Debris and destruction everywhere following the devastating earthquake in Turkey on 6 February 2023, such as here in Antakya. Large portions of the city were ravaged by the earthquake. © Kyodo News/Action Press/

scilog regularly invites researchers receiving FWF funding to comment on current events. On 14 May early general and presidential elections will be taking place in Turkey, with 64 million people eligible to vote. For the first time in a while, it is shaping up to be a close race between the AKP, the party in power for the last 20 years, and the opposition. Turkey’s sluggish response to the earthquake’s aftermath and accusations of corruption have stepped up pressure on the government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

When two devastating earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5 struck south-eastern Turkey on the border to Syria on 6 February 2023, the event was not entirely unexpected. The country is located in a region where several tectonic plates collide and move opposite to each other. Seismologists had also issued warnings which, went unheeded by politicians. According to official figures, the quakes have claimed more than 50,000 victims. Entire cities, such as the worst-hit city of Antakya previously with a population of 400,000, were levelled to the ground. But how could such a disaster take on such unimaginable proportions, even though the dangers were well-known, and the region had already been hit by severe earthquakes in the past?

The parapolitics of commission and omission

The answer can be found by looking at what the Turkish government has done, or rather has failed to do, in recent years. Turkey’s presidential system, introduced by President Erdogan in 2018, has increasingly become an authoritarian and opaque regime. In this way, the government not only shields itself from public scrutiny, but also eliminates the need to take responsible and comprehensible action. Calls for accountability and transparency are rejected or denounced as conspiracy. How this understanding of the exercise of state power contributed to the country’s greatest disaster to date was demonstrated by the very sluggish crisis management efforts that took place after the earthquakes.

Institutional failures

First, the response revealed a fatal lack of professionalism and coordination among government agencies leading to significant delays in the rescue efforts. For example, the army’s search and rescue service was not deployed until long after the earthquake hit. The chief reason for the hold-up was that the state disaster management agency AFAD did not call on the Turkish Air Force until 36 hours after the earthquake happened, which in turn took at least as much time to tangibly deliver aid on the ground, as was reported by the conservative newspaper Milligazete, among other outlets. Consequently, the most valuable and crucial first hours, literally the most life-and-death period for the victims, were wasted.

Additionally, partisan and nepotistic appointments and patronage impede institutions from functioning properly and corrupt their work. As a result, for example, aid organised by local NGOs and the opposition was, in many places, either prevented from getting through to the victims or had to be first marked with the logos of the AFAD and the ruling AKP party before being forwarded to the disaster sites. All of this led to significant delays in meeting basic needs.

Thirdly, there was a lack of necessary materials such as tents, rescue equipment and medicines everywhere. For example, even weeks after the earthquake, people still were still out on the streets in the freezing cold. Even more shameful, however, is the fact that in some places victims reported having been asked to pay around 10,000 Turkish liras (495 euros) per hour for excavators, reports that were quoted in Turkish media. The owners of the machines, which had been made available to the AFAD, were demanding payment for the use of their equipment, even when many no longer had any money. Consequently, numerous family members were forced to stand idly by as their relatives and acquaintances called for help, trapped under the rubble. The Turkish Red Crescent also engaged in these grotesque practices. The aid organisation had no qualms about taking money from those in need in exchange for tents and canned food. Some 2,050 tents worth around 2.3 million euros were sold to the aid organisation AHBAP alone, which has done exemplary work. This practice was stopped only after a wave of public outrage.

Illegal construction and politically motivated building amnesty

According to official figures, more than 200,000 buildings collapsed as a result of the quakes, of which, according to Turkey’s Chamber of Architects, around 50 percent were built after 2001, in other words after the 1999 earthquake on the Marmara Sea. In the ancient city of Antakya, one in four buildings was completely destroyed. Why did so many buildings collapse?

“An 8 June 2018 decree that legalised millions of illicitly built structures may have had a particularly devastating effect.” Naif Bezwan

The severity of this once-in-a-century earthquake was one factor, but other reasons were also part of the equation, such as shoddy construction, poor building quality, corruption and non-compliance with regulations. This was true despite the fact that a building law passed in 2004 stipulates that all buildings must meet contemporary earthquake-resistant standards. An 8 June 2018 decree that legalised millions of illicitly built structures, including 294,000 in the disaster zone, may have had a particularly devastating effect. The decree was issued about three weeks before the presidential and parliamentary elections, which the current presidential party won by a slim majority. The intertwining of private, political and bureaucratic interests ultimately resulted not only in the failure to implement regulations, but much more so in incentives not to implement them.

