As Turkey’s earthquake deaths rise, criticism of Erdogan’s government also rises: NPR
Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images
ISTANBUL — Rescuers continue to search for bodies under thousands of toppled buildings in southern Turkey, and more than 380,000 people in the region have been left homeless.
Monday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake and its hundreds of aftershocks are of historic magnitude and would be difficult for even the most prepared government to handle. But the Turkish government has come under particularly harsh criticism.
“This government was simply not prepared,” says Soli Ozel, a professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
On Thursday, earthquake deaths in Turkey and Syria topped 19,000, according to the Associated Press.
As Turkey’s death toll rises – now over 16,000 — so has criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and what many see as its lack of preparation and slow response to the tragedy. Even Erdogan himself admitted “on the first day we had some discomfort”, before insisting to survivors near the epicenter of the quake, “on the second day, then today, the situation came under control “.
But critics like Ozel point out that national funds earmarked for natural disasters like this have instead been spent on highway construction projects run by associates of Erdogan and his coalition government.
Turkey has collected earthquake taxes for over 20 years
After a catastrophic earthquake in northwestern Turkey killed more than 18,000 people in 1999, authorities imposed an earthquake tax intended to raise billions of dollars for prevention and relief in disaster.
“They grease their cronies’ hands with earthquake taxes,” says political opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. “Where is that money? It’s gone.”
Ozel says it’s not just “almost total incompetence in government preparedness” in response to this week’s earthquake. “To make matters worse, if it were even possible,” he says, “the government is also making it nearly impossible for other organizations, civil society, citizens themselves, and mayors and municipalities to actually help.”
Erdogan’s centralization of Turkey’s government has resulted in a plethora of restrictions on how individual cities and aid organizations can operate in the country, hampering overall rescue efforts. (Turkish embassies, as well as a range of non-governmental organizations and cultural associations, collect donations internationally.)
With an election expected by June, Ozel says Erdogan has already been weakened by out-of-control inflation in Turkey. “I would expect the government to actually be one of the casualties under the rubble of this earthquake,” predicts Ozel.
Volunteers at work away from politics
But the politics seem far away for volunteers distributing blankets, clothes and food from a warehouse on the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait.
An 18-year-old high school student, Emrihan Korkmaz, has been working on the aid effort for three days. Schools across Turkey have been ordered to close to mourn the victims of the earthquake and so that people like Korkmaz can help.
“We have managed to load 18 tractor-trailers and send them to the earthquake zone. They are full of blankets, clothes, but there is a more urgent need for food,” he says, loading a box under a banner with Erdogan’s image hanging from the ceiling. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The people there need food.”
Outside the warehouse, Irim Nur Soleymez, 20, arrives with bags full of clothes and blankets to donate.
When asked if Erdogan’s government had done enough to help the victims, Soleymez replied: “They did what they were able to do. Now is not the time to talk about politics, Now is the time to help people in need.”