May 27. 2024. 9:01

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The Brief — Erdogan between two earthquakes

The 6 February earthquake is a massive tragedy for Turkey and Syria, and the world needs to do much more to alleviate the suffering of millions of people. This Brief, however, will look into the seism’s consequences for the future of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s political career took off partly due to his ability to exploit the 1999 earthquake, which was of a similar magnitude to the recent one, by exposing corruption and bad governance behind poor construction standards that left more than 17,000 dead in the region of Istanbul.

The then government of Bülent Ecevit was slow in responding to the disaster. Coupled with the 2001 financial crash, this helped Erdoğan’s AKP party to win the 2002 general elections with an overwhelming majority, securing two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

Ever since, Erdoğan has been consolidating his power, including through constitutional changes and by banning political parties and jailing political opponents ahead of the 16 May general elections.

But 24 years later, an even bigger earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck the southern part of the country, with a death toll of 41,000 and counting.

The tables have turned, and the opposition is now questioning Erdoğan on his responsibility for the collapse of thousands of newly-constructed buildings, which should be able to resist a quake of this magnitude. The poor handling of the ensuing humanitarian crisis by the authorities also makes many furious.

Critics such as opposition CHP party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu argue that after 20 years in power, Erdoğan’s government has not “prepared the country for the earthquakes”. Even more damaging than the magnitude of last week’s quake was the “lack of coordination, lack of planning and incompetence”, Kılıçdaroğlu said.

One big question they raise is what happened to the large sums collected through two “earthquake solidarity taxes” created after the 1999 quake. The funds were meant to make buildings resistant to earthquakes. The government has never fully explained how the sums collected, reportedly equivalent to €4.3 billion, have been spent.

Critics have complained that construction standards have not been observed in earthquake zones and highlight a 2018 government amnesty that meant violations of the building code could be swept away with a fine, leaving millions of buildings with unclear status regarding their capacity to resist an earthquake.

In an article written from prison, Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş said Erdoğan has failed to take any single action to unite the country in the aftermath of the devastating quakes but instead tried to polarise the opposition even more.

According to Demirtaş, although scientific reports have indicated the imminent danger posed by the East Anatolian fault line for years, all buildings in the fault line are unlicensed, and illegal buildings have been made legal with zoning amnesties.

He says that earthquake resistance conditions were not sought even in a single building, including state buildings.

Demirtaş blames Erdoğan for having called only the mayors of his party on the morning of the quake and not speaking to a single opposition municipality, including the four metropolitan municipalities that could work most effectively in such a devastating earthquake.

Demirtaş also says Erdoğan’s response to quakes has not “managed to rescue thousands of our citizens alive from under the rubble”.

Many in Turkey say more people could have survived the quake if the emergency response had been faster and better organised.

The budget of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) for 2023 was cut by a third to 8.08 billion lira (€400 million), down from 12.16 billion lira in 2022.

In an effort to diminish the sway of Turkey’s powerful military, in 2018, Erdoğan changed the chain of command, with AFAD coming under the purview of the interior ministry that reports to the presidency.

According to critics, these changes effectively diminished its capacity to perform its duties.

Controversy over Erdoğan’s responsibility for the magnitude of the destruction and the death toll is likely to take centre stage in the next three months until the election – unless Erdoğan decides to postpone the ballot, citing extraordinary circumstances.

It is simple. In a democracy, Erdoğan would lose power. If he clings to power, Turkey will no longer be a democracy.

The Roundup

The EU aims to sanction seven Iranian entities cooperating with the Russian military as part of the bloc’s tenth sanction package against Russia, which is set to hit Moscow with trade bans and technology export controls worth €11 billion over its invasion of Ukraine.

A group of Kurds interrupted the plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, protesting and demanding freedom for jailed Kurdish politician Abdullah Öcalan on Wednesday.

Russia is “very close” to becoming a dictatorship and the longer the conflict with Ukraine continues, the more authoritarian Vladimir Putin’s regime will become, Nikolai Ribakov, leader of Russia’s only legal opposition party, the liberal Yabloko, told EURACTIV’s partner EFE in an exclusive interview.

A Russian journalist was sentenced to six years in a penal colony on Wednesday for accusing the Russian air force of bombing a theatre in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last April where women and children were sheltering.

The European Commission issued on Wednesday 11 referrals to the EU’s Court of Justice after six member states failed to transpose copyright measures into national law.

Nicola Sturgeon resigned as Scottish first minister on Wednesday, saying her dominance over her party and the country was no longer the asset it once was in the fight for an independent Scotland.

Last but not least, don’t miss our weekly round-up of health-related news in the Health Brief.

Look out for…

  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen receives French PM Elisabeth Borne.
  • EU Commissioner Helena Dalli, in Stockholm, speaks at ‘High-Level Conference on the Implementation of National Action Plans against Racism’.
  • Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas in Munich, participates in ‘fireside chat’ at Munich Cybersecurity Conference.
  • Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski in Strasbourg; participates in debate on “ensuring the availability and affordability of fertilisers”, organised by Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.