How Erdoğan Set the Stage for Turkey’s Disastrous Earthquake Response

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The authoritarian President has stuffed his government with corrupt and inexperienced loyalists. Can a kneecapped civil society fill the gap?

Last week, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, killing more than thirty thousand people and destroying numerous towns and cities in both countries. A monumental recovery effort is necessary, but neither country is well positioned to mount one. For more than a decade, Syria has been fighting a brutal civil war brought on by Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule; Turkey, under the Presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been in economic crisis for the past five years, and is increasingly subject to authoritarianism, with crackdowns on journalists and political opponents, and the replacement of key governing figures with Erdoğan’s friends and family. There has been extensive criticism within Turkey over the pace of the recovery effort, which is being overseen by the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (afad)—itself run by someone with little experience in the field. Moreover, Erdoğan has been in power for two decades—first as Prime Minister and now as President—during which he has encouraged a huge surge in construction alongside shockingly lax enforcement of safety standards.
To understand the connections between Erdoğan’s leadership and the tragedy unfolding in Turkey, I recently spoke by phone with Jenny White, a social anthropologist and professor emerita at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. She is the author of many books about politics, religion, and nationalism in Turkey. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Erdoğan’s governing style and policies have hindered the earthquake response, why his approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population has made the crisis especially dire in Kurdish areas, and what the crisis could mean for Turkey’s upcoming election.
How would you characterize the government that President Erdoğan has created during the past twenty years?
Twenty years is a long time, so the government has gone through a number of permutations. Initially, when the A.K.P. [the Justice and Development Party], under Erdoğan, was first elected, it was actually a Party that people from all different walks of life and political views felt they could vote for, because it seemed to be a nice change from the previous Party, which had flubbed the 1999 earthquake. [That year, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake in the northwest part of the country killed more than fifteen thousand people.] That was a major reason the A.K.P. was elected. They elected a Party that they thought was not corrupt, cared about people, and got things done, which, in fact, it did at the beginning.
I went to Istanbul shortly after Erdoğan was elected, or his Party was elected, and I thought, My God, they have green buses—we don’t even have green buses in Boston. He picked up the garbage. He made things work. The city really needed some infrastructure. Under his leadership, the A.K.P. enhanced the subway, which made a huge difference to a lot of people. They built new roads, allowing people to go to their villages in three hours instead of ten. This was a happy period. Lots of other things were going wrong, but at least that seemed to be going right.
Then things started to veer off in quite a different direction. There are people who say, “Well, we knew all along what he was in his heart. He was just hiding it until the time was right.” I think that a better use of one’s time would be to try to explain what happened between 2016 and 2018, when things really flipped in a lot of ways and he became much more autocratic and less responsive.
One word I keep hearing about Erdoğan’s government today and the way it functions is “centralization.” Is that a fair way of thinking about it?
Well, the centralization occurred at an actual point in time: there was a referendum in 2017 in which the entire system of government changed from a parliamentary system to a Presidential system, a hyper-Presidential system as they call it. Beforehand, there was a more dispersed governmental system, with the state having different ministries, the parliament, and then the Presidency, which was a weak Presidency. Overnight, it became a Presidential system where ministries were disabled and new institutions sprung up.
I remember the day after this happened. I felt like those people who had spent their lives studying the Soviet Union, and then, the day after it became Russia, everything they had ever learned was irrelevant because the entire system had changed. I got a map of the new governmental system. It looked like the solar system, with the Presidency in the middle, and then surrounding it, like planets, were these new government offices that were not ministries. Nobody knew who was in charge; people in those new governmental organizations didn’t know what their jobs were.
So, to talk about centralization, you have to picture this map, with Erdoğan in the middle and everything else orbiting around him. The relationship between those planets and the central body around which they orbited was in flux, because it had yet to be defined. It turned out to be defined almost entirely in terms of loyalty. Previous institutions that had some kind of standards, an educational system that primed people for being members of those institutions—some of them were closed. The military academy was closed. The judicial training system was changed.
It’s not just the usual patron-client system. When you think of patrons and clients, it’s like a cascade. There’s someone at the top, but then the person below them has some kind of ability to use that power to help someone else below them. And it goes both ways. You ask a favor, and maybe a member of parliament can do something for you. That has broken down in Turkey completely. We were hearing that people who were in parliament, people who were in government offices, would no longer do things for their constituents because they were afraid that they might be doing the wrong thing. Maybe they were helping someone who would later be called Gülenist, and then they would be in trouble. [The Gülen movement, led by the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, is a religious movement that was once allied with the A.K.P. against Turkey’s secular liberals and military.] Maybe they were making the wrong decision in a court case, and then they would be sent to the backwoods. The whole system was stalemated. It was frozen. No one would help anyone do anything because everything had to come from the body in the middle, from Erdoğan. It didn’t move in both directions anymore. Erdoğan was making decisions about everything.
