The Viennese Mercan Falter lost a large part of her family in Hatay. She reports that humanitarian aid has still not arrived there, and that the survivors are completely on their own. They set up makeshift tents themselves using scraps of fabric and carpets. Mercan also explains why no aid money arrives in her second home: The Turkish state has confiscated donations from NGOs and associations, and the money is simply not being passed on to those who have been needing help for days. Aid transports, which the Syrian victims urgently need, continue to be stopped by Turkish authorities at the border posts and are not allowed to continue. The anger focuses on the conditions in the Turkish-Syrian border region of Hatay. First, sporadic help only came after two days. The mayor says on TV: “We don’t count on any help from the government. We’re being ignored.” Three weeks ago, he warned on a television program that there would be an earthquake soon, and he called for more cooperation in civil protection: “No matter how many letters we write, they don’t even get back to us.”
The Turks have to get used to images that one cannot and does not want to get used to. They bury the dead in fields, in hastily dug ditches, it looks like after a massacre. There is a photo of a father not letting go of his daughter’s hand, whose body is still under the rubble. A drone is broadcasting footage from Hatay that looks like the city has been at war for years.
The number of deaths has recently increased by leaps and bounds, doubling approximately every day. Relatives stand in front of the rubble heaps of their houses and know that there is hardly a chance for the buried people, the survivors themselves struggle with the fact that no water comes out of the tap, that they cannot find any food. In Syria, the situation is similar – only worse, because there is hardly any help from abroad. The situation there is now so dramatic that people are no longer getting enough food.
The Turkish President calls the devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey and northern Syria a “plan of fate”. Erdogan has ruled Türkiye for so long that one can compare how he reacted to other earthquakes. In 2003, for example, when he had just become prime minister, the earth shook in Bingol province. At that time he promised consequences, he wanted to see who had enriched themselves during construction. And he said the quake “can’t be dismissed as fate.”
The President has shaped Türkiye, with countless new high-rise residential buildings, for the construction of which he created his own authority, with motorways, bridges, clinics and airports in the easternmost corner of Anatolia. Today, Türkiye builds drones and electric cars and has a say in the big geopolitical issues. For the republic’s 100th birthday this year, it should catch up with the ten largest economies in the world. That was Erdogan’s vision and goal, just weeks before the elections that would decide his future fate.
However, it is precisely the buildings of the new sultan that were damaged or completely destroyed by the tremors. Apparently they just looked modern, they weren’t earthquake-proof. There, in the earthquake region, where many Erdogan are still connected, something is coming to an end these days: the belief that he is the guarantor of progress, greatness, a better life. The survivors’ anger is directed at the developers, whose buildings were obviously not earthquake-proof – like a luxury condominium in Hatay, completed ten years ago, now a pile of rubble. The builder responsible was arrested on the run and is to be charged. It is clear to everyone in the country that the man is just one of many. In recent years, Türkiye has been one big construction site, and the pace of construction has often been impressively fast. Dangerously fast. In the past few days, a total of 200 contractors and civil engineers have been arrested or detained.
Owners who had erected or expanded buildings without permission could subsequently legalize their buildings – usually in return for payment of a penalty. That went down well in Turkish society, where the home ownership rate at 59 percent is significantly higher than in Western Europe. Unsurprisingly, these amnesties were always decided on the eve of an election. Erdogan, who grew up in a working-class district of Istanbul in a house that was later legalized, did not invent this campaign gift. In the more than four decades between the transition to the multi-party system and the AKP taking office, eight amnesties were issued.
Three years ago, during a speech in Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of today’s earthquake catastrophe, the President boasted: “With the construction amnesty, we let 144,000 citizens of Kahramanmaras breathe a sigh of relief”. Before the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, the next one was already being prepared. The cabinet wanted to discuss this on February 6, when the earth trembled in Kahramanmaras at 4:17 a.m. local time.
AKP propagandists are now appealing not to politicize the catastrophe. But the political implications are too obvious, which is why Erdogan is using his unfettered and direct control of the judiciary and investigative agencies to direct the anger at other addressees.
The helpers on site complain that the apparatus is overwhelmed. The levels of leadership, for which people were often chosen more for political allegiance than for competence – who chose them? Opposition politician Meral Aksener said last week: “Erdogan wanted a one-man regime,” and now he is “solely responsible.”
A Turkish journalist wrote: Can the President still win? Are the elections even going to plan? Will Erdogan leave voluntarily if he is voted out? It is Erdogan “who got us into this situation”.
The critical voices have not gone unheard, including by the AKP-controlled judiciary and the security authorities: over 50 people who complained on social media that the state was leaving the victims alone have already been arrested. But Erdogan is now also targeting the opposition: He is particularly targeting the CHP, which made an internal report by the AFAD disaster control system public: The authority itself had already determined in autumn 2022 that it was not prepared for a major earthquake.
