Why Turkey is investigating contractors after earthquake

Why Turkey is investigating contractors after earthquake – Vox.com

Still in the midst of an emergency, Turkey is rocked by the earthquake that killed at least 35,000 people last week. But the finger pointing has already begun.

The rush to punish comes amid grief, but also growing anger and frustration at the Turkish government’s response to the earthquake. Much of it focuses on the emergency response — waiting for relief and rescue teams — but there’s also anger at pre-earthquake politics, at how shoddy construction work may have compounded the disaster’s devastation.

Turkey’s Justice Ministry said this weekend that 134 people were being investigated for their role in constructing buildings that collapsed during the quake – some of whom said they were complying with building codes. At least 10 people have been arrested and a handful of others have been banned from traveling abroad, according to the New York Times. Some of those arrested tried to escape. Turkey’s Justice Ministry also said it would set up earthquake crime investigation offices to investigate deaths and injuries. (Vox has emailed the ministry for comment but has yet to receive a response.)

“We will continue to follow this meticulously until the necessary legal process is completed, particularly for buildings that have sustained serious damage and for buildings that have caused deaths and injuries,” Vice President Fuat Oktay told reporters at a briefing on Saturday.

This looks like an effort at accountability, but is a far cry from a solid accounting of Turkey’s earthquake losses.

Turkey lies on two major fault lines, and after a deadly 1999 earthquake, the country adopted stricter building codes, but these have not been consistently enforced. And that goes beyond builders and contractors cutting corners or using inferior materials. There are also likely to be inspectors and local and state officials who have issued permits when they shouldn’t have, or who have looked the other way. There are those who have pushed for building amnesty laws (and the politicians who have supported them), essentially repealing ordinances in the name of quick build and profit.

“Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon. yes it happens But the consequences of the earthquake are quite, I would say, state, political and administrative,” said Hişyar Özsoy, vice-chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party and opposition MP in parliament representing Diyarbakır, a town near the devastation of the quake .

All of this happened under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power together with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) for about two decades. Erdoğan made the construction boom the core of Turkey’s economic growth. At the same time, he has consolidated his power over institutions, the press and the judiciary. This rapid economic growth, coupled with the erosion of democracy, resulted in layers of government corruption and mismanagement that allowed contractors to construct the buildings the way they did.

“This is very much about the whole system that Erdoğan has built — not just the politics, but the economics behind it,” said Sebnem Gumuscu, a professor of political science at Middlebury College who studied democracy and authoritarianism in Turkey . “The whole system is built around these corrupt networks, buddies networks, and it’s all levels: local level, national level, local branches of the party, local constructions, developers – they’re all stuck together.”

Responsibility after the earthquake – but for whom?

In 2019, Erdoğan campaigned for efforts to grant amnesty to builders. “We have solved the problems of 205,000 citizens of Hatay with zonal peace,” he told Turkish news site Diken, according to NPR’s translation. This amnesty policy was a kind of red tape reduction that allowed buildings to be built and certified even if they didn’t meet safety and code requirements. Developers had to pay a fine, but it was essentially an exception to the rules.

The granting of these construction amnesties predates Erdoğan and also the 1999 earthquake, which prompted Turkey to reform its safety and construction standards to better withstand the next quake.

After The last amnesty law was passed in 2018, tens of thousands of amnesties were granted, including in earthquake zones. Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, the Istanbul head of the Chamber of Urban Planners of Turkey’s Chamber of Engineers and Architects, told the BBC last week that the number in the earthquake zone could be as high as 75,000. (Vox has reached out to Giritlioğlu for comment and will update their comments when we receive feedback.)

Another amnesty bill was awaiting parliamentary approval before the earthquake, the BBC reports.

The amnesty is a window into the practices that made possible the gap between existing regulations and codes and what was actually enforced – and what that gap allowed to happen be so widespread. Even these individual measures, like amnesty, are difficult to separate from broader economic and political dynamics.

As experts said, construction was the engine of the economy and everything was done to keep it going.

That meant all strata of the political and economic structure, from the very bottom to the very top. Construction was also a source of political power for Erdoğan and the AKP, as major Turkish construction companies enriched themselves with government contracts and snuggled up to the regime. This construction boom, which boosted other sectors of the economy, helped popularize Erdoğan and the AKP; this, in turn, allowed him to strengthen his own authority and helped bring the AKP to power at all levels of government, including state and local agencies—often those tasked with overseeing permits or enforcing building codes .

Politicians had incentives to approve things like amnesty laws. People were enriched by this ecosystem of cronyism, so there was no incentive to ensure earthquake-proof standards were applied. And the institutions that could hold these actors and politicians accountable – the press, the civil service, the courts – have been eroded and eroded by Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian bent.

So, yes, developers and contractors were probably negligent, constructing buildings with cheap materials or designs that couldn’t withstand a 7.8 magnitude quake. But these shortcuts could not be made without the complicity or encouragement of government institutions, all of whom knew the country’s vulnerabilities and went ahead anyway.

“The rounding up of contractors is a response to public outcry,” Taner Yuzgec, former president of the Chamber of Civil Engineers, told the New York Times. “The real culprits are the current government and previous governments that have kept the system as it is.”

The Justice Department’s investigation could also be an attempt to relieve pressure not only from past wrongdoing, but also from criticism and complaints about the government’s response to the earthquake. Erdoğan has centralized many institutions under his control, meaning many functions of the state run through him. Experts and critics have said This probably contributed to some delays in disaster relief, including from the military.

These questions surrounding Turkey’s response – felt most strongly by people waiting to find loved ones or sleeping in the cold – are generating the most anger right now. Still, investigations into individual builders could take some pressure off Erdoğan, his party and those associated with his government. “He’s doing a good job of following some of the simple targets to show he means business. “I look after the interests of my people and I will hold these people accountable for everything they have done,” Gumuscu said.

The question now is whether scapegoating a few low-level people is enough, or whether this could potentially be a determining factor in Erdoğan’s political undoing. Elections are scheduled for May, and the country’s economic crisis and Erdoğan’s long tenure in power have already left him vulnerable, even with his deliberate erosion of democracy.

Whether the quake completely threatens Erdoğan’s hold on power is an open question, but what happens after the quake will determine Turkey’s future. Millions were left homeless after thousands of buildings and homes fell into disrepair. These houses need to be replaced. Turkey will rebuild. But how?

Yes I give $120/year

Yes I give $120/year

We accept credit cards, Apple Pay and Google Pay. You can also contribute via