Why the earthquake should be the end of Erdogan

by Sarav Desai (’24) | March 10, 2023

Art by Kiana Allard (’24)

On February 5th, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Southern Turkey and Northern Syria; it was followed by two massive aftershocks, bringing further destruction to the area. As of late February, the death toll passed 50,000. The considerable amount of rubble to be searched and bodies to be discovered means it is certainly possible that the official toll will increase substantially in the coming weeks. With thousands dead, millions displaced, and the nation’s emergency workers overwhelmed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response has been lackluster.

This is not the first time Turkey has faced an earthquake of this magnitude, as the country sits on two major fault lines. Almost 17,000 people died in the 1999 earthquake near Istanbul, the country’s largest city. In fact, the prior administration’s slow response to the quake was a major factor in Erdogan’s election. The new administration promised to rebuild the country and ensure that a disaster of this caliber would never occur again. His presidency “enforced” stricter building codes and enacted an “earthquake” tax in order to prepare the country against future earthquakes. However, recent minor earthquakes had already raised red flags about the readiness of the country in the face of future disasters; buildings that were supposed to be built under strict earthquake-resistant codes unexpectedly collapsed. 

The absolute failure of the country’s defense against the quake highlights the underlying issues of Erdogan’s regime. The money generated by the earthquake tax, collected for almost 24 years, has seemingly disappeared, most likely lost to corruption. Erdogan’s government failed to enforce the stricter building codes in the midst of a construction boom, permitting the creation of buildings that were destined to crumble in the face of a disaster. Turkish experts, often critical of the regime, have been quick to point out how Erdogan’s weakening of the government—appointing officials based on loyalty rather than merit, dismantling key programs, and curbing the armed forces—has all played a major role in the weak, delayed and disorganized response to the earthquake.

Erdogan and his party have tried to deflect the blame for the destruction, citing the unpredictability of earthquakes and characterizing the criticism received as dishonorable and immoral. One of his first actions in the aftermath of the earthquake was to temporarily block Twitter in the country, despite its use for communication amongst victims, because many citizens were criticizing the government. While citizens and local governments were scrambling to save as many lives as possible, he refused to deploy the army to help in the response and he himself was nowhere to be seen. Erdogan’s corrupt and authoritarian tendencies exacerbated this crisis, and his reign should end with it. He has ruled the country for almost 20 years, leaving behind hyperinflation, a death toll in the thousands, and a democracy on the brink of collapse.

Categories: Opinions

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