The Massive Death Toll From Turkey’s Earthquake Is No Natural Disaster

Two weeks after twin earthquakes hit Turkey, thousands of dead bodies are still being picked from the rubble. Far fewer would have died if it hadn’t been for the Erdoğan administration’s lenience toward cowboy construction firms.

A street turned into a dead end by the debris of collapsed buildings on February 24, 2023 in Hatay, Turkey. (Mehmet Kacmaz / Getty Images)

On February 6, two devastating earthquakes struck southern Turkey, measuring 7.8 and 7.7 in magnitude, leaving almost fifty thousand people dead and cities uninhabitable with horrific scenes akin to a war zone. Even more than two weeks later, the death toll is climbing daily, with tens of thousands of people under the rubble. Initial reports indicate that the total could surpass seventy thousand. This horrific situation represents the worst natural disaster in Turkey’s modern history.

Despite the country’s historical vulnerability to earthquakes, the Turkish government’s response was nowhere near adequate. Over the course of time, the construction industry has experienced significant growth, as building contractors with connections to president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political circles used state institutions to finance an authoritarian regime through construction speculation.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

This has led to a massive boom in the building of inadequate buildings — and government legislation to excuse them — in order to generate tax revenue. Turkey’s neoliberal authoritarianism is directly responsible for the social and physical catastrophe. Faced with the disaster, the Left is fighting to change the status quo — an approach already receiving a positive response from the wider population.

A Paralyzed State

When the dual earthquakes struck southeastern Anatolia, our initial response was to contact family and friends residing in the affected region to check if they were safe. But we were unable to reach them, because the phone lines had collapsed. Shortly afterward, videos and pictures began circulating, showing catastrophic scenes from the area. Tweets containing addresses and door numbers spread en masse on social media, as people looked for their loved ones.

One shocking realization was that all organizations related to the state apparatus or government remained practically absent. The inadequacy of search-and-rescue teams was apparent from the outset, as the few existing rescue teams were dispatched without basic equipment or personnel.

Even ordinary citizens from Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara could reach the disaster area, but state institutions and officials were somehow unable to. A self-styled world leader, the “mighty” Erdoğan has not appeared in any sort of live stream or speech. The first appearance of any government official was from the head of the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), who was simply clueless. Then, officials from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed that the ruling People’s Alliance, which also includes the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was working closely in the disaster areas — adding a political hue to “the natural disaster” at the first opportunity.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

The government and state officials seemed much more interested in a public relations campaign than actually organizing relief efforts and humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Twitter, the main source of search-and-rescue information, was officially shut down due to the government’s fear of criticism or political upheaval. This led to a social media blackout, perhaps during the most important time for rescue missions.

Humanitarian aid sent by opposition parties and groups such as the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was seized by the state, and any independent search-and-rescue teams heading to the area were forbidden. The AKP demanded that all efforts, aid, or volunteer groups go through the state apparatus and receive official validation. So, while official relief efforts were almost completely absent during the first day, all other initiatives were now to be centralized under those who had failed to respond. In Antakya and other cities, disaster management took three full days to become fully operational, and even then, it was limited to urban centers, not suburbs or villages.

Disaster Management in Neoliberal Turkey

It is no secret that Turkey and the other territories around it are vulnerable to natural disasters. However, the devastating results we face today have nothing to do with “nature.” They are a direct result of Turkey’s neoliberalization of disaster management. To grasp this, it is first necessary to understand the evolution of the hegemonic groups of capital, namely the construction industry and related subindustries that enjoy close ties with the state bureaucracy.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

Turkey’s ruling classes realized the material value of urban spaces when Izmit, an industrial heartland next to Istanbul, was hit by a catastrophic magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 1999 that killed more than eighteen thousand people. This disaster has benefited those in the construction industry and led to a real estate boom due to domestic migration.

A couple of years after the earthquake, the then-coalition government collapsed, opening the way for Erdoğan and the AKP to stroll to a somewhat unexpected victory. His party has historically been closely connected to the so-called Anatolian Tigers, a nickname for conservative capitalists that have benefited from the construction industry. Beginning in the 2004 local elections, policies for urbanization and the “real estate-ization of capital” were gradually implemented. The main motivation was to increase and optimize profits for urban construction and real estate.

As a part of taking everything under the total control of the AKP and leaving no autonomy to institutions, Erdoğan remodeled numerous agencies. To centralize disaster management, the AKP government established the AFAD in 2009. After February 6, it became evident that official efforts had nothing to do with an emergency response or disaster management, but rather with providing a façade of such an institution, while covering up the government’s more important rent-creating ambitions. Like some other state institutions, AFAD has relocated its offices from modest buildings to splendiferous and large-scale plazas. This method is often seen as a “black hole” in the state’s budget and has become a means of funding contractors.

Turkey’s Red Crescent (Kızılay) also shared the same fate. Once a pivotal force in emergencies and disaster relief, it is now unable to coordinate any sort of relief effort. The Red Crescent owns the country’s largest container production factory, in Malatya. The factory can produce two hundred containers in twenty-four hours with 120 staff working in three shifts. However, it was revealed that the factory, which is said to be one of the largest container production factories in the world, was not producing despite the earthquake disaster. As a public-relations stunt, the head of the Red Crescent shared a video of the factory producing containers. It quickly came out that the video was old; the containers were not for the earthquake, but — the ultimate irony — for an in-favor building company called Rönesans.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

The political circles that should have supported institutions to prepare better for natural disasters instead passed laws that made the situation worse by disregarding legal procedures. A clear illustration of this is the Zoning Amnesty Law of 2018. The law basically provided an outright amnesty for people who built or owned buildings without proper licensing, construction processes, or necessary checks — making all fines and potential lawsuits null and void. For two years, millions of building applications were submitted without proper structural analysis, resulting in the collection of billions of dollars in tax revenues rather than well-deserved fines and lawsuits. This clear indication of unregulated housing policies in Turkey, which exemplify a neoliberal approach, left millions of people living in high-risk areas without adequate protection.

