The wreckage of a collapsed building in Diyarbakır, Turkey. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Online Exclusive 03/14/2023 Essay

The Ethics of “Doing Politics” in the Aftermath of a Tragedy: Reflections on the Turkish Earthquake

On February 6, two earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude, respectively, shook Turkey and Syria. By February 23, the death toll had reached a staggering 42,000 in Turkey and 5,800 in Syria. Over 6,444 buildings had collapsed in Turkey alone, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. Many people have been vocal in their criticism of the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), the military, and urban planning, for not being prepared for the earthquakes, which are not uncommon in the region. The Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdağ, was met with boos in Diyarbakır, one of the cities affected by the earthquake. The survivors who have voiced their concerns about the government's inadequate response and delay in providing material aid have been silenced by the pro-government media, owned by the oligarchs in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The media, for its part, functions as an apparatus of the government and has so far praised the government's efforts. Such attempts at censorship have in some cases led to TV reporters being assaulted by local people. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has bypassed the government and has been sending resources from their municipalities, while challenging the government by taunting “come arrest us.”

State agents and President Erdoğan’s supporters say that this is no time for politics. State agents, their supporters, and even the nationalist and statist opposition parties place the earthquake on a supra-political level and frame the issue in moral terms, arguing that the tragedy calls for unity and solidarity, and that it is unethical to politicize the earthquake. Some pro-government media outlets have even gone so far as to claim that those who politicize the disaster deserve to be spat upon. Considering the tense political atmosphere in Turkey, it is worth examining whether it is ethical to politicize the earthquake. This essay argues that the circumstances in the lead up to the earthquake were already inherently political, and that the government is using calls for depoliticization to deflect criticism while politicizing the aftermath of the earthquake themselves.

The Earthquake Was Already Political

Turkey's geographical location on major fault lines renders it susceptible to devastating earthquakes, with quakes above 5.5 magnitude striking the region almost annually. While the 2011 earthquake in the Van province resulted in the loss of 644 lives and 17,005 damaged buildings, the Gölcük earthquake of 1999 remains vivid in the public memory. This disaster, which claimed 17,480 lives and resulted in the destruction of 73,342 buildings, showed that state institutions were unable to respond adequately to such catastrophes.1 In the aftermath of the tragedy, Yeni Şafak, an Islamist newspaper now known for its pro-government stance, ran a headline proclaiming, "The Collapse of the State." Criticizing the coalition government's call for unity and solidarity, Ömer Çelik, the current spokesperson of the AKP and a journalist at the time, urged the public to speak out against the government's negligence and ineffectiveness.2

Following the Gölcük earthquake, an earthquake tax was introduced to alleviate the economic damages incurred. Decades later, it is still in effect. Since 2000, the tax has generated approximately 88 billion Turkish lira (equivalent to 4.7 billion USD, accounting for currency fluctuations). When the government solicited donations after the 2011 Van earthquake, the opposition and the public began questioning how the earthquake tax revenue was being used. Then Minister of Treasury and Finance, Mehmet Şimşek, denied allegations of corruption, asserting that the tax funds were utilized for the construction of highways, railroads, and education and health initiatives. However, in 2021, when questioned about the same issue, the former Minister of Treasury and Finance, Lütfi Elvan, ambiguously stated that the funds "could have been spent for any cost.”.

Therefore, although massive earthquakes are expected in Turkey, the government historically has not been financially prepared. However, the politics of the earthquake goes beyond mere financial unpreparedness. The construction industry in Turkey is deeply corrupt, which while well-known to the domestic audience is now being exposed internationally. Evidence is mounting that a network of individuals, ranging from mayors to contractors, turned a blind eye to earthquake regulations for the sake of a higher profit, illustrating the political nature of this catastrophe.3 Not only that the government was financially unprepared, they intentionally prioritized profit over public safety.

The Turkish government also has at times allowed for shoddy construction. In 2007, the government approved the construction of an airport in Hatay, in southwest Turkey, despite warnings from the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects that the site was too close to a fault line, and the foundation was unstable. Following the recent earthquake, significant cracks appeared on the airport's landing field, and Hatay became inaccessible for over two days due to damages at the airport and on the highway. The political economy of the earthquake should not be reduced to corruption, either. Turkey’s history of rapid neo-liberalization since the 1980s and the development model that was encouraged by international actors play a constitutive role in the conditions that made today’s picture possible.4

While earthquakes are, of course, natural disasters, the extent of their devastation can be mitigated through proper preparation. Even if we assume that the government's claims of financial transparency are true, the prioritization of economic gains over public safety warrants scrutiny. Moreover, the intentional disregard for construction regulations is a deliberate political choice, with a multitude of actors responsible, including the government itself.

