March 6, marks one month since a deadly and devastating earthquake struck ten provinces in Turkey’s southeast. According to the most recent official data, the number of people who died, as a result, has reached 45,968, while over 200,000 buildings have been destroyed or seriously damaged. The actual numbers are projected to be much higher. One opposition politician questioned the credibility of state numbers citing the state’s shady track record of sharing data in crises, such as its failure to share an accurate number of COVID-19 infections at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Anger against the state continues, reaching even the football stadiums. Meanwhile, revelations of corruption continue to rock people’s trust in state institutions and cause further fury. A recent journalist investigation revealed that the Turkish Red Crescent, a state-backed aid wing, opted for selling tents rather than distributing them for free in the aftermath of the earthquake. The arrest of some 230 people, mostly building contractors, has made little difference in public criticism and outcry, not when not a single official has announced their resignation or has taken the blame for what has been termed by the state as the “disaster of the century.” Instead, officials showered critics with accusations and threats. The latter featured prominently in statements by president Erdoğan himself since the first days of the earthquake. In his most recent address in the parliament on March 1, President Erdoğan stuck to the persistent narrative, that the state response was adequate and timely even if he publicly apologized for delays and asked for a blessing, during a visit to one of the earthquake-struck provinces, Adiyaman. A hashtag #helaletmiyorum (I do not bless you) quickly started trending on Twitter.
One man rule
In her recent piece for Foreign Policy, Gonul Tol wrote how President Erdoğan’s one-man rule over the two decades he has been in power, has not only weakened state institutions but also made the state dysfunctional. “Erdoğan, in his 20 years at the helm, has hollowed out the country’s institutions and placed incompetent loyalists in key positions to centralize power in his own hands. This made Erdoğan the strongest man in the country but left the state barely functioning,” wrote Tol.
The erosion of institutions over the years benefited the ruling party the most. Rather than accepting mistakes, a tradition of so-called enemy lists accused of all the ills and crises took shape. These scapegoats were academics, journalists, civil society activists, and politicians who faced blackmail, bogus criminal charges, arrests, and lengthy jail sentences. Bridled under the party’s control, independent media was sidelined and at times silenced, while the legislature, also managed by “incompetent loyalists,” delivered state-designed narratives to consolidate the image of a state and a leader capable of superman features. And yet, as the recent earthquake showed, the only supermen and superwomen were the people at large. The solidarity of the latter, the tireless work of journalists on the ground who refused to be silenced despite the pressure, and the ongoing threats leveled against the critics of the state, illustrated that power and fear won’t always work.
An earthquake cannot be dismissed or labeled as terrorist, or as an outcome of a plot conspired by Western powers. Nor can it be swept under the carpet.
Suddenly the ruling government has been exposed all at once — for corruption, negligence, inadequacy, absence of knowledge, professional skills, or capacity, and no matter how hard it has tried to pull itself together — whether through further measures of intimidation, threats or misinformation — the exposure is there and the tragedy Turkey witnessed on February 6 has shaken the country to its core.
Global Voices is continuing to cover the aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey and its many consequences, including its impact on the upcoming general elections and what lies ahead.
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Turkey heads to election run-off on May 28
These elections also showed how the main opposition coalition underestimated the societal split and the priorities that mattered — nationalism, big infrastructure projects, identity, and security to name a few