Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Devastating Earthquakes in Turkey Could Fundamentally Alter the Political Landscape
Devastating Earthquakes in Turkey Could Fundamentally Alter the Political Landscape

Devastating Earthquakes in Turkey Could Fundamentally Alter the Political Landscape

  • James Ryan
  • February 10, 2023
  • Middle East Program

Bottom Line

  • Twin earthquakes of 7.4 and 7.8 magnitude devastated southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6. Over 22,000 people are known to have died, and tens of thousands more remain wounded and displaced.
  • Lax construction standards in a rapidly urbanizing region contributed to the high death toll, raising questions about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s aggressive approach to construction and development.
  • Opposition figures have made pointed accusations that state aid has been doled out on a partisan basis, raising the stakes of scheduled general elections on May 14.

Early in the morning of February 6, two earthquakes devastated southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, collapsing buildings across an astonishing radius of several hundred kilometers. More than 22,000 people have died and tens of thousands more are wounded. Days later, survivors and victims remain in the rubble. In all likelihood, this disaster will rank among the top-five deadliest earthquakes of this century.

While it may take some time to calculate the full extent of the damage, the strength of these twin quakes is thought to match or exceed that of the 1999 Duzce earthquake, which occurred near Istanbul and claimed 18,000 lives. Ever since, the quiet fear of another big earthquake has lived in the minds of Turks and frequent visitors alike, especially as Turkey’s urban landscape has blossomed and ballooned with astonishing speed under the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). As Erdoğan has concentrated power through constitutional changes that have neutered parliament and given him a free hand across every arm of government, many have wondered, including myself, whether it would take an earthquake to upend his regime. Indeed, it was the slow government response to the 1999 earthquake that was one of the major contributing factors to the demise of the coalition government of that time—in the wake of which Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party came to power. 

Only time will tell what this new, sinister irony and fate spell for Turkey’s near future. Suffice it to say, the memory of the 1999 earthquake, and the fear of a repeat scenario has never been far from the minds of Turkish citizens over the last two decades. As Erdoğan has aggrandized power, especially in the face of an opposition that has appeared feckless at nearly every turn, the assumption that it would take a disaster of exactly this magnitude to unleash political forces that could defeat Erdoğan in an election has only grown in the minds of many analysts and experts. In the aftermath after this unspeakable disaster, there are three important storylines I am following: 1) where relief efforts are being concentrated, 2) Erdoğan’s attempts to control the narrative, and 3) how key opposition figures seek to marshall resources and support. 

Widespread Damage, Uneven Relief

The most urgent question facing Turks and the international community is how to coordinate the disaster response. Over seventy nations have offered assistance, and dozens of nongovernmental organizations are arriving across the region to coordinate rescue efforts. This is a monumental challenge given that reports of collapsed buildings stretch as far west as Adana (population 1.8 million), as far north as Malatya (population 750,000), south to Antakya (population 470,000), and east to Diyabakır (population 1.8 million). One of the largest population centers in the region, Gaziantep (population 2 million) is located less than 100 kilometers from the epicenters of the quake. This is all before including the Syrian territories that were affected, including Aleppo, and several major towns and cities that have been flashpoints of the ongoing war in this area. For those unfamiliar with the region, imagining an earthquake striking near New York City that also flattened buildings in Boston and Washington, D.C., gives a sense of the wide extent of the damage. 

With such a wide ambit of destruction, even the highest functioning states would struggle to respond equitably across regions. Turkey’s disaster response is compounded by two further factors: 1) the generally poor economic situation, marked by the devaluation of the lira over the last few years, a consequence of Erdoğan’s steadfast policy of lowering interest rates in periods of inflation, has diminished everyday citizen’s ability to contribute cash to relief efforts, and left Turkey more dependent on foreign aid, and 2) the fact that this region has been entangled in the overlapping conflicts Turkey has engaged in with the Assad regime in Syria, and Kurdish partisans in and beyond this territory over the last 12 years, has meant this region, in particular, has absorbed millions of refugees, many of whom have been housed in makeshift domiciles or moved into hastily constructed apartments that have been exempted from earthquake safety standards. In heavily Kurdish areas, like Diyarbakır, there have also been periods of clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party in 2015–2016, in the wake of which whole neighborhoods have been torn down and reconstructed, and 24,000 people were displaced.

Even considering these immense challenges, there have been widespread accusations by Turks that aid to this point has been distributed on a partisan basis. Erdoğan made his first public appearance in the affected areas on February 8 in the city of Kahramanmaraş, where a relatively robust operation has been established by AFAD, Turkey’s disaster response agency. In the 2019 local elections, 67 percent of Kahramanmaraş voted for the AKP’s candidate. In contrast, only a single AFAD team has arrived in Antakya, one of the hardest hit cities in the Hatay province, which may alone hold a death toll of many thousands of people, according to The Economist. Hatay province has had an opposition-led mayor since 2014, with 55 percent voting for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate in 2019. Indeed, two weeks before the earthquake, Hatay’s mayor, Lütfü Savaş, appeared on Turkish television and was asked whether he thought Hatay was prepared for an earthquake, he responded “No, we aren’t. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve written to the ministries about this, with mostly no response.”

Erdogan’s Response, State of Emergency

In the face of what was widely seen as an inadequate immediate response to the earthquake on February 6—reports indicate that the Turkish military was not activated to assist until late on the seventh—Erdoğan appeared on television to deliver his initial remarks on February 7. Speaking from inside the presidential palace in Ankara, in what appears to be his situation room, Erdoğan spoke for fifteen minutes detailing the extent of the damage as he knew it, and promising that all of Turkey’s resources would be marshaled to respond to what he viewed as, “One of the greatest disasters faced not only by our republic, but by our geography and our world.” The headline initiatives coming out of the speech, however, were the imposition of a three-month state of emergency in the affected regions, and an impassioned assertion that anyone spreading “fake news” about the response would be noted by the authorities and prosecuted. 

