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Facing re-election in May or June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keenly aware that his political fortunes depend on a quick and decisive response to Monday’s earthquake and its aftershocks that devastated southern Turkish cities and killed thousands.
After all, Turkey’s recent history provides a clear cautionary tale that indecision is politically dangerous. When a massive earthquake hit the Izmit region near Istanbul in 1999, Prime Minister Bulent Icevit – paralyzed by the scale of the disaster – was widely criticized for failing to mobilize quickly enough. About 18,000 people died.
Erdogan seems determined to avoid making the same mistakes, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have big potential pitfalls.
Hours after the tremors first struck, he scrambled to make it clear that he was now taking charge and was visibly angry and frustrated by authorities’ initial efforts to mount a rescue and emergency operation.
Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference at the country’s disaster coordination center in Ankara, he said the country was hit by its worst natural disaster since 1939, when a major earthquake struck the eastern province of Erzincan, flattening or severely damaging more than 100,000 buildings. and killed about 33,000 people.
“Everyone is putting their heart and soul into the effort, although the winter season, cold weather and earthquakes at night make things more difficult,” he told reporters. And on Tuesday, too, Erdogan was in front of the cameras, declaring a three-month state of emergency for the 10 provinces worst hit by the deadly earthquake.
He detailed the rescue and humanitarian efforts to date, saying some 54,000 tents and 102,000 beds have already been sent to the affected areas.
But the recent 1999 Izmit earthquake — rather than the 1939 quake — may be on Erdogan’s mind, said Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Speaking to POLITICO from Hatay, one of the regions devastated by Monday’s earthquake, Toll said the government was lambasted by the press for its poor emergency response in 1999. Similarly, he said, although this earthquake could not have been prevented, the suffering was compounded by the lack of adequate response immediately after the impact.
“Tragedy just got worse — especially for people like me who lost loved ones,” said Toll, who lost two relatives in the quake. “I was there, and there was no rescue team. People themselves were trying to get out their loved ones trapped under the rubble. So for hours, we couldn’t find anyone to help. It was freezing cold, there was no food, no water, and we couldn’t see anyone from the government, we couldn’t see anyone from any state agency, no rescue workers, nothing,” he added.
He said there were echoes of the Izmit earthquake, whose epicenter was 50 miles east of the outskirts of Istanbul. It shook the country’s institutions to their core and reshaped the country’s politics in ways that later helped Erdogan rise to power. In the subsequent parliamentary elections of 2002, Ecevit’s centre-left Democratic Left Party, the Nationalist Action Party and the moderate Motherland Party – the parties that dominated Turkish politics in the 1990s – failed to pass the 10 percent vote threshold needed to secure parliamentary seats. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory.
Historian and former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer said in a 2001 study of Izmit for Middle East Quarterly that Icevit was numbed by the scale of the destruction, “falling into a long period of shock”.
“Instead of immediately jumping into a helicopter to survey the disaster area and then ordering his associates to work, he spent the day telling whoever would listen that everything was under control and there was no need to worry,” Kinzer added. “Army commanders who were expected to deploy thousands of troops to the affected areas were also sitting on their hands. It quickly became clear that even though Turkey sits on some of the world’s most dangerous geological faults and is rocked by earthquakes every few years, its government has no plan to deal with them, no disaster-relief agency, no civil-defense network, or even not An officer is designated to take charge at the moment,” he added.
To add insult to injury, the government’s earthquake relief fund was empty, with a Turkish lira equivalent of just €4.45.
“Government officials stumble aimlessly, unable to comprehend the scale of the disaster. Prime Minister Icevit later sought to excuse the government’s slow response by saying that the roads were too clogged to allow rescue teams to reach the devastated city,” Kinzer wrote. Ministers blamed the media, accusing journalists of distorting facts and insulting the government.
Erdogan now appears to be learning from that slow response. Unusually, Erdogan wants to be filmed at the center of a disaster.
“You know how much he loves the camera, but whenever there’s a disaster in the country, he disappears,” Toll said. “He usually lets his ministers and those around him handle the issue. So if something goes wrong, he can blame it on them,” he added. This time, however, Erdogan intervened more publicly than usual and appealed for international help.
But analysts say it remains to be seen whether he can escape the political fallout.
According to Borju Daragahi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, “a building collapsing in a known earthquake zone is a tragedy.” “If there are dozens of collapses across several major cities, that indicates a preventable tragedy. Turkey has pledged to implement changes to its building practices after a devastating 1999 earthquake killed 17,000 people. It introduced new building regulations and made compulsory earthquake insurance for all buildings. Architects and urban planners have been warning for years that the rules are not being followed strictly enough,” he added.
Many earthquake-ravaged areas, such as Gaziantep, Hatay and Sanliurfa, have seen a construction boom in the past two decades spurred by Erdogan, and an electoral victory he won. The massive construction project involved companies with strong ties to Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. If new buildings and apartment blocks prove to be disproportionately more vulnerable than older buildings, Erdogan’s team can be blamed.
And Erdogan has another challenge politically: moving quickly with temporary housing arrangements for survivors and the injured.
On that score, he may regret cracking down on NGOs and forcing the closure of many civil society organizations, Toll said. “At least in 1999 there were many civil society organizations working with state institutions there. Not this time because he has basically wiped out all civil society groups except those promoting his agenda,” he added.