February 28, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Erdogan faces growing backlash over earthquake mismanagement

February 28, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Erdogan faces growing backlash over earthquake mismanagement

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the earthquakes that struck Turkey in early February as the “disaster of the century.” The earthquake certainly wreaked havoc, making an estimated 1.25 million people homeless — not to mention the tens of thousands who died beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings.

The government has rightly come under fierce criticism for coordinating a visibly inadequate relief effort. In the initial hours after two powerful earthquakes hit the country, Ankara delayed mobilizing the military’s vast resources. It could have been deployed early and saved lives. Why the delay?

Another issue: For weeks now, the state’s premier civilian disaster management agency, AFAD, has been unacceptably slow in deploying search and rescue teams, shelter, and provisions to affected citizens. Exasperation has set in. Turks are asking why the state is seemingly so powerless to mount a strong institutional response.

The central problem: Institutions have been hollowed out in Erdogan’s Turkey. AFAD was created in 2009 by Erdogan’s AK Party and is staffed not by qualified disaster management experts but by party loyalists with educational backgrounds in religious jurisprudence. Moreover, the military’s disaster management contingencies and prerogatives were also removed at about the same time that AFAD was established.

Citizens are understandably angry and blame Erdogan and his party, which has ruled Turkey since 2002. They rightly question the lack of earthquake mitigation strategies such as the enforcement of strict building codes, zoning, and the use of allocated monies set aside for earthquake prevention. These lines of questioning do not elicit meaningful answers from Ankara, while seismologists keep reiterating a line that they have been saying since the last earthquake which struck Turkey in 1999: “Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings do.”

On top of this glaring incompetence comes unashamed greed and corruption.

Turkey’s Red Crescent, equivalent to the Red Cross, which stockpiles emergency shelters, among other provisions, confirmed that it actually sold them “at cost” to nongovernmental organizations instead of handing them out on the basis of need. The Turkish Red Crescent is a tax-funded government organization that should not be conducting business transactions. Similarly, a barrage of public banks in Turkey, notably Turkey’s Central Bank, declared that they were “donating” billions of liras to relief funds. The Central Bank is the repository of the state’s public funds and cannot donate to any cause in the way that private citizens and corporations can individually choose.

Erdogan has asked for one year to provide new homes to all those who lost theirs in the quakes. To that end, Turkey’s public housing agency TOKI, directed by the president, issued public tenders totaling 6 billion lira, or $317 million, to build new homes in five earthquake-affected provinces. Unlike a transparent public tender process, the government “invited” a number of companies to issue bids. There is little transparency in why these companies were asked to submit bids other than their proximity to Erdogan and the AK Party. They have all been awarded lucrative public constructive projects throughout the AK Party’s time in power. Is there any good reason why citizens should trust the president and the AK Party to rebuild their cities and their lives?

All these developments suggest that Erdogan is uniquely focused on deflecting blame. He is facing an election challenge, likely to take place sometime before June 18, and is keen to demonstrate to voters that the government is hard at work to rebuild their homes. Simultaneously, the government appears to be getting ready to mount a strong crackdown on dissent that highlights its corrupt mismanagement of disaster relief. A soccer match between two major rival clubs in Istanbul saw an awesome display of public anger, with fans chanting slogans calling for the government to resign. This public defiance resulted in calls by some public figures to hold future games without fans present.

This shows that Erdogan is afraid to face the electorate. He has good reason to fear them.

Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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