ADIYAMAN, Turkey — Beneath each fresh mound in this rapidly expanding graveyard lies a tragedy. One morning at dawn, Zeki Karababa told me about his.
Karababa’s brother, Hamit; Hamit’s wife, Fatma; and two children, Ahmet, 10, and Evra, 3, had been crushed when their apartment building crumbled in the earthquake.
But that was just the beginning.
“For three days there were no professional rescuers,” Karababa told me. By the time they found his relatives, all four were dead.
“I took the bodies with my bare hands,” he said, weeping. “Nobody came to help us.”
It is a refrain I heard over and over in the week I spent traversing southeastern Turkey last month. The country is struggling to recover from an earthquake whose wrath defies superlatives: 50,000 dead in Turkey and Syria and countless families homeless. The World Bank estimates that the quake caused $34.2 billion in physical damage in Turkey, or roughly 4 percent of the country’s G.D.P.
Turkey’s government, led by the increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has tried to portray the unbearable losses as the inevitable result of a biblical catastrophe that no one could have prepared for. But few people I spoke to were buying that.
“There is nothing natural about this disaster,” Ali Aslan, a volunteer rescue worker in Adiyaman, told me. “The state failed these people. They didn’t have to die like this.”
In all of the death and destruction, nothing has been shaken more thoroughly than the Turkish people’s faith in their government. The quake has undermined Erdogan’s strongman image and exposed the core contradiction of autocratic rule: A government that insists on its own omnipotence and competence will inevitably disappoint when it is nowhere to be seen in the face of disaster. The implicit trade — freedom for safety and security — begins to look like a very bad bargain indeed.
This is not the first time the Turkish people have had to confront this reality. For generations, Turkish citizens had been told that the government — “devlet baba,” or father state — would keep them safe. Few people have gotten more out of this promise than Erdogan. He rose to power in the aftermath of Turkey’s last devastating earthquake, which hit near Istanbul in 1999 and killed more than 17,000 people. Just as they did last month, victims lay under the rubble for days awaiting rescue from a government that showed up too late or not at all.
“I am not saying that the civil defense organization collapsed,” a Turkish lawmaker said at the time. “It did not exist. I saw that there was not the slightest bit of preparation.”
The government response was “a declaration of bankruptcy for the Turkish political and economic system,” a cabinet member declared in a speech. “All ideological arguments were flattened by the earthquake,” he said. “Lying under the ruins is the Turkish political and administrative system.”
The state’s compact with the Turkish people had been broken. The disastrous response was seen by many as a result of the corrupt governance and decadent indifference of the elite, and it led to the eventual defeat of the secular, nationalist establishment that had held power in Ankara since the founding of the Turkish state. Erdogan had been Istanbul’s mayor and was a loud critic of the government at the time. His new political party, the Justice and Development Party, took power, led by pious business owners who said they wanted to improve the lot of the average citizen, not line their own pockets.
But more than 20 years have passed, and now the tables have turned. If it took roughly eight decades for the old elite to wear out their welcome with corruption and overreach, Erdogan and his party have achieved the same ignominy in two.
“In any modern setting, when something bad happens to you, you expect the state to show up,” said Selim Koru, a leading analyst of Turkish affairs. “Somebody is supposed to answer the call. And when that doesn’t happen, people just get very, very upset.”
There are lots of very angry people in Turkey right now. “Lies, lies and more lies, it has been 20 years, resign,” Turkish football fans recently shouted.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Erdogan and his party came to power promising good governance and public safety in the aftermath of the Istanbul quake. His government embarked on a frenzy of building, and construction supercharged the Turkish economy. Per capita G.D.P. nearly tripled between 2003 and its peak in 2013. In just about every city, towers of apartment blocks mushroomed. Cranes dotted the skylines.
But many of those buildings held deadly secrets that only now have spilled out. Idris Bedirhanoglu, a professor of civil engineering at Dicle University in southern Turkey, explained to me how contractors routinely cut corners and the government let them get away with it. They might skimp on cement or substitute smooth river stones for commercially made crushed gravel, making for a weaker aggregate. A builder might put in thinner rebar.
In 2018 Erdogan extended what was known as “zoning amnesty” to buildings that did not meet stringent code requirements. The action was intended as an election year sop to voters who had expanded their homes and businesses illegally, and he touted this in remarks he gave in the city of Kahramanmaras. That city would be one of the hardest hit by this year’s earthquake.
