memory is a problem. The state’s priority is supposed to be seriousness and egalitarianism … [but] I am seeing all sorts of dysfunction,” Akşener said during a visit to the town of Pazarcık, which was at the earthquake’s epicentre.

Yet most Turks are watching a different story play out. Mainstream television channels have focused on successful rescues and the state’s mobilisation to provide food and shelter, largely ignoring the plight of families whose loved ones were buried alive and froze to death because help came late. 

Occasionally, a survivor’s grief will pierce the wall of silence, albeit briefly. “I escaped the rubble, but my mother, father and sibling are still buried. We have been waiting for days, but they haven’t sent a single vehicle. I heard my sibling’s voice, ‘Sister, please save me,’ but no one is coming,” a young woman told one broadcaster on live television before the reporter yanked away the microphone and abruptly walked away.

Erdoğan has long exerted tight control over the media, with nine out of 10 mass-circulation newspapers and television channels either controlled outright by the government or by companies close to it, according to Reporters Without Borders. 

Many ordinary Turks outside the earthquake zone, who get their news from evening bulletins, are seeing a different story playing out, one in which the president has done no wrong.

In the days after the quake, regulators blocked Twitter, blaming it for spreading disinformation. This also prevented victims and families from using the social media platform to call for help.  Two weeks later, access to the popular website Ekşi Sözlük, where users anonymously discuss any subject, was cut off.

“A media that is so dependent on the state in Turkey inevitably contributes to the polarisation and the parallel universes” that Turks occupy, said Emre Erdoğan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

Pollsters have refrained from conducting voter surveys during a national period of mourning.  But Emre Erdoğan said the earthquake may not change many voters’ entrenched views of the AKP.

“Pain normally unites people, reminding us that we are all humans. However, it has been a long time since Turkey was able to unite in its pain, because polarisation runs so deep,” he said. “Instead, we see greater divisions, with [the earthquake] hardening the line between those who trust in the government and those who believe it failed.”

Amid this divergence, rival fundraising drives have emerged, with those who distrust Erdoğan donating more than 850 million lira (£37.3 million) to a charity founded by a rock star.  

Grassroots efforts to help one other have also sprung up. Scores of volunteers rushed to the region to deliver aid or translate for international rescue teams. A restaurant in Şanlıurfa turned its one-storey premises into sleeping quarters and fed the 100 or so people who were too scared to return to their apartments at night. A bowl of soup or a cup of tea are available at petrol stations across the region.

Yet  Erdoğan’s support remains robust, even in some areas where the earthquake caused lethal damage. In Şanlıurfa province, an AKP stronghold, Mahmut echoed the president’s faith in providence when his cousin’s home collapsed on top of him and killed him. “This country will remain on its feet as long as there is this solidarity,” he said, declining to give his surname. “Erdoğan is the person who will lead us through this. How can they blame our president for an act of God?”

But it was very much human error that made this tragedy so acute: a state-sanctioned system of substandard construction practices. Prosecutors have responded to public outrage by arresting 160 contractors whose buildings came down, according to the interior minister. Experts warn that the focus on small-scale real-estate developers distracts from systemic problems – from lax enforcement of building codes to an overreliance on construction to expand the economy – that permitted the sector to erect buildings seemingly designed to fail. 

“We need comprehensive reform of urban development, from the planning of a project to construction permits to building inspections,” said Buğra Gökçe, a city planner who works for the opposition-controlled Istanbul municipality. “If this earthquake is not a milestone, this country will not be able to breathe easy again.”

Construction accounts for an estimated 10 per cent of Turkey’s $800 billion (£662 billion) economy. Both Erdogan’s government and its predecessor spent tax revenue that the public was led to believe would be used to fortify the country against earthquakes on building vote-winning roads, bridges and tunnels instead, awarding tenders to companies close to the government.  

Unsafe buildings were built with state permits, licenses, quality control and inspections, or were legalised in one of Turkey’s regular “zoning amnesties,” the latest of which Erdoğan promoted ahead of his last re-election bid in 2018. The amnesties were populist measures, allowing politically influential developers to cut corners and the poor to realise their dreams of home ownership.

The 2018 reprieve gave legal status to 7.4 million illegal structures built across Turkey and earned the state 24 billion lira ($4.2 billion at the time) in fees, according to the urban affairs ministry. “They turned the homes people lived in into tombs, and took money on top of it,” Kılıcdaroğlu has said. 

The state will begin building close to 200,000 earthquake-safe homes next month and finish in one year, Erdoğan said on February 20. He framed the disaster as one of a long list of historical catastrophes: “With faith, courage and patience, we have always confronted numerous social political and social upheavals for centuries, from the Crusades to the Mongol invasions.” 

Pre-election pledges to swiftly rebuild are “the political capital that’s built on the back of this kind of reconstruction process,” said Sara Shneiderman, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, who researched Nepal’s recovery after its 2015 quake. “People make wild promises, and they may cut corners in order to realise them, which can then lead to even greater vulnerability.”

Turkey’s last devastating earthquake, which killed more than 17,000 people in northwest Turkey in 1999, was meant to be its turning point. The backlash over that disaster helped to sweep Erdoğan’s AKP to power three years later. Now he faces the same dangers that brought down his predecessors, but with one clear advantage: the protection of a docile media.

For a country desperate to understand how such horror happened, the information vacuum has been partly filled by conspiracy theories. Veysel and his brother blamed Syrian refugees for the looting in Antakya, despite a lack of proof. Social media users questioned whether a 2004 episode of The Simpsons had predicted the catastrophe by mentioning Kahramanmaraş. Others have claimed that an Alaska-based ionosphere research facility may have triggered an artificial earthquake

A 21-year-old mobile phone salesman from Şanlıurfa who declined to give his name said he had heard a US warship that docked in Istanbul before the quake may have had a hand in the tectonic shift. He then paused, seeming to reconsider. “That still does not explain why our buildings turned to dust. Maybe we are all to blame,” he said.

Ayla Jean Yackley is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul

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