Erdogan now appears vulnerable in the wake of the Turkey earthquake

During his visit to the southeast Turkish city of Karamanmaras two days after the devastating earthquake that stru...

Whether such a large-scale tragedy could have been avoided and whether President Erdogan's administration could have done more to save lives have been hotly debated following Turkey's most devastating earthquake since 1939.

After 20 years in power, his future is in jeopardy with elections just around the corner, and his calls for national unity have gone unanswered.

Even though Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged that the response fell short, he seemed to blame fate on a trip to one disaster area, saying, "Such things have always happened. It fits into destiny's plan.

Due to its location on two fault lines, Turkey has earthquake building regulations that date back more than 80 years. But the two earthquakes that occurred on Monday were both much stronger than anything recorded since 1939. At 04:17, a 7.5 earthquake several miles away followed the first one with a magnitude of 7.8.

Ten of Turkey's 81 provinces had to be the site of a sizable rescue operation.

However, it took time for the response to gather steam, and some villages were days away from being reached. Over 30,000 professionals and volunteers, as well as delegations from numerous other nations, eventually arrived.

More than 6,000 buildings were destroyed, and employees of Turkey's Afad disaster authority were also affected by the earthquakes.

The first few hours were crucial, but because of damaged roads, search and rescue teams had difficulty getting through until day two or day three.

Turkey has more earthquake experience than almost any other nation, but the main volunteer rescue organization's founder thinks politics got in the way this time.

However, the Erdogan administration has worked to limit their influence in Turkish society since the last significant earthquake in August 1999.

The head of the Akut foundation, Nasuh Mahruki, stated that the armed forces are the most organized and logistically strong organizations in the world and that they have access to enormous resources. Therefore, a disaster is when you must use this.

Instead, Turkey's civil disaster authority now fills the position, assisted by non-governmental organizations like Akut, which has 3,000 volunteers and a staff of between 15,000 and 20,000.

Since the military was not included in the planning process and had to wait for a government order before beginning rescue and search operations, Mr. Mahruki claimed that the potential rescue effort was now much larger than it was in 1999.

Despite Turkey having the "largest search and rescue team in the world right now," President Erdogan has acknowledged that search efforts did not move as quickly as the government had hoped.

Turks have been forewarned for years about the possibility of a large earthquake, but few believed it would occur along the East Anatolian fault, which runs through south-eastern Turkey. This is because most of the larger earthquakes have struck the fault in the north.

Map showing the location of the two earthquakes in Turkey

Prof. Naci Gorur of Istanbul Technical University's department of geology recognized the danger when an earthquake struck Elazig in January 2020, which is northeast of the disaster area on Monday. Even a future earthquake north of Kahramanmaras and Adiyaman was predicted by him.

"I issued warnings to the central, state, and local governments. I pleaded with people to prepare their cities for earthquakes. We must lessen the harm they cause because we are powerless to stop them.

Prof. Mustafa Erdik, a leading expert in earthquake engineering in Turkey, believes the shocking death toll was caused by a failure to adhere to building codes. He also accuses the construction industry of being incompetent and ignorant.

We permit damage, but not the kind where floors are stacked on top of one another like pancakes, he told the BBC. "That should have been avoided because it leads to the kinds of casualties we've seen.

Members of El Salvador's Urban Search and Rescue team (USAR) take part in a rescue operation the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey February 10, 2023
A building in Kahramanmaras that has collapsed is being examined by a global rescue team.

High-quality concrete must be reinforced with ribbed, steel bars in accordance with 2018 updates to Turkish regulations. Tremor impact must be absorbed by horizontal beams and vertical columns.

According to Prof. Erdik, there must be adhesion between the steel bars and concrete, as well as sufficient transfer reinforcement in the columns.

He is of the opinion that if all the rules had been followed, the columns would have been unharmed and the damage would have only affected the beams. In contrast, the floors collapsed on top of each other and the columns gave way, resulting in numerous fatalities.

According to the justice minister, anyone found to have been careless or at fault will be prosecuted.

After 20 years in office, critics like opposition CHP party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu claim President Erdogan's administration has not "prepared the country for the earthquakes.".

One major concern is what happened to the significant funds gathered through the two "earthquake solidarity taxes" introduced following the quake in 1999. Building earthquake resistance was the goal of the funding.

88 billion lira (£3 point 8 billion; $4 point 6 billion) have been collected in taxes from radio and television stations, mobile phone companies, and other businesses to this day. Even two years ago, it was increased to 10%. But the government has never given a comprehensive explanation of how the money was used.

A 2018 government amnesty that allowed violations of the building code to be erased with a fine and left about six million buildings unchanged has been cited by urban planners as a reason why rules have not been followed in earthquake zones.

Taxes and fees from the fines totaled many billions of Turkish Lira. But in 2019, a residential building in Istanbul collapsed, killing 21 people, prompting the head of the chamber of civil engineers to claim that the amnesty would turn Turkish cities into cemeteries.

According to Pelin Pinar Giritlioglu of Istanbul University, there was a high volume of illegal construction in the region, and more than 100,000 applications for an amnesty were submitted in the ten cities currently impacted.

According to her statement to the BBC, "the amnesty played a significant role in the collapse of the buildings in the most recent earthquake.".

Emergency personnel search for victims at the site of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Diyarbakir, southeast of Turkey, 06 February 2023
The quakes that occurred on Monday had an impact on cities in ten provinces that are home to more than 13 million people.

The problem, according to Prof. Erdik, goes beyond politics and is caused by a system that allows engineers to enter the workforce without much experience after graduation. "We cannot go anywhere by blaming each other, and we should seek solutions," he says.

Prof. Gorur calls for the construction of "earthquake-resistant urban settlements," but such a change in perspective is most necessary in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.

"For 23 years, we have been issuing earthquake alerts for Istanbul. Therefore, the decision-makers in Istanbul should band together and develop policies to make people, infrastructure, buildings, and neighborhoods earthquake-resistant.

President Erdogan has urged unity and solidarity, calling those who have criticized the disaster response dishonorable.

He told reporters in Hatay, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, "I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.".

His ruling party, the AKP, controls many of the towns and cities in the effected areas.

But after 20 years in office—first as prime minister and then as an increasingly autocratic, elected president—he now preside over a nation that is deeply divided.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu stated, "His politics have brought us to this point.

Although campaigning for the anticipated May elections has not yet begun, he is the leader of one of the six opposition parties that are prepared to announce a unified candidate in an effort to unseat the president.

In order to unite the nation before those elections, Mr. Erdogan's efforts are likely to be in vain.

Many of his opponents are in jail or have fled abroad, and he has grown more intolerant of criticism. Following a bloody coup attempt in 2016, the president responded by detaining tens of thousands of Turks and dismissing government employees.

With a 57 percent inflation rate, the cost of living has skyrocketed and the economy has been in free fall.

The government's initial response to the earthquake included temporarily shutting down Twitter, which was being used in Turkey to aid in the search for survivors. A political scientist was detained by police for posting criticism of the emergency response, which the government claimed was being used to spread misinformation.

The aftermath of the 1999 Turkish earthquake, according to Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, who spent a year in prison while awaiting trial, helped Mr. Erdogan rise to power. He wrote this from exile in Germany.

The next vote would also be impacted by this most recent catastrophe, he said, though it was not yet clear how.

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