Turkey sits on a constantly moving ground, with earthquakes occurring throughout its history and impacting almost every part of the country. Destructive earthquakes have plagued the country since ancient times, at times completely devastating Anatolian cities. More recently, several deadly tremors have occurred, particularly in 1999 in the Bay of Izmit near Istanbul. Despite the deep impact of these natural disasters on the collective memory, they have not resulted in significant changes in building practices, regulations, or public policies. In fact, in 2015, a city council controlled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Istanbul area voted to remove earthquake fault lines from land-use plan maps so that permission could be granted for the construction of an oil station belonging to one of its supporters. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.
Following every major earthquake, Turkish media and opposition parties have traditionally blamed contractors and local authorities for turning a blind eye to violations and negligence in construction projects. After the 1999 İzmit earthquake, some contractors faced prosecution and received jail sentences. However, once the social outrage died down, the promises were quickly forgotten, and flimsy new buildings that do not comply with earthquake regulations continued to be constructed. During the AKP era, the revenue derived from enormous construction projects increased tremendously, and contractors became a new class, a new caste to which the AKP government attributed an elite status.
When the AKP came to power in 2002, just three years after the devastating Izmit earthquake severely damaged the image of the previous coalition government, its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presented himself as an ambitious yet responsible and law-abiding contractor. However, a few days after his appointment as Prime Minister in March 2003, Erdoğan passed a bill in parliament that legalized constructions that were previously considered illegal. Despite the enactment of new building regulations in 2007 to prevent negative consequences from future earthquakes and minimize damage, these measures were nullified by construction "amnesties" issued in the following years. The last and most extensive amnesty was issued a few weeks before the June 2018 presidential and legislative elections, ironically named "reconstruction peace," granting licenses to three million illegal structures built in high seismic risk zones in exchange for a nominal fine. As granting licenses to illegal constructions became an election promise and strategy, Tayyip Erdoğan boasted of his party's "generosity" and asked for votes in exchange for "reconstruction peace." Prior to the February 6 earthquakes, a new "construction amnesty" bill was on the Parliament's agenda due to upcoming elections.
The fact that Tayyip Erdoğan and his party have invested so much in the construction sector, thereby creating a coterie of pro-government contractors, cannot be interpreted solely as a strategy to win elections. Pro-government contractors and the huge sums of money obtained from construction projects form the core of Tayyip Erdoğan's clientelist network of interests. Turkey has no subsoil wealth that could allow the government to distribute rent from extractive activities. For two decades, Erdoğan's economic power has been based largely on creating rent opportunities by public authorities through numerous amendments to land use plans, opening up protected areas to construction, and non-transparent mechanisms for awarding public contracts. The economic rent created within this network is captured by four main beneficiaries: Tayyip Erdoğan's inner circle, a caste of entrepreneurs and contractors, partisan civil servants, and landowners (including individuals, municipalities, and the Treasury). As a result of this policy, the number of companies operating in the construction sector has increased by over 40% in Turkey since 2010. According to some estimates, the country has the world record number of construction contractors per capita.
Since 2002, the public procurement law has been amended 192 times. Originally enacted in 2003 during the negotiation process with the European Union, the procurement law has since been put to the service of a very large client network. Turkey's five largest construction groups form Tayyip Erdoğan's economic bodyguard and take the vast majority of public construction contracts, often with a Treasury guarantee, hence retaining private status for profit collection but gaining public status for risk sharing.
The earthquakes that occurred on February 6th revealed the dramatic consequences of hyper-concentrating political power in the hands of a single man, and granting executive powers to unqualified officials. Due to the delay in deploying aid to the earthquake zone, thousands of lives were lost. Since different units of the state could not take action without Erdoğan's approval and consent, there was no rapid or effective intervention in the earthquake zone. Additionally, the AKP-MHP coalition attempted to monopolize the resources mobilized for earthquake victims and prevent non-governmental organizations from carrying out activities in the affected region. In sum, the AKP state was caught red-handed not only in its incompetence and unpreparedness but also in its greed and arrogance. Despite the catastrophic consequences of the earthquakes, Erdoğanism has attempted to cover up its responsibility for the disaster by scapegoating a few hundred contractors. However, it is crystal clear that the chain of gross negligence extends back to the head of state. The earthquakes also revealed the extent of the destruction caused by neoliberalism and commodification in Turkey. So much so that, public institutions like the Red Crescent sold aid materials to survivors instead of providing them free of charge.
With parliamentary and presidential elections just a few months away, this disaster may cost the AKP and Tayyip Erdoğan their power. The broad anti-Erdoğan coalition built over the last few years has greatly diminished Erdoğan's power and charisma. The majority of the opposition is united around the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as a presidential candidate. The surge of solidarity in the aftermath of the earthquake has added further dynamism to the opposition ranks. Facing a predicament he could not have even imagined, Erdoğan asked for forgiveness "for the delays in earthquake relief". However, he also underlined that the disaster was "God's destiny and providence".
Back in July 2016, after the coup attempt of Gulenist army officers, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan admitted that this was "a God's blessing" for him to realize his dream of establishing a one-man presidential regime. The February 6th earthquakes may portend a divine curse for him and his autocratic regime.