For the past two decades, the AKP government has turned the country into a building site and encouraged unplanned and uncontrolled construction because of its ambition to extract added value from urban spaces. Now its disaster management capacity is practically collapsed, while the institutions cannot organize any sort of relief in the disaster-affected areas, and the rest of the country is worried about its safety.

Political Fault Lines

As if it has imbibed Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, the AKP government has been maneuvering politically, building (and breaking) power blocs, finding new partners, and gaining the consent of a significant part of the population. Starting from 2002 onward, this is how it managed to cross all the critical thresholds that have left a mark on the recent political history of the Turkish republic. The devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey’s southeast provinces revealed that Erdoğan’s regime is now unable to carry out such political maneuvers. The structure of the state apparatus in Turkey, embodied in the power of Erdoğan’s individuality, no longer has its old appearance.

Once the initial shock had subsided, it became evident that every level of the state, from top to bottom, had been unable to respond effectively. This was because the institutions that were supposed to intervene in times of crisis had been co-opted as tools for rent-seeking by bureaucrats, their relatives, and capital groups affiliated with the regime. The whereabouts of the taxes collected for earthquake relief were unknown, new buildings that had supposedly passed earthquake inspections collapsed, institutions that were meant to intervene during crises were absent, and those that did eventually arrive were found to be completely ineffective. Additionally, the president did not arrive at the disaster zone until three days after the event. Even after two weeks, the tents meant to be sent to the affected region had not been organized.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

The state instead put on a reality show–like campaign featuring various celebrities to rally the support of large segments of society and create a new social consensus. However, this campaign was also a way for the ruling regime to reward capital groups that shared its ideology, including those involved in real estate rent-seeking. The regime incentivized such groups by allowing them to deduct their own donations from their tax filings.

It is worth noting that the government has previously provided countless tax amnesties to these construction tycoons. Following the aid campaign, a prevalent sentiment in society was that the people’s own welfare had been exploited for the sake of certain companies’ supposedly patriotic and self-sacrificial displays. Even after the catastrophe on February 6, rent-seeking groups saw an opportunity, as they called for the rapid reconstruction of the region — not just because of a humanitarian concern to rehouse the destitute. For even amid a deadly crisis, the scale of the political and economic benefits that will be gained from logistics services, reconstruction, and removing debris is unmissable for some conglomerates in Turkey.

If the government had done its part, these organizations’ roles would have remained symbolic. However, now, the state’s main function appears to be coordinating a public relations campaign, mostly focused on its own image, and, of course, oppressing people if they dare to voice discontent and disapproval.

A Wave of Solidarity

Despite the state and government’s failure to organize relief efforts and humanitarian aid, Turkey’s left has stepped up, and ordinary people joined in the efforts too. In the first hours of the earthquake, the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) quickly established a Disaster Coordination Center for coordinating, gathering, and distributing aid in the area. The TİP, with its handful of MPs, was one of the first to arrive in the disaster-affected areas, alongside seven hundred volunteers consisting of professionals such as doctors, search-and-rescue teams, and health care workers.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

Now, the party is establishing a temporary container city in the area and appealing for international solidarity, which aims to at least provide basic needs for numerous families — something the AKP and state agencies still fail to do. Several movements voiced their support for the campaign, such as the democratic socialist İVME Movement and the left-wing research center Universus. Although a temporary solution to a massive problem, this campaign can chart out a new way of solidarity and the future of urban spaces in Turkey from a left-wing perspective.

The main opposition force, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), has also managed notable humanitarian aid and relief efforts, with the heads of the metropolitan municipalities of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara being quite effective in the area and providing fundamental and urgent needs for thousands. Most notably, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdraoğlu was present in the disaster area in the very first moments. Kılıçdaroğlu, who is susceptible to falling in line with the state narrative, bluntly and immediately called out (perhaps for the first time) Erdoğan and his state officials as the responsible parties for the catastrophe, saying that he (Kılıçdaroğlu) refuses to see this issue as beyond politics.

Miners, although facing the possibility of losing their jobs, immediately arrived at the earthquake zone to save people from the rubble. The government’s discomfort with the work of progressive forces, trade unions, and mass organizations carrying out relief work in the destroyed cities is evident from the aggressive attitude of the police at some points. It was the Progressive Lawyers Association (ÇHD) that assisted those in need of lawyers, and many stood on guard for hours against the controversial decision to demolish a public building in the earthquake zone that contained important documents regarding zoning and building inspection permits.

(İzel Sezer / İleri Haber)

Members of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) were detained on the grounds of “insulting the state” while involved in the relief efforts. There are plenty of other left-wing and socialist groups operating in the disaster zones, establishing temporary shelters for people and providing much more effective humanitarian aid than the state is. Instead of state institutions, donations have been headed to independent and political organizations. Even Haluk Levent, a singer who has founded a civil society charity, AHBAP, was targeted despite his claim of working in coordination with the state. The initiatives outside the state apparatus operating in a wide range of areas made the state’s incapacity more apparent.

Perhaps for the first time in a decade, thanks to the massive wave of help, cooperation, and teamwork, Turkish society has seen how solidarity feels again. It is too early to say that the old status quo is dying, but a new and progressive ethos could be built if this strong solidarity effort goes beyond meeting basic needs and becomes a mobilization that can pressure the regime to meet the other demands of earthquake victims. Faced with government neglect, Turkey’s left has proven to be capable of this — and potentially much more.