Turks to vote in the dust of devastation

Anger at the government may be reflected in a first defeat for President Erdoğan after almost two decades at the helm

Turkey flags, hand dropping ballot card into a box - voting
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Turkey flags, hand dropping ballot card into a box - voting

Turks to vote in the dust of devastation

Until 6 February, everything in Turkey was focused on the year’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, to be held in May or June 2023.

After 6 February, the devastating effects of two powerful earthquakes shifted everyone’s attention. Suddenly, there were far more important things to think about.

A month on, it seems that the elections are still going ahead, as per Turkey’s constitution. And as the dust settles, as people slowly come to terms with the natural disaster and begin to rebuild, candidates’ election campaigns are quietly resuming.

Before February, all of Turkey was geared up for the 2023 election. After the earthquakes, there have been more important things to think about.

All eyes are on the incumbent. In a recent speech, during which President Erdoğan once again criticised everything prior to his AK Party's ascendency while praising everything since, he addressed the country's preparedness for the two quakes.

"Praise God, in the light of the bitter experiences of the past, we are prepared, and we no longer hear citizens screaming in the event of natural disasters," he said.

Spreading the blame

The issue of preparedness is one of this election's hottest issues, with Erdoğan and his ministers accused of not having been ready.

Critics claim that ministers and governors hesitated to act without Erdoğan's specific instructions. The army, which is well-versed in dealing with natural disasters, has also been criticised for not getting fully involved from Day One.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with people in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey February 8, 2023.

Aid agencies such as the Turkish Red Crescent and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), as well as state institutions and universities, are all said to have been weakened in their response to the quakes by bad management owing to political appointees not chosen for their skills and expertise.

President Erdoğan admitted that there were shortcomings in the first few days after the quakes, but was quick to point out that "all teams and means were activated" as soon as news came in. He and his defence minister say the army were sent out immediately, something opposition parties and eyewitnesses dispute.

Hitting back hard

As per his modus operandi, Erdoğan has described the criticism as cheap attempts at  political exploitation, describing critics as trying to sow social discord. "We are taking notes and will do what is necessary at the right time," he said menacingly, while singling out Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party.

Yet he has already admitted as much. When Erdoğan visited Adıyaman, one of the worst affected areas, on 27 February, he is quoted as saying: "Unfortunately, the first few days of rescue efforts were not as efficient as we would have liked."

Erdoğan says criticism of quake response is cheap political exploitation but admitted that the initial response was not as efficient as hoped.

He then used a religious term - seeking "helallik" from the people - to ask for forgiveness. His critics say this amounts to a confession and that asking for forgiveness will not excuse him from responsibility.

The pressure has only exacerbated Erdoğan's personal political style, which has been described as sharp, harsh, and contradictory, while the quakes and their aftermath have certainly increased the tension in an already-tense political atmosphere.

A man walks among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Hatay on March 6, 2023, one month after a massive earthquake struck southeastern Turkey.

Why the buildings toppled

The earthquakes struck 11 provinces - Kahramanmaraş, Adana, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis, Malatya, Osmaniye, Şanlıurfa and Elazığ - in south-east Anatolia, home to around 15 million people. It killed 43,000 people, but with bodies still under the rubble, the death-toll will rise.

Tens of thousands are now homeless because thousands of buildings collapsed and thousands more were damaged so extensively that they now need to be demolished. More than a million people have left for other regions for safety.


Critics say ministers hesitated to act, the army was slow to respond, and aid agencies were weakened by unqualified political appointees

Two separate earthquakes, striking nine hours apart, with 7.8 and 7.6 magnitudes, across an area the size of Bulgaria, during harsh winter weather conditions… this is the stuff of emergency planners' nightmares, with the impact magnified and multiplied.

But alongside the perfect storm that nature threw up were man-made factors that only added to the misery. Of these factors, perhaps the most obvious is the poor quality of construction for thousands of buildings that should have been much stronger in a known earthquake zone.

Footage and photography have shown countless multi-storey residential blocks collapsing into streets, quite unable to withstand the shudders and tremors. In some cases, it appeared as if they were not attached to the ground at all. Accusations of negligence and improper conduct have been flying.

Chairman of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu poses for photographers at the parliament during his group speech in Ankara on March 7, 2023.

Held to account

While there may be no way of preventing an earthquake, or of predicting one, anger has nevertheless risen. Minimum standards of both construction and preparedness would have lessened the loss, critics say, while citing Japan as the perfect example.

Erdoğan's political movement has focused on construction. During his tenure, residences, high-rise buildings, bridges, roads, and airports have all been built, to such an extent that adherence to construction standards should have long been normalised.

He has claimed that 98 percent of the collapsed buildings were built prior to 1999, long before AKP took power, but these claims are disputed by experts who say that, in fact, more than half the toppled buildings were built in recent years.

