Facing re-election in May or June, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is keenly aware that his political fortunes depend on a rapid and decisive response to Monday’s earthquake and its aftershocks that devastated towns in southern Turkey and killed thousands.
After all, Turkey’s recent history provides an obvious cautionary tale that indecision is politically perilous. When a massive earthquake rocked the İzmit region near Istanbul in 1999, then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit — paralyzed by the magnitude of the disaster — was widely condemned for failing to mobilize quickly enough. Some 18,000 people died.
Erdoğan appears determined to avoid the same mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t major potential pitfalls for him.
Hours after tremors first struck, he scrambled to make clear he was now taking charge and appeared visibly angry and frustrated with the early efforts of authorities to mount rescue and emergency operations.
Speaking at the country’s disaster coordination center in Ankara at a hastily arranged news conference, he said the country had been engulfed by the biggest natural disaster since 1939, when a major quake struck the eastern province of Erzincan, leveling or severely damaging more than 100,000 buildings and killing around 33,000 people.
“Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts, although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night make things more difficult,” he told reporters. And on Tuesday, too, Erdoğan was in front of the cameras, announcing a three-month state of emergency for the 10 provinces hit the worst by the deadly earthquake.
He reeled off details of the rescue and humanitarian efforts to date, saying some 54,000 tents and 102,000 beds had already been dispatched to stricken regions.
But the more recent 1999 İzmit earthquake — rather than the 1939 trembler — may have been in Erdoğan’s mind, said Gönül Tol, director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank.
Speaking to POLITICO from Hatay, one of the regions shattered by Monday’s quakes, Tol said the press rounded on the government in 1999 for the poor emergency response. Likewise, she said, while the quakes this time could not have been prevented, the suffering has been compounded by an inadequate response in the immediate hours after they struck.
“The tragedy has been made worse — especially for people like me who lost loved ones,” said Tol, who lost two relatives in the quakes. “I was there, and there was no rescue team. People were trying to dig out their loved ones trapped under the rubble by themselves. So for hours and hours, we just couldn’t find anyone to help. It was freezing cold, there was no food, no water, and we couldn’t see anyone from the government, we couldn’t see anyone from any state institutions, no rescue workers, nothing,” she added.
She said there are echoes of the İzmit quake, whose epicenter was barely 50 miles east of the outskirts of Istanbul. That shook the country’s institutions to their very core and reshaped the country’s politics in ways that later assisted Erdoğan’s rise to power. At the next parliamentary elections in 2002, Ecevit’s center-left Democratic Left Party, the Nationalist Action Party and centrist Motherland Party — the factions that had dominated Turkish politics in the 1990s — failed to pass the 10 percent vote threshold needed to secure parliamentary seats. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party stormed to a landslide victory.
Ecevit was numbed by the scale of the destruction, falling “into a prolonged state of shock,” according to historian and former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer in a 2001 study of İzmit for the Middle East Quarterly.
“Instead of immediately jumping on a helicopter to survey the disaster area and then ordering his aides into action, he spent days telling whoever would listen that everything was under control and there was no need for concern,” Kinzer added. “Army commanders who might have been expected to deploy thousands of soldiers to the stricken region also sat on their hands. Quickly it became clear that although Turkey lies above some of the world’s most dangerous geological faults and is shaken by earthquakes every few years, its government had no plan for dealing with them, no disaster-relief agency, no civil-defense network, not even an official designated to take charge at such moments,” he added.
To add insult to injury, the government’s earthquake relief fund was empty, containing the equivalent in Turkish lira of just €4.45.
“Government officials stumbled aimlessly about, unable to grasp the dimensions of the catastrophe. Prime Minister Ecevit later sought to excuse the government’s slow response by saying that roads were too clogged to allow rescue teams to reach devastated towns,” Kinzer wrote. Ministers blamed the press, accusing journalists of distorting events and maligning the government.
Erdoğan now appears to be drawing lessons from that sluggish response. Unusually, Erdoğan wants to be filmed at the center of a disaster.
“You know how much he loves cameras, but whenever a disaster hits the country, he disappears,” said Tol. “He usually lets his ministers and people around him handle the problem. So if anything goes wrong, he can blame it on them,” she added. This time, though, Erdoğan has intervened publicly more rapidly than normal and has appealed for international help.
But whether he can escape the political fallout remains to be seen, say analysts.
“Just one building collapses in a known earthquake zone, it is a tragedy,” according to Borzou Daragahi, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. “If dozens across several major cities collapse, it signals a preventable tragedy. Turkey vowed to implement changes to its building practices following the tragic 1999 earthquake that left 17,000 dead. It instituted new construction rules and implemented mandatory earthquake insurance for all buildings. Architects and urban planners have been warning for years that the rules are not being followed strictly enough,” he added.
Many of the areas that have been wrecked by the quakes, like Gaziantep, Hatay and Şanlıurfa, have seen a construction boom over the past two decades encouraged by Erdoğan, and one he has ridden electorally. The huge construction projects have involved companies that have strong ties with Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. If the newer buildings and apartment blocks are found to have been disproportionally more vulnerable than older buildings, then Erdoğan’s party could be blamed.
And Erdoğan has another challenge politically: Coming up quickly with temporary housing arrangements for the survivors and injured.
On that score, he may regret having cracked down on NGOs and forcing many civil society organizations to close, said Tol. “At least in 1999 there were many civil society organizations who were there on the ground working with state institutions. Not this time around because he basically wiped out all civil society groups except, of course, for the ones that promote his agenda,” she added.