Election campaign amidst ruins

Political negligence cost countless lives and plunged millions into homelessness. Now President Erdoğan is politicking at their expense.

By Anita Starosta

The earthquake in the Syrian-Turkish border region lasted an unusually long 90 seconds when it surprised people in their sleep on the morning of 6 February at 4.17 am. Reaching a magnitude of 7.8 in the epicentre in Kahramanmaraş, the tremors radiated 100,000 square kilometres. The UN puts the people affected at 29 million, with more than 4 million of them left homeless overnight; at least 50,000 lost their lives under the rubble, tens of thousands are still missing: a quake of the century, whose scale still cannot be fully grasped. This natural disaster has struck Syria and Turkey at a tense time and as such also has the potential to be politically explosive. Additionally, in both countries, the respective governments’ instrumentalisation of aid has long since been part of the ongoing catastrophe in the region.

The Turkish government has since come heavily under fire for failing to act properly - but President Erdoğan is still insisting on holding the early presidential elections in May. It would not be the first time that an earthquake has decided the outcome of elections in Turkey. After the major earthquake in İzmit and Gölcük near Istanbul in 1999, Erdoğan’s AKP came to power in 2001 after campaigning on the back of the devastating aftermath of the earthquake. In recent months, Erdoğan has been showing off in the foreign policy arena, allowing him to steer attention away from domestic problems. With the second largest NATO army behind him, he has adopted a mediating role in the Ukraine war; by contrast, Turkey continues to block Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO, accusing them of being too lenient towards pro-Kurdish actors.

The ongoing war against the Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains of northern Iraq, the threats of invasion against the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the presumably staged terrorist attack on İstiklal Street in Istanbul, followed by weeks of air strikes on Rojava, or the public rapprochement with the Syrian and Iranian presidents: In terms of foreign policy, Erdoğan was already in the thick of his election campaign. He moved up the elections to mid-May to bypass the constitutional deadline which would have prevented him from being able to run again. Domestically, though, things have not been going well in recent months - high inflation, racist attacks against Syrian refugees and a serious opposition have put Erdoğan under tremendous pressure. The mood of crisis had already translated into polls predicting that Erdoğan and his AKP would lose their absolute majority in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Anti-Kurdish continuity

And then the earth shook. The epicentre of the quake was in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. From Kahramanmaraş to Hatay, it struck a region that is home to many Kurds and Alevi and marked by political violence and disenfranchisement. It was the scene of what is known as the Maraş massacre in 1978, during which 111 Alevi were murdered by Turkish nationalists. Many people who were forced to flee at the time never fully returned, but are still deeply rooted in the region to this day. In recent years, the structural discrimination of Kurds and the repression of civil society initiatives in cities like Diyarbakır located on the edge of the earthquake zone have intensified. Since the fighting between Kurdish youth groups and the Turkish military in 2015/16, arrests of opposition policymakers and curfews have become part and parcel of everyday life. Mayors of the left-wing HDP have been deposed and replaced by administrations imposed by Ankara. More than 4,000 left-wing opposition activists are in Turkish prisons. The medico partners in the region, who we have not been able to speak about publicly for years to ensure their safety, are also subject to this repression.

Demographic reorganisation of the region through resettlement and assimilation has always been a popular tool for the AKP government to disperse the Kurdish population and prevent them from political self-organising. Just days after the earthquake, Kurdish activists were already warning us that Erdoğan would instrumentalise the 200,000 destroyed houses for his population policy. For instance, there are to be twin cities for the affected cities in western Turkey, where the millions of homeless Kurds are supposed to settle in newly built flats. Within a year, every family will have a roof over their head again, Erdoğan promised during an appearance in Maraş. The fact that anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey does not stop even in times of disaster became clear during a football match in Bursa, where the Kurdish club Amedspor from Diyarbakır faced massive hostility, with fans showing pictures referencing death squads that killed hundreds of Kurdish activists in the 1990s. Even the Bursa players participated in physical attacks on the visitors from Amedspor.

The failure of aid

To be re-elected, Erdoğan needs foreign policy successes and anti-Kurdish mobilisations. However, the creation of logistical conditions to vote for over 4 million homeless people seems impossible. 17 per cent of the Turkish population lived in the earthquake zone, including a large AKP electorate in the western part of the affected area. Whether they will be content with Erdoğan’s promises remains to be seen - because the blatant failure of the State Disaster and Management Authority AFAD, whether in prevention, rescue, aid or recovery operations, is hard to ignore; too many have experienced the lack of aid and assistance first-hand.

In the critical first three days that can make the difference between life and death, there were too few or no rescue teams in the affected regions. In many cases, the victims were left to fend for themselves in the bitter cold. Many attempted to rescue loved ones from the rubble with their bare hands, often unsuccessfully. In the absence of government support, self-organised crisis teams and relief centres emerged in many places. They collected and distributed relief supplies and organised convoys to particularly affected villages, also with medico´s support. However, the organisers repeatedly told us how their work was obstructed, how trucks with relief supplies were confiscated or not allowed to pass through. Finally, the civil society centre in Pazarcık, which served as a coordination point for aid throughout the region, was taken over by the police and military and supplies were confiscated.

No lessons learned

Turkey is a country prone to earthquakes and actually has relevant experience with large earthquakes, as in 1999 on the Marmara Sea or in 2011 in Van. The danger of a severe quake in the area now struck had long been known. Studies by the Turkish Disaster and Management Authority AFAD predicted the scenario that has now materialised pretty accurately back in 2020. Effective prevention would have been possible through systematic disaster control and urban planning. But the earthquake tax introduced in 1999 was misappropriated and distributed to construction companies close to the government for road and bridge construction under the AKP, which has been in power since 2002, but not for necessary precautions in earthquake zones. The same holds true for Istanbul. Tens of thousands of people here now want to have their houses checked for earthquake stability in order to avoid a similar fate to that of the south-east of the country.

The neoliberal construction policy in Turkey - building a lot, fast and cheap - is also a key reason for the large number of buildings that collapsed. Many of the collapsed houses had serious flaws - from the building material to the substrate to the statics. Many of the buildings were not subject to final inspection and approval. It is true that building contractors are now being held accountable. But this falls short in the view of the Turkish Chamber of Architects and ignores the state’s responsibility. Large-scale legalisation of illegal housing without subjecting it to the necessary inspections was one of Erdoğan’s election promises in 2017.

In spite of this, there will be no independent investigation into the disaster any time soon. A motion to this effect by the HDP in the Turkish parliament has already been denied. It is still completely open whether the state’s failure or Erdoğan’s promises will decide the election in May. Whilst Erdoğan mobilises his supporters with state aid and the promise of rapid reconstruction, the left-wing opposition in the quake-stricken areas is organising support for those who are being disregarded. In a context that instrumentalises aid in such a political way, people are organising themselves and doing what is humanly possible. They cannot replace the dimension of state aid, but by acting beyond ethnicity and religion, they elude the political calculations of despots and embody a different community. How successful they can be also depends on the international support they receive.

Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa

medico has been working with civil society initiatives and networks in south-eastern Turkey for many years. With medico’s support, they are providing emergency shelter, food, clothing and heating supplies. Volunteers are travelling from Diyarbakır to the destroyed villages and provinces, finding out what is most urgently needed where. They are organising communication and essentials for survivors and those who have lost their homes.

Published: 22. March 2023

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