Given the extent of the damage, Turks will certainly be clearing rubble and rebuilding for longer than three months. It was not lost on anyone that three months would lead the state of emergency right up to the scheduled May 14 general election. While there are certain helpful emergency powers activated under these rules, the history of states of emergency under Erdoğan has seen them used largely to political ends—following the 2016 coup attempt, a state of emergency was imposed across the country for two full years in order for Erdoğan to conduct a thoroughgoing purge of the state bureaucracy and education system. In 2015, many of the same regions affected by the earthquake were securitized under a state of emergency in the midst of an election season and following Islamic State terror attacks along the Syrian border and in Istanbul. 

A simple analysis of election polling before the most recent earthquakes demonstrated that neither Erdoğan nor an unnamed challenger from the main opposition alliance would win a majority of the vote in a first round—indicating that the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a majority Kurdish party, would be in position to play kingmaker. While the HDP ranks as the second or third strongest opposition party, one of the regions now under a state of emergency, Diyarbakır, has the highest concentration of HDP voters in the country—nearly 63 percent went to HDP in the 2019 elections.  

The remarks about “fake news” were repeated in Erdoğan’s first public appearance in the disaster areas the following day, in the midst of which it became apparent that Turkish internet providers—all closely linked to the government—had begun throttling bandwidth for social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. These actions posed an additional hurdle for those on the ground who had been using these sites to locate loved ones and call for help. 

Opposition Party Movements

Before Erdoğan was able to appear on television, the leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu (Republican People’s Party, CHP), announced that he would be heading to Hatay along with his colleagues, the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, and the mayor of Izmir, Tunç Soyer, all of whom won races against AKP candidates in the 2019 elections. In the run up to the earthquake, the opposition “table of six” coalition had set the date of February 13 to name their candidate to run against Erdoğan, and it was widely believed that the unofficial primary was a race between Kiliçdaroğlu and İmamoğlu—the announcement and subsequent joint appearances in Hatay clearly demonstrated a unity within the opposition that many feared was under immense pressure. Kiliçdaroğlu offered his own address to the nation from Hatay late in the evening of February 7. In stark contrast to Erdoğan’s address, Kiliçdaroğlu appeared lit by a spare overhead light in a city still without electricity, dressed entirely in black, and spared little ceremony before laying the blame for the catastrophe at the feet of the regime, saying, “This collapse is entirely the result of systematic rentier politics. There is no meeting ground with Erdoğan, the palace, or these rentier gangs.” In the past, Kiliçdaroğlu has been criticized for his understated demeanor and often muted and indirect criticism of the regime, but this address stood out for its directness and its heavy accusations.

The following day, İmamoğlu released videos of the work being done in Hatay on behalf of the municipality, including the establishment of a makeshift charging and internet station, and the delivery of over 1 million aid packets, the arrival of 582 rescue personnel, and portable toilets and showers. In making the announcement on Twitter, İmamoğlu pointedly provided the information “for those connecting via VPN”—a reference to the virtual private networks used to access social media networks in periods when the government has throttled access. Amidst a war of accusations and blame-making that will likely commence between Erdoğan and Kiliçdaroğlu in the coming weeks and months, İmamoğlu’s emphasis on service delivery is of a piece with how he has spent his time as mayor—focused on improving basic city services and development in a manner that is not unlike Erdoğan’s own tenure as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. Indeed, bringing internet, food, water, and electricity to Turks who did not have access to these things was the calling card of the AKP during its rise in the 2000s and may well be a key factor in the opposition’s challenge going forward. 

Erdogan’s Stability

The overwhelming response thus far from Turks dealing with this unspeakable tragedy is the feeling that many of these deaths could have been prevented. It is true that stronger earthquakes have struck other countries with casualties orders of magnitude lower than we are likely to see in Turkey. In the 2010 Chilean earthquake, which measured 8.8 in magnitude, 525 people died. As of this writing, the total fatalities have surpassed that of the 2011 earthquake in Japan—which reached 9.0 on the Richter scale and was accompanied by a massive tsunami and the second-worst nuclear disaster in history.

The reason this is so unsettling for Erdoğan is that the nature of these tens of thousands of deaths—pancaked concrete apartment buildings—strikes at the core of his party’s governance strategy. In the early years of AKP’s reign, Turkey’s recovery from economic slumps in the 1990s and apparent resilience following the 2008 financial crisis was heralded as a kind of economic miracle. In truth, this resilience was abetted by an overly aggressive construction sector. In a rush to build massive amounts of new housing, the Turkish government has issued hundreds of thousands of exemptions from earthquake safety standards across the country, including 75,000 buildings in the area affected by these earthquakes. In the last decade, this development has gone into overdrive to build not only massive and expansive new housing projects, but questionable “mega projects” including two new bridges over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, a massive new airport in Istanbul’s exurbs, and a planned canal project meant to circumvent the Straits, cutting a huge swath through Turkey’s Thracian province. For a large part, this construction was paid for with injections of foreign debt—much of which came from Turkey’s allies in the Gulf, beginning with Qatar and more recently with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Visitors to Istanbul over the recent years can not help but notice the speed with which skyscrapers and development projects appear across the landscape—less well observed but no less true is that this development has proceeded at a similar pace across the country, and especially in rapidly urbanizing southeast Turkey, a region that has also been bearing the social and economic brunt of the influx of millions of Syrian refugees since 2011. To put it bluntly, a decade’s worth of economic and political capital has been poured into this region by the AKP government, and it fell to ruin in the space of a few hours. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Photo: UK Foreign Office (UK ISAR Team)