Years of negligence and cronyism underpin devastating earthquake toll in Turkey

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria a week ago, and the powerful aftershock that followed, have left at least 30,000 people dead. More than 5,000 buildings have collapsed, including critical infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. The death toll could rise by tens of thousands over the coming days as emergency services dig through the rubble and unearth the tragedy.

This tragedy only adds to the humanitarian crisis that has raged on the Turkish–Syrian border for the past decade. Countries worldwide have responded to the catastrophe by sending humanitarian aid and workers to help the Turkish government and civil-society organisations deal with the disaster. The devastation in the Turkish province of Hatay, near the epicentre of the quake, is a stark illustration of how seriously unprepared government officials were for the earthquake. The country is in mourning, and the implications of this disaster will be widespread for Turkish society, politics and foreign affairs.

Earthquakes are a natural part of Turkey’s past, present and future. The country sits along many active and inactive fault lines, most notably the Marmara fault line that runs south of Istanbul. Yet this is the worst disaster in Turkish history. There is a human element to it and the devastation and death toll could have been avoided.

As Istanbul-based journalist Borzou Daragahi noted last week: ‘If one building collapses in a known earthquake zone, it is a tragedy. If dozens across several major cities collapse, it signals a preventable tragedy.’ In the aftermath of the magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck Turkey’s Kocaeli province in 1999, killing around 18,000 people, building practices were updated and earthquake insurance was made mandatory for all buildings. In the decades since, scientists repeatedly told the Turkish government that an earthquake of this magnitude could happen again and that they should be prepared for it. However, despite the best intentions with these reforms to the building sector, they have been largely ignored, as indicated by the devastation seen in southwest Turkey.

Successive Turkish administrations have enacted amnesty laws allowing suboptimal building practices to win votes among the poorer sections of the Turkish electorate. Amnesties in the 1980s granted legal titles to the building of illegal gecekcondu(low-cost, hastily built housing) that arose during the rural to urban demographic shift in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is no secret that Turkey’s growth since the early 2000s has been fuelled by the rapid development of the domestic construction industry throughout the region. Over the past 20 years, construction firms aligned with the governing Justice and Development Party (known as AKP) have grown rich from favourable contracts and government subsidies. Development projects have turned the expansive green spaces in cities like Istanbul into concrete jungles. Only recently, it was speculated that a new amnesty law would be passed that would have allowed unregistered construction work to go ahead.

The powerful government-backed housing agency TOKI leads the development of new housing projects throughout Turkey. TOKI was involved in a well-publicised 2014 corruption case against the AKP and people close to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The charges were later dismissed. Affordable housing is still out of reach for the average Turkish person despite the massive construction increase throughout the country. Yet the easy riches of the real estate industry led to developers and inspectors reportedly cutting corners and ignoring regulations that could have prevented such a disaster.

Recently, the governing party has looked to the construction industry as a source of cheap money to fuel growth rates. Questionable economic policies are crippling the economy, and the AKP needs funds for its election spending and political projects in the lead-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in May. The government has allegedly misappropriated earthquake tax revenue meant for alleviating such disasters and spent it on other state and political projects. Given the lack of resources, civil-society organisations in Turkey have had to fill in the gaps while they wait for international assistance. It appears that in these politically charged times and in the ‘new Türkiye’, politics trumps people.

Yet, despite Turkey’s recent bellicose conduct in international affairs towards Greece and Sweden, the international community has been quick to put politics aside and respond to the crisis. When the dust settles and the election cycle ramps up again, it’s likely that political pragmatism will lead Erdogan and his AKP to forget the generosity shown. With the election less than six months away, Erdogan and the AKP will likely again turn to increased hostility in foreign policy to distract from Turkey’s economic problems and the fallout of the earthquakes.

Natural disasters are unavoidable, but a combination of negligence, lack of regulation and possible corruption contributed to the destruction from this earthquake. Turkey will mourn its dead, and the rebuilding will begin soon. Turkish construction firms will likely get a slap on the wrist from the government for their shoddy practices, but no heads will roll at the top. Pro-government companies and organisations like TOKI will likely reap the benefits of this disaster, given their closeness to the government. It’s highly likely that these companies will be given contracts to rebuild collapsed buildings in cities affected by the earthquake. It remains to be seen whether the AKP will politicise the disaster for political gain and demonise the opposition as it has done in the past.

The AKP and Erdogan, however, would be wise to learn from history. It was a botched response to the 1999 Kocaeli earthquake, combined with a freefalling economy, that led to the demise of the Bulent Ecevit government. In the wake of these disasters, the AKP won the election in 2001. If the AKP botches the response to this disaster and wraps its response up in partisan politics, it’s distinctly possible that it will backfire and expose what 20 years of its governance has done to Turkey. Come May, the AKP might find itself on the losing side of a 2001-style defeat.