Misappropriation of earthquake tax revenue

In response to the devastating Marmara earthquake in 1999, the government introduced an “earthquake tax” to step up the country’s earthquake preparedness, provide the necessary infrastructure and construct earthquake-resistant buildings. According to estimates, this tax generated about 36 billion US dollars in revenue. But to date, public authorities have been unable to convincingly demonstrate exactly where and for what purposes these funds have been earmarked. “We don’t have time to provide an accounting for such matters,” President Erdogan has responded when frequently asked about the whereabouts of the funds.

A political economy rooted in corruption and nepotism

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index puts Turkey among the countries in the world where corruption has risen significantly over the past decade. A significant portion of the corruption takes place precisely in the construction sector. Two examples illustrate this state of affairs: In the extremely hard-hit city of Adiyaman, where thousands of buildings were levelled, an EU-funded glass-clad building housing a cultural centre remained completely unscathed. In fact, not one single windowpane was broken, while the city hall building next door collapsed entirely. The second example is the district town of Erzin, which has a population of 42,000. Although the town is not far from Hatay, which was also destroyed by the earthquake, not a single building collapsed in Erzin, and no one was killed or injured. In both cases, proper and responsible construction methods, in other words stable subsoil, low building height and prevention of illegal construction, have been identified as reasons for this positive outcome.

Elections will decide Turkey’s future

By their very nature earthquakes cannot be prevented, but their destructive power can be reduced to a tolerable level by enacting a set of preventive measures and robust disaster management. This simple yet vital fact is one of the fundamental findings of earthquake research and matches the real-life experience of countries that are regularly hit by tremors at regular intervals.

“What is at stake in these elections is no more than a fundamental decision as to the country’s future.” Naif Bezwan

The government ignored this basic insight and systematically suppressed and disregarded urgent warnings from scientists, the opposition and even some state agencies, thereby magnifying the earthquake’s destructiveness. The result is a two-fold disaster: the unavoidable natural disaster caused by the earthquake’s magnitude and intensity, and the avoidable political disaster caused by the government’s action and inaction.

Uniting democratic movements is key

This policy will now be put to a vote on 14 May 2023. However, like the elections that brought the current presidential regime to power in 2018, these elections will take place against the backdrop of a state of emergency, the exploitation of all public resources, and massive government repression of the opposition. What is at stake in these elections, as everyone agrees, is no more than a fundamental decision as to the country’s future. Three basic options are emerging. Erdogan’s governing coalition represents the authoritarian consolidation of the current presidential regime and therefore the continued side-lining of the opposition, the militarisation of foreign policy and the final undoing of democracy, thereby intensifying the current state, social and economic crisis.

The second option, represented by an alliance of six parties of left-wing nationalist, democratic-oriented and conservative parties, can be described as restorative normalisation. This alliance, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party, advocates the restoration of the parliamentary system of government-with an emphasis on the rule of law, democratic standards and improving living conditions through gradual reform. The Alliance for Labour and Freedom, which consists of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and left-wing socialist forces, advocates a democratic and decentralised transformation of the authoritarian presidential system and far-reaching reforms in social, domestic and foreign policy.

Successful cooperation between the six-party alliance and the pro-Kurdish alliance will be the decisive factor in putting the country back on track. Putting pluralism and democracy front and centre would not only be in Turkey’s own best interests, but it could also open a new chapter in its turbulent relations with the EU and the West as a whole.

Naif Bezwan is a project head at the University of Vienna’s Department of Constitutional and Administrative Law. His academic writing addresses Turkish domestic and foreign policy, modern Turkish history and the Kurdish question in the Middle East. In conjunction with a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF (2022–2026) he has been researching the issues of Kurdish self-determination and conflict resolution. Naif Bezwan has worked, taught and conducted research in Germany, England, Turkey and Austria and has published papers in the above-mentioned areas in German, English, Turkish and Kurdish.

He belongs to the international group “Academics for Peace” which on 11 January 2016 published a critical petition opposing the increasing militarisation of government policy on the Kurdish question. After signing and publishing an expert interview on the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria on 24 August 2016, Bezwan was first suspended from his university position on 25 August – the interview being cited as the sole grounds for the decision – and then dismissed from public service on 29 September 2016.