“What did the government do with this report?” asked CHP chairman Kiliçdaroglu. “Didn’t you hear?” Both he and the Kurdish left-wing HDP also criticize the fact that their own rescue initiatives, especially in the cities where they are mayors, have been hindered rather than promoted by the government. The HDP complains that Erdogan is more concerned with control than with help. It is fitting that the president did not organize any large-scale support, for example from the army, but announced a state of emergency for the entire region on Tuesday, which parliament quickly confirmed two days later. This allows better control of the authority to interpret what is happening on site. It should apply for three months in ten of the 81 provinces. It would expire on May 9th. Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled to take place on May 14th. The state of emergency can speed up measures, but also restrict fundamental freedoms shortly before the elections.
Erdogan justified the need for the state of emergency as preventing looting and unrest. Shortly before, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu had declared that there was no looting. The opposition parties have indicated that they will only agree to a one-month state of emergency. As Erdogan spoke in Gaziantep, in nearby Adiyaman, where aid workers arrived late and then too few, disaffected protesters marched to the governor’s seat. Police officers had to escort the workers there out of the building.
The party office of the AKP is in one of the cities that have become ruins: “Let’s go together for new goals” is written above the front door, next to the larger-than-life portrait of the head of state. On the poster, Erdogan, now almost 70 years old, is even younger, he radiates the strength of his earlier years of rule. Now the headquarters is littered with broken glass and chunks of concrete.
In his dark woolen coat, he walks towards the ruins of the houses, talks to victims and helpers. He talks about fate that cannot be avoided. As if the residents didn’t know that themselves. A local resident standing in front of his destroyed house actually wants to go to his president and tell him the truth to his face. But he doesn’t get around to him, the Turkish interior minister, who is known for being rough, is holding him back. Later the survivor says: “Five people are buried under the rubble. My son, my daughter-in-law, my three grandchildren. Why is the President coming, what does he have to say to me?” The audience visit is over a short time later. Erdogan puts his hand on his heart to say goodbye, bows his head briefly and hurries back to the limousine with his interior minister and his entourage. Bystanders ask: “What’s that about?” The president is already in the car when one of the relatives, a woolen blanket around her shoulders, knocks on the window of the presidential limousine. Erdogan opens the window, she says something to him. His answer: We humans never know when our death will overtake us and then quotes the Quran Surah Al-Zilzal, which deals with an earthquake.
Whatever Erdogan does now, many are of the opinion that he cannot politically survive from this catastrophe. The catastrophe is too great, the suffering too incomprehensible, the duration of the reconstruction measures too foreseeable. He will be asked uncomfortable questions, not only by the opposition, but by most of the 85 million Turks. Why were no conclusions drawn from previous earthquakes? In 1999 almost 20,000 people died in Izmit near Istanbul. At that time everything had gone wrong with the rescue work. In the end, that was one of the reasons why the government at the time was no longer elected, and Erdogan came to power soon afterwards.
So the quake now could be the end of his almost 20-year reign. Promises had also been made to the people in İzmit, and an earthquake tax had been introduced to strengthen civil protection and to make the houses made of cheap, stretched concrete earthquake-proof. 88 billion lira had come together over the years. That’s billions of euros, but the exact number cannot be calculated because of the drastic fall in the currency. Allegedly, part of the money has been misappropriated, flowed into other Erdogan projects, into the voter-friendly expansion of the nationwide infrastructure, into armaments, into the expansion of AKP rule. Above all, the money is said to have flowed into the religious foundations, to the Diyanet, the religious authority. Their budget and influence have grown gigantic over the years. And then the corruption. The construction industry has always been a pillar of Erdogan’s power. He built all the bridges, airports, highways, hospitals and mosques with the help of important entrepreneurs. The construction magnates did good business, very good business, far too good business.
In the ruling AKP, the first voices suggested postponing the election date in view of the earthquake disaster. However, the probability of this is considered to be low, because the constitution sees the only reason for postponing elections that Türkiye is in a state of war. On May 14, the president and parliament are to be re-elected. Erdogan’s companion Bülent Arinç speaks of a new date in November, half a year later. He would prefer the year 2024. It is said that elections simply cannot be held in the earthquake areas. “The constitution only provides for an election postponement in the event of war,” said opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu. “We’re not at war.” The AKP wants to “avoid” the elections because they fear for losing power. Kiliçdaroglu is apparently under no illusions about who is setting an election date in Türkiye. “It is shameful that the judiciary has become the backyard of a party.” What is meant is the AKP and how it influences the electoral authorities.
This article should conclude with the words of the Turkish Nobel Prize winner for literature Orhan Pamuk, who wrote the following in a post today: “As the second day after the quakes draws to a close, the noises emanating from the piles of rubble and concrete are becoming quieter , and people on the streets are getting used to the horror. Crowds are gathering in front of the vans distributing bread and groceries. But the anger, the bitterness, the despair at having been caught cold by the disaster lingers. It seems no authority, no one in charge to organize the efforts of the helpers when they arrive. To the horror of the people, even some public hospitals have collapsed. Two days later, first aid arrived in the centers of the most important cities. But for many people, that’s it too little and comes too late.”
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