Erdoğan has focused on construction - residences, high-rise buildings, bridges, roads, and airports - so why has adherence to construction standards not been normalised?

The dispute has focused attention on building regulations. The problem appears not to have been a lack of standards, but rather shortcomings in the inspections that are designed to reassure the authorities that those standards are being met.

According to an Istanbul Technical University report, salient factors in the failure of these buildings include: low bearing capacity of the soil on which the foundations are built; quality of the construction materials; insufficient cross-sectional dimensions of the columns and beams; and the amount of reinforcement.

Profitable amnesties

Another factor being cited is the so-called 'zoning reconciliation' or 'construction amnesty', which is a populist policy frequently offered as an election gift by ruling parties. In construction terms, it is the equivalent of a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card.

During these amnesties, those whose buildings have been erected without permission, or without building regulations, can pay a one-off fee to have them rendered legal, without having to demolish, improve, or make safe any previously illegal construction.

In the past, this has been a welcome source of income for the government, which is supposed to then use the funds for urban transformation. The last amnesty was in 2017. It raised 25.6 billion Turkish Lira (around $1.3 billion). Whether it was used for urban transformation is not known.

Coincidentally, there was another draft amnesty or 'zoning reconciliation' making its way through the parliamentary pipeline when the earthquakes struck. It is safe to say that those plans are now buried under the rubble, along with so much else.

People take part in a demonstration ahead of the International Women's Day, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 5, 2023.

Apportioning blame

So far, more than 200 people have been arrested in relation to the allegedly shoddy construction that caused so many to die inside the collapsed buildings. All of those detained are contractors and/or owners of buildings.

Are they alone who should be held to account? What about inspection firms, or the state and regional officials, who failed to do their job properly, or who abused their position? What about others who endangered lives, for instance, the manager of a ground floor car showroom who cut load-bearing columns to make more space for his cars?

The problem wasn't a lack of standards, but shortcomings in inspections designed to ensure those standards were being met

Addressing the subject of lessons learned, Erdoğan and his ally Devlet Bahçeli said the solution was for earthquake-resistant buildings, fully compliant with all the relevant regulations, built under an efficient and effective inspection regime.

Critics have derided this. For a country sited in a known earthquake zone, such lessons should have been learned long ago, they say. It would have saved a great many lives. For his part, opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu has said that officials from his party also bear responsibility. He has demanded an investigation.

Of the 11 municipalities worst hit by the quakes, seven are governed by Erdoğan's AK Party. That may help to explain why not a single government and municipality official has resigned over the construction catastrophe.

Entering the rebuild

The Turkish economy was already reeling before natural disaster hit. The region most affected generates around 10% of the country's GDP. The United Nations has said that the cost of damage could exceed $100 billion. A World Bank Disaster Assessment report saysGDP losses from economic disruptions "will also add to the cost".

The economic effects are certainly huge, but when compared to the effects of the Marmara earthquake in 1999 – and the contribution of that region to the country's economy – there may be a lesser overall economic loss and quicker recovery.

Hundreds were arrested, mainly contractors and building owners, but what about inspection firms or state officials who didn't do their job?

Nevertheless, economists expect to face additional inflationary pressures, a significant upsurge in housing demand, alongside fast-rising house prices and rents. On the other hand, the huge rebuild will generate valuable new economic activity.

President Erdoğan has promised to rebuild every destroy city alongside building 200,000 new housing units every year, with none having more than four floors. TOKİ (Housing Development Administration of Türkiye) will lead the building effort.

With TOKİ involved and full authorisation given, construction should be much quicker. Even so, experts doubt whether Erdoğan's pledges can be carried out safely and properly in the timescale he has outlined, not least because of the huge amount of groundwork needed before a single brick is laid.

Six Turkish opposition leaders have agreed to nominate Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Demolition and debris clearance will be a huge operation - the amount of rubble is estimated to fill 660 football stadiums - and urban planners will need to work with civil engineers in all manner of areas, from highways to water to environment.  

One-man show

Some analysts had suggested that the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections were among Turkey's most important, with the AK Party having held power since 2002 and Erdoğan having ruled either as prime minister or president for the entire period.

He has navigated a number of difficulties during his reign but nothing lasts forever and he recently witnessed a decline in popularity, which some attribute to his increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

Economists expects additional inflationary pressures, a significant upsurge in housing demand, and rising house/rent prices, but a huge rebuilding project will generate valuable new economic activity.

The attempted coup d'etat in 2016 was his cue for a system change. He argued that the old system slowed the country down. Promising what he referred to as a "new Turkey" and a "Turkey century".