Erdogan’s rise to power after the 1999 Istanbul disaster was paralleled by a surge in civic activity. Many people felt abandoned by a paternalistic government. Turkish intellectuals and activists formed and bolstered their own civil society organizations aimed at helping one another through all manner of difficulties. A lot of the organizing was done by professional associations of architects and engineers and others worried about not just building safety but also the use of public space and the environmental impacts of the building frenzy that accompanied Erdogan’s rise. These groups did not want a new, paternalistic state to take the place of the old one. They wanted greater participation in a truly democratic civic sphere.
In Erdogan’s first decade in power, he was broadly hailed as a champion of openness and democracy. Turkey was seeking European Union membership and burnishing its democratic credentials. Erdogan emphasized freedom of religion, which had been repressed in the old secular regime, and freedom of expression. Most critically, he managed to contain Turkey’s military and all but eliminate its meddling in political life.
But ultimately Erdogan began refashioning the old centralized state as an even more powerful instrument that he alone could wield. Over the past decade, and with increasing speed since a 2016 coup plot was put down, Erdogan has squeezed civil society groups, brought the independent press to heel and prosecuted his political opponents. He has steadily accrued power, culminating in a 2017 referendum that moved Turkey from a parliamentary system to a strong executive system, giving him greater control over the judiciary and legislature.
He centralized disaster relief under a new government agency known as AFAD, and in a decision that calls to mind George W. Bush’s appointment of the head of the International Arabian Horse Association to lead FEMA two years before Hurricane Katrina, Erdogan named a theologian with little experience in disaster relief to head AFAD’s relief efforts, according to local media reports.
Erdogan has joined a growing club of elected autocrats who came to power in truly democratic elections only to slowly insulate themselves from political competition. For such men there is no need to declare oneself the leader for life — it is much better to follow the frog-in-boiling-water approach. Bit by bit, destroy the independence of institutions, civil society, the media. Drain the legislature of its oversight power. Bend the judiciary to your will. Use the law to remove popular competitors from the playing field of politics. Slowly, then all at once, you are the only person who can win an election.
It is happening in India and in Hungary, and many feared that Brazil was headed in this direction, until the last election. The natural end point of this process — unfettered one-man rule despite regular elections — is on display most tragically in Russia, where a madman who answers to no one controls what is reportedly the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. But Civicus, an organization that tracks the health of civil society across the globe, gives Turkey the same rating as Russia: repressed.
In the concentration of this power, however, lie the seeds of destruction. If the president controls all the levers of power, who else can he blame when the response to a disaster goes awry? In a world where we expect more disasters, not fewer, this is an extraordinary vulnerability.
“To build his strongman rule he weakened institutions, and those weak institutions came back to haunt him,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute. “It really undermined his ability to govern and deliver.”
It would be foolish to try to predict with any certainty how the earthquake and its aftermath will affect Erdogan’s political fortunes. The country needs rebuilding, and Erdogan is nothing if not a committed builder. Dueling polls disagree about whether his popularity has dipped since the quake.
Erdogan also has lots of friends on the global stage. His handling of the cataclysm on his doorstep in Syria, which could easily have undone a less savvy leader, has raised Turkey’s stature, making him ever more indispensable in a new, multipolar world. Turkey is a NATO member that nevertheless has warming ties with Russia, making it a crucial and sometimes frustrating player in the Ukraine crisis.
But as Erdogan well knows, disaster changes the trajectory of history in sudden and unexpected ways. The country is in the midst of an economic crisis, in part driven by Erdogan’s highly unorthodox policy of keeping interest rates low despite inflation soaring at one point beyond 85 percent. A poll before the earthquake found that more than 70 percent of young Turks want to leave the country, and that percentage is certain to rise. Even before the quake, Erdogan’s poll numbers were slipping.
Meanwhile, the fractured Turkish opposition has become more united. New polling numbers reported this week show a double-digit lead for the opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He has pledged to return the country to its parliamentary system and decentralize power.
Last week, Erdogan indicated that elections will happen on schedule. Right now, Turkey simmers with grief and rage. The last time there was a massive quake, that grief and rage was channeled into the possibility of a new compact between citizen and state in Turkey and a rejection of the centralized, autocratic style of the previous regime. If Erdogan and his party, despite a promising start, have crushed that dream, the elections in May, assuming they are allowed to proceed freely and fairly, could offer another rare chance for the Turkish people to try again.
“I think this is the last exit for Turkish democracy,” Gonul Tol said. “The stakes are really high.”
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