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Turkey’s government is prioritizing politics over policy in its earthquake response

In 1999, a massive earthquake shook Kocaeli Province, near Istanbul. The government badly mismanaged the response. The health minister at the time, Osman Durmuş of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), initially refused many offers of foreign aid, saying, “I wouldn’t give them even one injured person [to care for]; I am not going to take their blood [donations].” An Israeli vessel carrying much-needed supplies was held in customs for three days before being released. Officially, more than 17,000 people were killed in the quake, but the actual number was likely much, much greater. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the mayor of Istanbul, was among the loudest in calling those responsible to account. The bungled response to the 1999 earthquake was one of the factors that helped bring the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power. It promised to do better; it has not. Leaving aside for a moment the record of sloppy construction and failure to inspect buildings, its response since the earthquake struck on Feb.6 has been ramshackle, hampered by incompetence, but also by its leadership’s emphasis on partisan politics at a moment of national tragedy and crisis.

In the critical initial hours and days after last Monday’s earthquake, the Erdoğan government was slow off the mark. In particular, it did not immediately mobilize the military, not only to help in direct rescue, but perhaps more importantly, to build or repair critical infrastructure necessary for the rescue efforts, things like field hospitals and damaged air strips, that only the military can address in hours rather than days. The civilian office responsible for emergency relief, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), is poorly managed, under-funded, and uncoordinated. An AFAD official meant to lead rescue efforts turned out to have a doctorate and extensive professional background in theology. Ankara now has come to terms with the scale of the tragedy; unfortunately, its response continues to be undermined by its own focus on political loyalty and its lack of tolerance for criticism.

In a televised speech to the nation, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and a week of national mourning, but he also devoted time to complain about critical news — which he described as “disinformation” — and made clear he planned to hold critical voices to account. In the hours after the speech, prosecutors began opening investigations, many have been detained, and the Turkish government’s habit of targeting journalists for reporting on the news has continued apace. A French journalist with long experience in Turkey, Guillaume Perrier, was detained at the Istanbul airport and deported back to France, with a five-year ban on his reentry into the country.

Worse, Turkey throttled Twitter access while rescue operations were still underway; ostensibly, it did so to prevent “disinformation,” which, in practice, means images and stories that portray the government in an unfavorable light. Given the extent to which civil society groups and survivors have relied on Twitter to coordinate rescue and relief efforts, the decision to throttle access literally prioritized the government’s own concerns about messaging over its citizens’ lives. Access was eventually restored after negotiations with Twitter, which promised to help limit “disinformation.” What this means in practice is not clear and merits attention from those concerned with Twitter’s evolving relationship with authoritarian regimes. What it meant for Turkish citizens in the earthquake zone is another arbitrary barrier to overcome as they struggled to save their loved ones.

Finally, it is clear that some government allies — and perhaps government officials as well — are concerned by the extent to which public support and fund-raising has been directed at civilian organizations like Ahbap, rather than the government’s own relief organization. This is despite the fact that the group’s leadership has, on the whole, carefully managed to maintain good relations with the ruling party. On Feb. 9, in the midst of rescue efforts, the organization’s website came under sustained cyber attack.

To watch government-friendly Turkish media is to step into an alternate universe. Often prominently citing international scholars, the media has attempted to show, using the refrain “the disaster of the century,” that the magnitude of the earthquake was so great that no steps could have been taken to prevent mass destruction. Several have since complained that they were misquoted. Earthquake scientist Judith Hubbard, for example, took to Twitter to note, “The idea that a [government] might misuse my words to push a misleading narrative is new [and] dismaying. The earthquake was inevitable. The scale of the disaster was not.” State media and pro-government media (which is to say some 90% of broadcast media) has a clear narrative: the devastation was an act of God, not a result of mismanagement, the state is doing everything that can be done, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar or a traitor. In Diyarbakir, earthquake victims booed the visiting justice minister, Bekir Bozdağ; several were detained under Article 216, which criminalizes speech aimed at “inciting the people to hatred.”

The rescue phase of operations is now coming to close; the possibility of further survivors is becoming increasingly dim. Nonetheless, the challenges facing the Turkish government and its people remain immense, with hundreds of thousands homeless, hungry, and cold and with perhaps tens of thousands still to be recovered and buried. In this first week since the earthquake, the Turkish government has put a priority on public relations, sometimes at the expense of its own citizens’ lives. It has prioritized “narrative” over effective policy, and focused on stifling dissent. This has been its pattern after the 2013 Gezi Protests and the 2016 attempted coup. But those were more purely political crises. To address the current crisis effectively, the Turkish government will have to place policy above politics — and its record for doing so, thus far, has been very weak indeed.

Source: Mei Edu