The recent earthquake in Turkey and northwest Syria is considered one of the worst to have hit the region in over 80 years. The immediate effects of such natural disasters are devastating, but earthquakes have also been seen as a harbinger of political change or upheaval, often marking the end of ruling dynasties. This article explores the political implications of major earthquakes around the world.

On August 17, 1999, Turkey suffered an earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter scale that killed some 176,000 people.  The then leader of the opposition in Turkey’s parliament, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was scathing in his condemnation of a government that had failed to prepare the country against the possibility of a natural disaster that was known to occur from time to time.

Shortly afterwards Turkey’s parliament approved a special tax, known as the earthquake tax, whose proceeds would be earmarked to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, reinforce buildings and prepare cities to cope better with earthquakes.  Temporary at the time, it was made permanent when Erdogan and his AKP party swept to power in 2002. 

Over the past 23 years this special tax has raised about $4.7 billion.  Unfortunately, when the 7.8 magnitude quake struck south-eastern Turkey on February 6, there was little evidence that any earthquake preparation or strengthened building construction had taken place.    Residential tower blocks collapsed like packs of cards, hundreds of ordinary homes and low level buildings were razed to the ground.  As rescuers toiled to pull bodies from the urban devastation, and survivors shivered in the freezing temperatures, questions were being asked about what had happened to the huge sums raised by the earthquake tax.

These questions came as no surprise to Erdogan’s government.  They had already been raised in the aftermath of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Izmir on November 13, 2020.  The government was pressed then to account for the billions of dollars raised by the earthquake tax.  The opposition party, the CHP, said that had the revenue been used properly, millions of buildings around the country could have been strengthened to help them survive.

Alpay Antmen, a lawyer and CHP politician, was reported as saying: “This money was meant to be used for urban transformation and for making housing areas in the earthquake zones much more resilient. However, about 70 billion lira of these taxes was… transferred to the builders close to the government.”

This allegation was clarified in a recent media report.  In 2018 the Erdogan-led government launched a special amnesty called “zoning peace”.  On payment of a fee anyone could legalize whatever property they may have built or renovated in violation of building regulations.  Thanks to this loophole, about 13 million non-compliant buildings across Turkey became legal, according to industry estimates.

Professor Pelin Pinar Giritlioghlu, head of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Turkish Engineers and Architects, is reported to have said: “Many new buildings have become earthquake-fraught after unauthorized renovations.  The state has pardoned those buildings in exchange for money…With the earthquake, we have come up with the tragic outcome of this set-up.”

The political implications of this issue for Erdogan and his AKP party could be critical. With parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for May 14, the failure to account for how the vast earthquake tax resources have been expended has given rise to public anger. There are suspicions they may have been misappropriated, or at best used to little effect.   Turkey’s building boom had been marked by slipshod construction and by the administration turning a blind eye to firms evading the quake-proofing regulations.  Erdogan and his allies are well aware that the AKP rose to power in 2002 on the back of the then government’s failures following the 1999 quake. 

While calling for national unity and a week of mourning for the victims of the disaster, Erdoğan clearly has the elections in mind.  On February 6 he phoned AKP municipalities offering help, but made no such offer to the leadership in opposition-controlled areas.  On February 7, he appeared on TV to reject criticism of the government’s response to the quakes and announce a 3-month state of emergency across Turkey’s 10 southern provinces.  It would be lifted just a week before the scheduled elections.  Later the same day, the Istanbul State Prosecutor initiated criminal investigations into journalists who had reported the criticism.

The crisis facing Turkey is truly monumental, but Erdogan must surely turn his attention away from silencing his critics, and focus on relieving the plight of his fellow citizens, regardless of their political affiliations.

Much the same obligation rests on the shoulders of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who had been insisting that his regime must be solely responsible for delivering aid in Syria. The government had a stranglehold on international aid supplies, most of which flowed through Damascus, with very little reaching rebel-held areas in the northwest.  The same was true of aid workers.  Assad allowed them to assist people in regime-controlled areas, but very rarely let them enter the northwest.  

This may have changed on February 10, when state controlled media announced that the government would permit humanitarian aid to enter rebel-held areas. Whether this change of stance will result in relieving the suffering there remains to be seen. The easiest way to get aid directly into the non-regime region would be from Turkey across the border, but there is only one land crossing from Turkey into Syria, Bab al-Hawa, and it was damaged by the earthquakes.

The US has already ruled out giving aid directly to Bashar’s regime.  Secretary of State spokesman Ned Price has said: “it would be ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now, gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured”.

Experts say that a vast amount of aid is necessary. Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: “For northwestern Syria, this earthquake represents a crisis within a crisis. After 12 years of brutal shelling by the Syrian regime, at least 65 per cent of the area’s basic infrastructure was already destroyed or heavily damaged… the scale of the needed response is huge.”

Basic humanity demands that ways be found of relieving the immense suffering imposed by Nature on the peoples of Turkey and Syria, even if that suffering has been intensified many times over by the failures of their politicians. 

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."