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The Earthquake Will Change Turkey’s Future — And Could Tip Its Election

A reflection of what the Feb. 6 earthquake exposes deep problems in Turkish public life over the past two decades, and what we can expect in the coming months and years.

Photo of a man between destroyed buildings after Turkey earthquake

Thousands of buildings have been destroyed during the earthquake.

Ali Yaycıoğlu

ISTANBUL — We are in great agony. The southern provinces of Turkey have suffered incalculable devastation with two major earthquakes in the Province of Kahramanmaraş.

Thousands of our siblings, children and grandparents, from Adana to Diyarbakır, Malatya to Hatay, met their final fate under wrecked buildings, awaiting to be dug out from the rubble and be buried with love and respect.

Our people outside of the destroyed buildings spent the past days trying to reach their loved ones by their own means among massive bulks of concrete and iron. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens are now homeless. It’s cold. There are no tents, no food, no water.

Incapacity of the state

It took more than 48 hours for the professional rescue teams who operate under the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) to reach most of the residential areas, neighborhoods, towns and villages. The official number for the wrecked buildings is over 6,500 (You guess the actual number). AFAD, founded in 2009, has 7,500 personnel in total, but many of them are administrative personnel rather than field teams.

Even if we take the official numbers seriously, the number of personnel AFAD can spare for each building is less than one. On the other hand, it is understood that the logistics capacity of AFAD is completely insufficient. Yes, this is a horrible disaster that spread to a very wide area. The difficulty of the authorities’ task is obvious. However, we know that Turkey expects another earthquake of this magnitude on the Northern Anatolia fault line. What can be the state’s excuse for a logistic incapability at this level knowing the likelihood of a disaster?

How can these beautiful provinces be rehabilitated and rebuilt?

The metropolitan city municipalities and civil society organizations which rush to join the search and rescue efforts need to have permission from AFAD and are required to operate under their coordination. This may be right on paper but the impression on the field is that the AFAD is making life harder for other institutions and groups that want to join the search and rescue efforts instead of the opposite.

Let's say that AFAD is the most blatant example of the insufficiency of the capacity of the state. Turkey's administrative and political authority has focused their capacity on “domestic security” in recent years, leaving it exposed to the very real risk of earthquakes (or floods, or wildfires).

Where's the military?

Unlike the 1999 earthquake, the Turkish Armed Forces have not been activated in the search and rescue efforts yet. The related statement of the Ministry of Defense said only 3500 soldiers were transferred to the areas that were affected by the earthquake. Is the reason for the lack of a strong military presence the risk of a coup, as some say? Or, is it about which priorities will be pursued in the rescue process and being sure the government has full control over which messages are to be sent to the society? Aren’t both options horrifying?

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule has been a time during which the government focused on building new residents and improving the transportation and communication infrastructure. This earthquake was a serious exam for both. The condition of the newly constructed double highways is self explanatory. Hospitals, municipal buildings and even AFAD centers have turned to rubble.

It is hard to say how Turkey will get back on its feet after this disaster. The citizens in the area will experience unimaginable financial and psychological devastation. How can this wide area, in which 12 million Turkish citizens and refugees live, recover? Four decades’ worth of domestic conflict that has affected the current earthquake area was followed by the Syrian civil war and intense migration. This area has been in deeper economic troubles than the rest of Turkey for a while. How can these beautiful provinces, home to the most diverse demography of Turkey, be rehabilitated and rebuilt?

Hospitals, municipal buildings and even AFAD centers have turned to rubble.


Upcoming important elections

This great disaster will affect not only the the area that was struck by the earthquakes but the whole of Turkey. The government was trying to postpone the economic crisis until after the elections. Now, the economic crisis may transform into a tsunami before the elections this spring.

The elections had already promised to be charged with unpredictability — now it's even harder to predict the short, middle and long term consequences of the earthquake on the nation's politics.

We know that natural disasters, just like epidemics, have comprehensive political, social and financial consequences. There are times they have radically altered history. The 1985 earthquake of Mexico, the 1999 earthquake of Turkey, and the 1995 Kobe and 2011 Tohoku earthquakes in Japan all had such consequences. Political power changed hands, social dynamics transformed, institutional leaps were made.

States that learned their lessons from a great natural event move towards reconstruction, and a better future. Those who did not set up for even bigger disasters ahead.

Entering a new century 

Modern Turkey recently turned 100. Our country should solve its old problems in the century to come, replacing the authoritarian and irrational government of the last two decades with a new political structure that develops the republic and democracy at the same time.

The earthquake is a great warning and a wake-up call.

The earthquake of February 6 is a great warning and a wake-up call for Turkey. Nature is calling us to rebuild and reorganize our country’s institutions, infrastructure and cities in rational ways to serve the public good. We will lose tens of thousands of our citizens to this earthquake. We will mourn them. We will work as a society in solidarity to dress the wounds of those who have lost their loved ones; we will embrace them.

But at the same time, we must commit to working on transforming our country into a place in which the people live equally, freely, happy and in peace. This is our obligation to our children, but also to those dear souls who lost their lives this week.

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