On Monday 6 February 2023, two earthquakes measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale occurred in the province of Kahramanmaraş: the first at 4:17 am, in Pazarcık, the second, at 1:24 pm, in Elbistan. These earthquakes, experienced as a real apocalypse by the populations concerned, are the most powerful to have hit Türkiye since the 19th century. The initial earthquake and its 145 aftershocks caused terror in south-eastern Türkiye and north-western Syria, killing at least 45,000 people and injuring tens of thousands. The World Health Organization, which has mobilized all its resources, estimates that, with many people still trapped in the rubble, the number of victims will certainly be much higher. Social networks quickly reported on the damage. In particular, they posted striking photos or videos of people fleeing their buildings as they collapsed like houses of cards. The particular severity of this earthquake lies in its geographical magnitude, as most of south-eastern Türkiye is affected; ten provinces in total, including rural areas that are difficult to access. Following the earthquakes, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency for three months in the affected provinces.
Is Geography Destiny?
According to Turkish geologist Naci Görür, this earthquake was expected. “All the scientists in the world, including me, have been saying that this earthquake was on our doorstep and was the death knell for years,” said Görür, before concluding: “… nobody cared to listen to what we had to say. Türkiye lies between the northern and eastern rifts of the Anatolian peninsula. It is therefore highly exposed to seismic activity. The country has been regularly hit by devastating earthquakes, including a memorable one in 1999, whose epicenter was located near Izmit (east of Istanbul, in the province of Kocaeli). It caused the death of about 18,000 people. The 6 February earthquake will ultimately result in even more victims…
Although the cause of these disasters is natural, the death toll is linked to human activities and the capacity of public authorities to prevent the final toll from being higher. In the aftermath of this latest earthquake, the Erdogan government, which has been collecting a seismic tax for some years to prepare cities for such disasters, is accused of not having taken the necessary precautions. In addition, many residents in the most affected areas have protested the late arrival of the rescue services, dispatched by the AFAD (Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı/ the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority). The latter announced that it had mobilized 60,217 employees on the ground, but the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK – Türk Silhalı Kuvvetleri), which usually actively intervene in the management of such crises in Türkiye, only arrived on the ground two days after the tragedy. Many believe that these delays may have led to a disruption in search operations. In the 1999 earthquake, the Turkish armed forces mobilized all their resources and facilities, and 24,000 soldiers were deployed in the earthquake zone.
What political, economic and electoral consequences?
Kemal Kılıcdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, the largest opposition party, visited the scene on the second day of the disaster, accompanied by the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, who belong to the same party as him. He did not hesitate to say, “If there is one person responsible for all this, it is Erdoğan. He also added that, despite having been in power for twenty years, Erdoğan’s government has failed to prepare a truly effective plan to deal with such earthquakes. Some observers have even claimed that on the eve of the presidential and parliamentary elections, the AKP government seems to be “more concerned with its image than with saving people.”
Moreover, the tragedy has brought to the forefront the issue of widespread fraudulent practices by private construction companies that flout safety regulations. Contractors with close ties to the government were found to have built multi-storey buildings with increased density, without regard to their earthquake resistance. Yet Türkiye introduced new standards in its building code, following the catastrophic 1999 earthquake, requiring that buildings be resistant to the strongest earthquakes. But given the speed and ease with which some buildings collapsed, it is clear that they did not meet the required criteria for resistance. Unfortunately, this means that the public authority’s supervision of the buildings failed. Unfortunately, this is also the reason for the large number of victims that have already occurred.
Although the first concern today must be to provide assistance, one cannot help but look further ahead. The extent of the disaster is not yet known, but what is certain is that it has come at a very bad time, as Türkiye has already been struggling with a devastating economic crisis for several years. With the Istanbul stock exchange having just suspended trading after three days of losses, it is certain that the Turkish economy (and therefore the entire population of that country) will be impacted. Moreover, even though the state of emergency, decreed for three months and in ten provinces, it will only end a few days before the next presidential and legislative elections, the other question that comes to mind is whether these elections will be able to take place correctly in the wake of this disaster. The Erdogan regime is attempting to delay the elections by playing on the earthquake disaster. However, the Turkish Constitution states that delay is not allowed except in case of war. It would be disastrous for Turkish democracy and nearly impossible to reorganize democratic elections in Türkiye again if Erdogan succeeds in postponing the polls, which he is repeatedly requesting be delayed for one year in his speeches. The opposition’s position is very critical, so that it should be very determined for the proper organization of the elections in 2023. It seems that the Turkish people will undoubtedly battle for democracy this year in addition to fighting the effects of the earthquake. In the meantime, we can only hope that a large number of survivors may have been pulled out of the rubble and show the greatest empathy to the families of the victims.
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