His presidential system got nodded through in a change to the country's constitution following a referendum in 2017. Erdoğan won the first elections under the new system in 2018 with 52.59% of the vote. His nearest challenger, Muharrem Ince, got 30.64%

A system of alliances

Among Erdoğan's arguments for change was that the old system produced coalitions, which had their drawbacks. Under his presidential system, coalitions are now a thing of the past, replaced by "alliances". Critics say this is nothing but a name change.

The present political setting has been dominated by two main alliances. The first is the Cumhur Alliance. This consists of the AK Party plus Nationalist Action Party, the small nationalist conservative Büyük Birlik Partisi, and the leftist Vatan Partisi.

Erdoğan said the old system wasn't working so the country voted through a new presidential system with him as president.

The second is the Millet Alliance. This consists of the social democratic People's Republican Party, the center right İyi Party, the conservative Saadet Party, and the centre-right Demokrat Parti.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former foreign minister and prime minister, and Ali Babacan, a former economy minister, who both broke away from the AK Party and established their own, have joined the Millet Alliance, giving it the nickname, 'Table of 6'.

In addition, the Halkın Demokrasi Partisi, which is labelled as a Kurdish party, has teamed up with left-of-centre political parties to form the Emek ve Özgürlük Alliance.

A seismic (political) shift

Erdoğan has much to lose if he cannot win the elections. The last time Turks went to the ballot box in March 2019, the AK Party lost the municipalities of Istanbul, Ankara, Bolu, Antalya and others, all of which it had held for two or more decades.

Chairman of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C) arrives at the parliament for his group speech in Ankara on March 7, 2023

After 21 years in power, the government is showing signs of fatigue and fade. Various crises and scandals, alongside allegations of corruption, a worrying economic outlook and pressure on living conditions are hurting both Erdoğan and his administration. 

A year ago, polls showed  AK Party down to around 35% of the vote, with the rival 'Table of 6' alliance growing. Since then, several populist initiatives plus a concerted publicity blitz portraying 'Table of 6' as indecisive has led AKP to climb slightly.

The question of postponement

A few days after the earthquake, former Speaker of the Parliament, Bülent Arınç, argued that elections should be postponed for several months, as conditions were now unsuitable.

Government spokesman Ömer Çelik said Arınc's call reflected his "personal opinion", with Erdoğan reported to have expressed dismay at the idea.

Still, some commentators say AKP has a history of 'testing the water' for potentially unpopular ideas through comments like Arınc's, keeping a close eye on public reaction. If it is considered positive, they go ahead. If not, they distance themselves. Article 78 of the constitution says elections can only be postponed in the event of war.

Turkey's constitution forbids a postponement of elections except in the case of war.

Many think that if the government suspects that an on-time election is to their advantage, they will go ahead, but if they feel postponement may be to their benefit, they would find a way to delay, even if this meant changing the constitution again.

One idea mooted is for the Supreme Board of Election, which is charged with ensuring the "fair and orderly conduct of elections", to declare circumstances as being "unfit" in which to vote.

However, the opposition has said elections cannot be postponed, and that if the Board were to do so, it would amount to a civilian coup d'etat. Meanwhile, former judge of the European Court of Human Rights, Rıza Türmen, said postponing would be in violation of the constitution and the law, and would lead to political chaos.

Turkish main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader and Presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu greets his supporters with his wife Selvi

Foreign policy and Syrians

The response of the international community to the earthquake was inspiring and effective, with specialist search and rescue teams from dozens of countries dispatched to join efforts. Others set up field hospitals, sent advanced cutting and listening equipment, and offered trauma therapy.

President Erdoğan took calls from counterparts in countries such as Greece, Armenia, Egypt, and Israel. Among those visiting the earthquake zone was United States' Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

The international community rallied, sending search and rescue teams. The US Secretary and State and Nato Secretary General both visited

What these foreign dignitaries may have been told in their briefings is that, of the 3.7 million Syrians living in Turkey at present, 1.7 million of them were living in the zone most affected by the earthquakes. Indeed, Syrians are thought to represent a sizeable proportion of the dead.

Before the quakes, Syrians' movement had been restricted to their city of residence. That has now changed, and they are allowed to relocate. Many have moved to other Turkish cities, while some have even moved back to Syria.

A race against time

According to reports, the AKP wants its election campaign to concentrate on the bounce-back, namely the rebuilding of cities, the healing of national wounds, and the return of those who fled the affected region. It wants the focus to be on positive changes for the future, not the two decades of corner-cutting that caused such a loss of life.

It will be a tough sell. Ordinary people up and down the country, including AKP supporters, are angry at the government. They are also worried. Were an earthquake to hit Istanbul, with its 16 million people and its 1.6 million buildings, the result could be truly terrifying, with a loss of life that would dwarf the February 2023 quakes.

And as to healing the wounds, that requires a major shift in mindset. Turks hope and expect that those responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of people will be held accountable, both politically and legally. It is an important moment. The political aftershocks will be felt for years to come.

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