On February 6, 2023, two seperate equally destructive earthquakes struck Turkey leaving behind them an unprecedented loss of life and property. Eleven provinces were devastated. With every stone lifted, the ugly face of bad governance showed itself more clearly and exposed the level of incompetence that our institutions are suffering due to politicized appointments.
The earthquake made it painfully obvious that one cannot build and sustain a country on hollow political rhetoric and empty promises. It revealed that ambition needs to be matched with capabilities to achieve its potential. It revealed the importance of institutions and merit-based appointment, of common sense and the reliance on science. It also showed the people of Turkey what happens when a Government consistently undermines the state of law and abuses society’s sense of morality to serve its own political purposes. While deceptive rhetoric can help a Government hide great many things, the scale of this particular catastrophe rendered such attempts futile. Finally, it has exposed and hopefully will ensure the accountibility of those responsible for inadequate construction and the corruption that allowed it.
Faith as an excuse.
Dozens of flawed decisions and mistakes have helped two unprecented earthquakes to increase the damage they inflicted. While it is easy to identify these mistakes, that effort alone will not change anything. Unless we learn from what happened, and unless those responsible are held to account, and if we continue to cover up our mistakes with irrational justifications such as “faith”, we will relive this nightmare more often that we can bear. Sadly, the general attitude of the Government and the statements that they chose to make promise very little change and even less accountability.
The government’s unrealistic domestic and foreign policies are now buried under the rubble of the earthquake. For years, the Government weaponized political polarization at home marginalizing its critics and tried to do the same abroad.
Foreign Powers as the preferred bogeyman.
Mr. Erdoğan’s AK Party has consistently reinforced the perception of an external enemy with little care for the fact that Turkey’s long-term interests are not served by alienating decades-old allies. For years, they made sure that the flawed idea of “foreign powers” meddling in Turkish affairs occupies an unhealthy place in the minds of the Turkish public with a constant bombardement of hate incitement.
This erroneous policy led to a deep sense of mistrust towards Turkey and has strained relations with many countries, especially traditional friends and allies. However, this perception was as badly constructed as the flawed buildings that came down during the earthquakes and disappeared below the rubble of the buildings. Instead of the “evil foreigner”, the public witnessed dozens of foreign Urban Search And Rescue (USAR) teams who rushed to the aid of earthquake victims. These “evil foreigners” dropped everything that they were doing and risked their lives to saved hundreds of Turkish lives.
Experienced “foreigners” armed with kind hearts and state-of-the-art equipment skillfully manouvred the dangers of destroyed buildings and torn up roads to assist Turkey. Their “foreign” governments did not only send these heroes to help; they also send food, money, clothing, medicine and other desperately needed supplies. These “evil foreigners” didn’t stop there. Their civilian compatriots at home started aid campaigns that helped dispatch even more resources; the Dutch alone raised well over a $100 million dolars. USAR teams from Israel and Greece—countries with whom we have very tense relations—were among the first to arrive. Others from Armenia and the United States followed soon. They all worked with great devotion winning the hearts and minds of the Turkish people.
Earthquake diplomacy versus reality
“Evil foreign powers” have been the points of lights in an otherwise very dark nightmare and revealed to us, to the Turkish people, that we have been lied to. Together with the buildings constructed by corrupt criminals with political ties, the preposterous conspiracy theories being pushed by pro-Government media collapsed completely. In short, for the government and its cronies, “the jig is up!”
Unsurprisingly, prominent members of the Government didn’t hesitate to have their pictures taken with these foreign saviors they used to call “dark foreign powers” while kicking their feet at their own citizens who criticized them for their incompetence that has cost so many lives.
In the near future, we should expect the Government will engage in “earthquake diplomacy” to take advantage of this window of opportunity derived from the millions of lives that were destroyed by this unprecedented natural disaster. They might even take some steps to ease the strained relations with such countries as Armenia, Greece and Syria. But these steps will not yield lasting results because previous policies have completely undermined the mutual fides needed to sustain better relations. And sadly, this author is convinced that the government, and its leader, have not yet begun to grasp the extent of the distrust they have caused among international counterparts.
Moreover, in the current climate of global instability, it is highly unlikely that foreign attention will remain focused on the earthquake disaster in Turkey for long. Soon we will see attention shift to other pressing matters such as the Ukrainian crisis.
The world will move on and the Turkish people will be left to mourn its losses and face the dire consequences of an incompetent populist government.
A political earthquake
When the dust starts to settle, we are likely to witness another major earthquake. This will be a political equivalent that will finally enable Turkey a chance to build back better. To build back not just buildings but also good governance and the rule of law.