How have some of these dynamics manifested in the government’s response to the earthquake?
Think of the corruption that developed out of this system: government contracts were given to people who were not necessarily the most competent, but the ones you owed favors to, to allow them some graft. There was just so much graft in the construction industry. The government, which had put out regulations about how buildings should be safely built after the 1999 earthquake, basically kept issuing amnesties. If a new building wasn’t up to code, instead of making them fix it, they would grant amnesty, or there was just a small punishment fee of some kind. These were favors that were given to people in the construction industry who were friends of the A.K.P.—they were saved from having to spend extra money. Many of those buildings collapsed. People are absolutely furious and talking about it in Turkey.
The other thing, of course, is that, when loyalty is the most important thing, lack of expertise makes no difference. You see that in the university system, too: Erdoğan has put his own people in. The guy in charge of the relief operations has no expertise whatsoever. He was only put in place, like, a month earlier. I don’t know. It’s hard to go through all of the different things that went wrong.
Kurdish areas in both Turkey and Syria have been hit really hard by this quake. Earlier in Erdoğan’s tenure, he tried to make himself out to be an ally of Turkish Kurds, or at least not an enemy of them. But it seems that, especially in the last several years, there’s been a huge crackdown on the Turkish Kurd population. Many of their local political leaders have been thrown in jail and replaced with Erdoğan loyalists. How do you understand Erdoğan’s current relationship with the Kurdish community?
Well, the Kurdish community is diverse. There were quite a few Kurds who still voted for A.K.P., because, for example, they were particularly religious. There are also many Kurds who don’t like the P.K.K. and just want peace. [The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) is a militant group that pushes for more rights for the country’s Kurdish minority.] There were a number of reasons to vote for the A.K.P. But the way that this situation affected the relief efforts is that, after the 1999 earthquake, the government didn’t respond properly or quickly. So, civil-society organizations got into gear very quickly and did a lot of the heavy lifting, literally, early on, to organize assistance. This time, there are very few civil organizations left. During the past ten years, the government has closed down hundreds of civil-society organizations, especially in the Kurdish region. I went through a list of the ones that had been closed down, such as the Kurdish Women’s Association, for instance. Just anything with the word “Kurdish” in it was closed down. Many others were closed down, too. Part of this, I think, is a response to the Gezi protests, during which Erdoğan became very suspicious of associations that he feared were organizing against him.
Turkey, in its foreign policy, has tried to use rescue and relief work as part of its larger mission to the world. Why hasn’t it been able to respond effectively to a disaster within its own borders?
There are two big questions. The first is: Why were those organizations not mobilized until something like thirty hours after the earthquake, which is past the period of time where you would be most likely to find people alive? And second: Why was the Army not mobilized? There’s a huge Army base near this area, and only a small proportion of the military, just a few thousand, were mobilized to help. At the moment, there’s also lawlessness. There’s an undercurrent of violence against the Syrian refugees, who have been demonized by the government.
Erdoğan has been known for building a lot—palaces, public infrastructure, or whatever else—and there have been controversies around these projects, and the destruction of old buildings. Can you talk a bit about these dynamics?
Loyalty is repaid with contracts. The construction industry is a big source of money laundering and just moving money around, so the construction contracts were given as payoffs to people who were loyal to him. There was bidding, but he gave the contracts to the people whom he wanted to keep on his side. There’s huge moneymaking involved in this—not just payoffs for loyalty but kickbacks. And I say this with trepidation: go back to Erdoğan’s family. Everybody knows this.
Almost everything that can be sold in Turkey—in terms of land, real estate, buildings taken over from the public realm and privatized—has been. They’re almost running out of places to build. It was just a huge moneymaking business. The destruction of historical buildings is part of this. It’s a mixture of lack of competence, lack of interest in history, and the desire to maximize profit out of every piece of real estate you get your hands on, including real estate appropriated from other people.
I also want to talk about taking over the mayorships. A lot of mayorships were won by the H.D.P., this very progressive Kurdish party, with this leader, a very charismatic man, Selahattin Demirtaş, who is in prison now. Basically, the government went in and accused Kurdish mayors of being members of the P.K.K., arrested them, and put in their own A.K.P. people. Of more than eighty mayorships in the Kurdish area, there are only three left who are still the original elected mayors. The rest are not people who were elected. They’re just stand-ins for the Party that controls the area, which also is a moneymaking thing.
