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Turkey's politicians play blame game as earthquake death toll hits 20,000

The ruling AKP and its ally MHP approved the bill on declaring a state of emergency for Turkey’s quake zone while opposition parties voted against it, saying the president already has sufficient powers for disaster management.
People walk past a collapsed building on Feb. 09, 2023 in Hatay, Turkey.

The death toll in Turkey from Monday’s double earthquakes surpassed 17,000 today, and Turkish politicians are locked in a blame game as they separately toured the ravaged region where more than 120,000 aid workers continue their race against time.

As this article went to publication, the death toll in Turkey was 17,406 — with more than 3,000 people confirmed dead in the last six hours and an additional 3,300 lives lost in Syria. The number of injured was 70,347 since the two earthquakes of 7.7 and 7.6 magnitudes and 1,206 aftershocks. The Turkish relief agency AFAD said in a statement Thursday that more than 130,000 tents had been erected in the region, and 30,360 people were evacuated from earthquake-hit areas and placed in nearby hotels and accommodation centers.

It also announced that the rescue workers finished their work in two areas, Sanliurfa and Kilis, and moved to the remaining eight provinces. The relief agency said that the total number of people working in the devastated region was 120,344, including 6,479 international rescuers. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who continued his tour of the region with a stop in Gaziantep, the region’s industrial hub and a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, pledged to rebuild the region within a year — a tricky task as more than 900 buildings collapsed in Gaziantep alone. While Erdogan said that the number of destroyed buildings in the region was around 6,444, local journalists say that the number may be closer to 9,000 to 10,000, including those destroyed beyond repair. 

Visiting a tent city with Gaziantep’s ambitious mayor, Fatma Sahin, the president said that the three-month-long state of emergency in the region would help to ensure swift and efficient rescue and aid operations and help in the fight against looters, “loan sharks” and other groups aiming to exploit the crisis.

The last words were a thinly veiled reference to the opposition parties, which have pointed at Erdogan and his “one-man rule” as the reason for what they called the slow response in rescue operations and aid. With Turkey’s critical dual elections just months away, Turkey’s political leaders have all paid lip service to political unity in these crucial times. As the people's rage grows along with the death toll, however, the public, the opposition and the media have begun allocating the blame both for the response to the quake and the shoddy building construction that cost lives.

“Where is the state?” read the headline of the daily Karar, while Korkusuz, another independent daily, published the photo of a man refusing to let go of the hand of his deceased daughter under the rubble, along with this half-page-long headline: “Those who took no precautions against earthquake[s], passed one zoning amnesty after another, allowed illegal constructions, placed underqualified people in the state apparatus — this is how you will be remembered.”

"If there is one person responsible for this, it is Erdogan," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a likely candidate against Erdogan in the upcoming presidential elections. “Over 20 years, this government has not prepared the country for an earthquake.”

Meral Aksener, media-savvy leader of the right-wing Iyi (Good Party), echoed the same line as she visited quake victims sheltering at a gym in Kahramanmaras. “This disaster is the result of a one-man rule,” she said, blaming the president — who has been in power for 20 years — for destroying the institutions that had the experience to deal with a disaster of this size.

Aksener’s words echo the criticism in the independent media that AFAD, Turkey’s state-run relief agency, was understaffed; the civil society organizations that had the experience to provide relief in the face of disasters, such as AKUT, had been sidestepped; and the military, which quickly stepped in during past quakes but had been put on a tight leash after 2016, had been late in going to troubled areas. 

“What I fear now is a second disaster — one caused by lack of food, shelter and pandemic,” warned Vedat Bayram, a veteran politician who acts as a strategic consultant to Aksener. “There are many people who do not have a roof over their heads and have little access to food and clean water,” he told Fox TV from Kahramanmaras.

As political leaders battled in the flattened southern provinces, the parliament in Ankara approved state of emergency legislation Thursday with the votes of the AKP and its political ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). A proposal by Iyi to limit the state of emergency to one month was rejected. The opposition voted against the motion on the grounds that the executive president had all the powers for disaster management under the constitution.

A state of emergency was evoked for the whole country following the unsuccessful putsch in 2016. It gives the executive branch sweeping powers, including limiting movement to and from the impacted region and in aid distribution. It can also be used to curtail fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and media rights. The Journalists’ Union of Turkey expressed concern that journalists on the ground have already been met with obstruction, particularly when they reported on the lack of rescuers or wanted to film collapsed buildings.

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