After Turkey's earthquake, voters put their trust in Erdogan to rebuild

Despite deficiencies in the initial response to last year's disaster, the president won another term. Now, earthquake preparedness looms again as a campaign issue

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the centre of Kahramanmaras city, days after it was ruined in last year's earthquake. AP
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I heard the most harrowing anecdote about Turkey’s worst-ever natural disaster a couple of weeks after it happened.

“It got to the point where we would walk the devastated streets in silence, not daring to dislodge rubble or utter a sound. We didn’t want the people trapped underneath to hear a sound, because if they did, they would call out to us. There simply wasn’t anything we could do to help them.”

The words belonged not to a survivor, but a journalist sent to cover the aftermath.

Thousands of people – we will never know precisely how many – survived the initial tremor when it struck shortly after four o’clock in the morning. We know this because of the phone calls, WhatsApp messages and shrieks that came from those trapped beneath the wreckage of what used to be their bedrooms.

Indeed, one of those who was reported to have called for help was a member of parliament for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Yakup Tas. He and his family perished at home in the town of Adiyaman.

It was the result of two tremors, the largest of which measured 7.8 – a magnitude never before recorded in Turkey. The two quakes struck within nine hours of each other.

That helps to explain why the scale of devastation was so vast. More than 50,000 people died. Over 100,000 were injured. Many more who survived suddenly had no place to live, because three quarters of a million of homes either collapsed or were damaged beyond repair, according to the government department overseeing the rebuilding effort.

Perhaps no country could have been fully prepared for a natural disaster like this one, but there is consensus across Turkey that the initial response was not quick enough. Just one of the unbearable tragedies from those colossal earthquakes in February last year is that the help did not come quickly enough.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said as much himself five days after the earthquake when he told reporters on a visit to the disaster zone: “Our interventions have not reached the speed we want.”

It was true. Additional heavy machinery capable of lifting rubble took days to reach the area. There was a shortage of basic supplies like food, water and fuel, and often the aid and volunteers that did arrive would be sent to places where the need was not necessarily the most urgent.

The events in the south-east have served to focus political minds in the opposite, most populous end of the country: Istanbul

Then there was the poor co-ordination. There were times when government agencies, charities and private individuals appeared to compete with each other in the rescue effort. It meant there were locations that received a glut of attention, while other areas – like those devastated streets toured by the journalists – echoed with voices calling for help that would never come.

A year has passed, and the tours of the earthquake disaster zone have resumed. This time, ministers are in triumphant mood: on Saturday, keys to the first reconstructed homes were handed over to earthquake victims – whose names were drawn out of a hat – in Turkey’s southernmost city, Antakya.

Inevitably, given the gargantuan task ahead to rebuild, not everyone who lost their home has yet got one back. Many thousands live in temporary accommodation – guest houses, shipping containers and tents are all still in use.

Mr Erdogan’s pre-election promise last year was to build 319,000 homes within 12 months of the disaster. The pledge has only been partially met – 46,000 homes are ready so far, and this week the president said he hoped to quadruple that figure by the end of 2024.

The provinces that make up the disaster zone are a political microcosm of Turkey: Mr Erdogan and the AKP are a dominant force, as they have been for the past two decades, but parties representing the centre left, opposition-minded nationalists, religious conservatives and Kurds were all in with a shout.

Just 12 weeks after the disaster, they were given the opportunity to respond to ineffective relief efforts. Voters chose not to take it. It was a clear sign they saw Mr Erdogan, not his rival – who also promised a rebuilding effort but not on the same timescale – as the best hope they had to rebuild their lives.

Another opportunity is coming at the end of next month when voting takes place for local mayors, assemblies and neighbourhood leaders. There is little sign of a dramatic electoral shift then, either.

Yet the events in the south-east have served to focus political minds in the opposite, most populous end of the country: Istanbul. The sprawling metropolis was last struck by an earthquake of similar magnitude in 1999, when official records say 20,000 people died. Most experts expect another tremor of similar magnitude within three decades of it.

The prophesied Great Istanbul Earthquake would strike a city of about 16 million residents, many of whom live in dangerous housing. Mehmet Ozhaseki, the minister for Environment, Urbanisation and Climate Change, said last year that one tenth of the city’s six million homes were at “great risk” and needed to change immediately. This is also a part of the country that, unlike the south-east, is close to the sea, presenting a grave risk of tsunamis.

That is why the two frontrunners in Istanbul’s mayoral election on March 31 have placed earthquake preparedness at the centre of their campaigns.

The pledges from Mr Erdogan’s candidate, Murat Kurum, closely resemble those of the president: he promises to build hundreds of thousands of new quake-resistant homes in a single five-year term as mayor.

In doing so he hopes to unseat the incumbent Ekrem Imamoglu, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, who says it’s still not clear how vulnerable Istanbul is to an earthquake – because his municipal teams haven’t been able to inspect existing buildings.

He claims the government is obstructing this work; Mr Kurum makes an identical claim about municipal institutions run by Mr Imamoglu. The two men represent either side of the big line that divides everybody in Turkey today: do you support Mr Erdogan, or oppose him?

Ultimately it will be for voters to decide which side’s election promises to believe – and, when Istanbul’s earthquake inevitably strikes, which they will trust to rebuild.

Published: February 06, 2024, 4:00 AM