How is this connected to the construction boom, or were you going back to an earlier question?
Well, after someone takes over a municipality, they have access to a lot of the public property. It can be privatized.
There’s a general election scheduled for May. It could be the most vigorous challenge yet to Erdoğan’s rule. What message is he going to try to put forward? What vision for Turkey do you think he is going to try and sell? You’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of his reign.
I’m not sure that there will be an election, quite honestly. You’ve got a state of emergency now. I once tried to work out what the possible election results would be, and one of them was that there would be no election. If he thinks he will lose the election, there will be something else happening.
It’s very hard to say what his vision will be, because he has not given a vision of the post-earthquake scenario. All he’s done is go on television. There’s a video of him giving a talk where he glowers threateningly at the audience, with pictures of government equipment helping people in the background. He’s glowering at the audience. His message is “We know the people who are criticizing the government response, and we are keeping those names in a notebook. When the time comes, we will open that notebook.” That seems to be his initial response.
Finally, he went to the region. Then there was this rather offensive photo of him. They had taken some children who had been through the earthquake—you can see from their faces that they’re completely traumatized—and used them as props, by putting them in front of him as he’s speaking to an audience. So people also reacted to that.
He does not seem to have handled this well. But you mentioned in your first answer that you thought he’d fundamentally changed relatively recently, and that people who say, “Oh, he always wanted to be a dictator,” were being too simplistic. I’m curious how you think he’s changed as a political figure, and how we might be seeing that now.
He changed, I think, as a result of feeling that he was threatened, much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was overthrown. That was around the time of his own transformation. He identified very strongly with that. He thought that the Gezi protests, which were really about an environmental issue initially, were meant to overthrow him. He sees everything in that vein. Then the Gülen movement got too powerful and wealthy, and competition developed.
At some point, the police, probably Gülenist police, tried to arrest members of Erdoğan’s family for corruption. That started this whole cascade of tit for tat, eventually resulting in the Gülen movement being labelled FETÖ, a terrorist movement. Then he started to arrest people. The 2016 coup attempt, which he blames on FETÖ but which probably had different groups involved, came as a gift from heaven, because he could use that as an excuse to crack down on basically everybody he feared: the Gülen movement, the P.K.K. Sometimes people were accused of being in both. The P.K.K. is this kind of Marxist institution and the Gülen movement is religious, so it’s very improbable that you’re a member of both. It doesn’t matter. They’re just labels you use if you want to arrest somebody. There’s a big element of paranoia.
Also, he’s increasingly surrounded himself with these yes-people, who I’m not sure are telling him what’s really going on. There’s a lack of connectedness with the public. He doesn’t appear close to the public very much. He built this big palace, which keeps him a great distance from any kind of crowd. There are lots of strange things, such as when he drove on a bus through an area where people were really suffering economically, and he threw packets of tea, or little bags of tea, from the door of the bus. Some guy came up and begged him for help. He said he can’t feed his family and so on. Erdoğan’s response was “You should go have a cup of tea and calm down.” I interviewed him when he was the mayor of Istanbul, many years ago, and followed him around a bit. He listened to people. He got things done. Then, suddenly, he’s surrounded by people who can’t get things done, who just want to be at the trough.
Is there anything else about the way the Turkish state functions that you’ve been thinking about in the past few days?
The issue of patron-client relationships is very important. In the past, ordinary people would’ve had access to a muhtar, the local head man, with the lowest bureaucratic rank, who can then try to see the mayor, or can try to see the member of parliament who represents them. You could try. You had a number of paths to try to get something done, to try to get something organized, and you had civic organizations that you could call upon. Once that whole system was frozen, people were basically on their own.
But I want to end on a positive note, which is the sense of solidarity that we are seeing. People are giving their wedding rings to the relief effort. They’re giving all their food. They take their shoes off their feet. There is a national outpouring of solidarity, which I think was sorely needed in Turkey. It’s a big relief for people to see that they still have that, because the A.K.P. has polarized society into various groups that then compete with each other. You rile up hatred against one group or another, against the rest, against the refugees, against the Alevi, against the Kurds, or against the godless Kemalists, the godless liberals. Erdoğan has managed to pull that lever of polarization—it was built into Turkish society long ago, but he has mastered the use of that lever. It’s become a little dystopian in recent years. But now you see that there is this possibility of being a Turkish nation that has solidarity with other people, regardless of who they are. I think that’s a really important thing, and it may be the biggest challenge to Erdoğan. ♦
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.


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