Politicizing the Earthquake

The government's attention has been focused on managing information and communication from the very outset of the earthquake. On February 7, when Hatay was rendered inaccessible due to the collapse of its highway and airport, the government's initial response was to launch an application to report disinformation, while tens of thousands of people were displaced or trapped in debris. This app, launched by the Ministry of Communication, allows any citizen to flag news or social media content that they deem suspicious or untrue for the ministry’s attention.

The pro-government media initially attempted to downplay the disaster’s severity. Certain state representatives, including the Minister of Treasury and Finance, Nureddin Nebati, supported this discourse and proclaimed that “everything is under control; the main problem is fake news.” However, as the inadequacy of the rescue efforts and emergency aid provided to survivors became increasingly apparent, the narrative shifted, highlighting instead the enormity of the earthquake. A new storyline emerged asserting that the scale is so colossal that no government in the world could handle it. Erdoğan, for instance, stated in his public address that "while there may be some shortcomings, the circumstances are self-evident. It is inconceivable for anyone to be prepared for such an immense earthquake." Erdoğan delivered his first speech twenty-five hours after the earthquake, looking furious, and warned the public that he is keeping a close eye on those who spread lies and disinformation. He added, "now is not the time to engage in a polemic with them; when the time comes, we will reveal the notebook where we've kept a record of all these lies and distortions of truth."

The government's gaze seems to be fixed upon maintaining its public image before the elections slated for May 14. President Erdoğan and Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu, have repeatedly stressed the immense scale of the earthquake and emphasize the government's efforts. Simultaneously, they accuse the opposition of manipulating information for political gain. The pro-government media has played a vital role here by showcasing the presence of heavy machinery, rescue teams, and security forces at the affected sites while censoring dissident voices on live television. However, these efforts seem to have backfired, somewhat. For instance, one television station’s live broadcast was abruptly terminated after a survivor lamented he had not received assistance for more than fifty hours. A TV reporter also abruptly left a survivor mid-sentence when she disclosed that her parents were still trapped under the rubble, and no help had come for days. While people expressed their anger against the pro-government media on the social media in western Turkey, some people physically assaulted TV reporters to kick them out of the areas hit by the earthquake.

On the other hand, the aid and services provided by various opposition parties have been targeted. Certain media outlets have contested the claims from CHP, the main opposition party, they are rehabilitating the Hatay airport, by asserting that CHP municipalities only engage in debris clearance, all while politicizing a calamity by exaggerating their efforts and portraying the government as a failure. The earthquakes have also shown the ugly side of Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds, a marginalized and targeted population in Turkey. For instance, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency confiscated three trucks loaded with coal and wood sent by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an alliance of the Kurds and socialists. Similarly, an aid truck dispatched by the Chamber of Commerce of Hakkari, a predominantly Kurdish city, was stopped before it could exit the city so that the Governor's Office banner could be attached to it. The government’s efforts of politicizing the disaster are evident but are they the only actor?

While Erdoğan and his government share the biggest responsibility, the opposition should not be free from criticism. For example, even though deputies from the opposition parties like Barış Yarkadaş are very vocal in criticizing the government regarding emergency management, they are among the representatives who voted in favor of the controversial zoning amnesty bill, which provided a pardon for the constructions that did not follow the regulations. Furthermore, international banks and organizations provided loans for Turkey’s booming construction business while celebrating Turkey’s economic growth. Demonstrating how the government and opposition parties engage in politics in the context of the earthquake is not enough. A normative question still remains unanswered: is it ethical to engage in politics in such a time?

The Politicking of Depoliticization

Embedded within the minds of Turkish citizens since the 1999 earthquake is the resounding motto, "Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do!" Poorly constructed buildings are the result of poor politics. Prioritizing the management of information and the image of the state over emergency response is a political decision. When people are unable to receive the help they need due to political reasons, it is certainly the "time to do politics." When tens of thousands of people died preventable deaths due to political reasons, it is the time to do politics. When the emperor wears the discourse of depoliticization as an armor to deflect criticism while wielding the sword of politicization to damage his “enemies,” it is our ethical responsibility to strip the emperor naked and yell “the emperor has no clothes.” To identify everyone who is responsible for this great tragedy and hold them responsible, we need to do politics now. The victims of the earthquake still need support and to ensure that this support is consistently and accurately provided, and that the donations are used appropriately, now is the time to engage in politics.

—C. Erdost Akin

C. Erdost Akin holds a PhD in Political Science from Central European University (CEU). His expertise lies in the politics of the human body, politics of security, and political violence.