Turkey’s southern region, still reeling from the devastating earthquakes on Feb. 6 that left more than 50,000 people dead, was shaken anew Monday when a 5.6 magnitude temblor hit the southeastern province of Malatya, killing at least one person and injuring dozens of others.
The earthquake was centered in the Malatya town of Yesilyurt, the country’s management disaster agency AFAD said. A number of buildings collapsed, including a four-story building where a father and daughter were trapped, Turkish news outlets reported.
The latest earthquake came amid a fresh wave of popular fury triggered by news that the Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay) had through a little-known business arm sold thousands of tents to a Turkish charity instead of dispatching them immediately and free of charge to victims when the first earthquakes struck. The charity, Ahbab, is lauded for its rapid and effective response in this and previous disasters. Its founder, Turkish pop star Haluk Levent, confirmed the purchase totaling 46 million Turkish liras ($1.9 million). Levent tweeted, “While people were freezing to death, trying to survive, we didn’t have the luxury of debating ‘should we buy these tents or not.’” The performer conceded that Kizilay had given him “a discount,” though it had charged him a value added tax.
The earthquakes directly impacted over 23 million people across Turkey and Syria, according to the British Red Cross. Over 1.5 million people have been left homeless in Turkey. With thousands of victims still under the rubble, the actual death toll could double, some experts say. Many blame bureaucratic paralysis, lax building code enforcement and massive corruption for the high number of fatalities.
Roars of “hukumet istifa,” Turkish for “government resign,” reverberated across stadiums in separate premier league soccer matches over the weekend in Istanbul. “Twenty years with lies,” fans chanted at Saturday’s fixture between Fenerbahce and Konyaspor.
On Sunday police in Istanbul clashed with members of the leftist Turkish Workers Party who came to protest the tent scandal. At least 40 demonstrators were detained, the independent online news portal Diken reported.
Kizilay director Kerem Kinik defended his outfit’s actions, noting that the tents had been sold at production cost. Veteran commentator Murat Yetkin was furious. “They should have charged a profit while they were at it,” he fumed.
The transaction was unveiled by Murat Agirel, a columnist for the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet. “It was revealed that the Red Crescent, which was not seen in the region after the earthquake that killed tens of thousands of citizens, was busy peddling its tent stocks while thousands were perishing under the rubble,” Agirel noted.
The scandal is further evidence of the corporate mindset that has seized Turkish state institutions since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, critics say. Nezih Onur Kuru, an Istanbul-based political scientist, told Al-Monitor that Kizilay had “effectively swindled” Ahbab. “The AKP corporatizes everything and Erdogan sees himself as the CEO.”
Turkey’s strongman leader blasted Kizilay’s critics as toadies to be ignored. Yet Erdogan sounded a rare note of humility today as he toured the southeastern province of Adiyaman, among the worst affected in what is now described as the gravest natural disaster in Turkey’s modern history. Erdogan addressed an audience of victims flanked by his far-right ally Devlet Bahceli. He said, “Due to all the unfavorable circumstances, we were unable to operate as swiftly as we might have on the first day.” He beseeched them not to hold it against him. The government’s tardy response stemmed from adverse weather conditions and the “devastating effects” of the earthquakes, Erdogan claimed.
While the government’s response to the earthquake was unquestionably chaotic, its handling of the official narrative spouted through the country’s obsequious mainstream media has been anything but. Footage of “miracle” rescues of babies buried under the debris for long days dominate the airwaves. “The propaganda machine is working very well,” Kuru observed. The government’s framing of the disaster as a form of divine destiny is resonating among millions of pious Sunnis even as blame is piled on crooked contractors.
Nearly 200 people have been arrested so far for alleged malpractice, including the AKP mayor of Nurdag in Gaziantep province. Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag says incriminating evidence has been gathered at thousands of sites.
A recent survey by the polling organization IPSOS indicated that a whopping 84% of those asked blamed contractors for the carnage. Around half at 44% pointed to the government. Only 34% said building amnesties granted by the government for unsafe structures were to blame for the number of buildings that collapsed.
Erdogan has pledged to rebuild people’s lives and homes swiftly. “No citizen of ours shall remain without shelter,” he said. “Just give me one year,” he’s repeatedly implored. The government has signaled the presidential and parliamentary elections that are slated to be held by June 18 will take place unhindered. The opposition remains split over whom to nominate as its joint presidential candidate, leaving the field wide open to Erdogan. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, is expected to emerge as the opposition's champion even though he is widely considered the least likely contender to beat Erdogan.
Either way, people tend to rally around the state in times of national crisis, and “two decades of AKP rule has made Erdogan synonymous with the state,” Kuru said.