Daron Acemoglu and Cihat Tokgöz,
BOSTON – The devastating earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey (and at least 7,000 in northern Syria) in February have exposed deep-rooted problems in the run-up to potentially epochal presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14.
Turkey, it is now clear, needs more than a change of government; it needs a fundamental transformation of its politics and economy.
That means confronting the hugely powerful construction lobby and attempting to rebuild the country’s flailing democracy.
Though the earthquakes were acts of nature, the devastation they caused was the result of corruption within the construction industry and beyond.
But this did not stop Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, from blaming the huge death toll on nature, even as he admitted that the authorities were caught off guard.
The Turkish people have been asked to believe that everything is now under control, and that Erdoğan should be trusted with the post-disaster reconstruction.
Yet it is worth recalling that when Turkey suffered a major earthquake (7.6 on the Richter scale) in 1999, near the city of İzmit, the large death toll at the time (around 18,000) was rightly attributed to shoddy construction and poor urban planning.
The government responded by adopting state-of-the-art building codes and regulations to prevent new construction in the highest-risk areas.
So why, then, did the latest earthquakes destroy more than 18,000 buildings and fatally damage another 280,000? The short answer is that building codes were not followed.
Many of the recently decimated buildings were erected after 1999, but they were still unsafe (with weak foundations that did not use the minimum required amount of cement), because municipal governments and inspectors had given developers a pass.
Corruption is just one facet in the broader rise of Turkey’s construction lobby over the last two decades. The construction industry now accounts for over 40% of total fixed-capital investment, and its political influence is even greater than these numbers would suggest.
Construction companies are among the leading donors to all major political parties, and they maintain inappropriately close links with all municipal governments, regardless of which party is in control.
While construction-industry corruption is a major problem in many other countries as well, it is particularly pernicious in Turkey.
Not only is the industry disproportionately large relative to the economy, but it is exploiting democratic institutions that have been severely weakened after two decades of Erdoğan’s autocratic rule.
The Erdoğan government’s bizarre 2018 “building amnesty” illustrates the construction lobby’s power. The amnesty allowed owners to avoid having to demolish or retrofit buildings that were not up to code simply by paying an additional tax, even in the case of structures that had been erected along fault lines, wetlands, basins, and other high-risk areas.
In the ten provinces that suffered the worst devastation in the recent earthquakes, a staggering 294,000 buildings had received amnesty.
While there currently are no definitive data with which to assess the lethality of amnesty, it is safe to assume that many of these buildings were among those that collapsed and killed their inhabitants.
Turkey’s 1999 “earthquake tax,” which was increased by presidential decree in 2021, was supposed to finance improvements to strengthen buildings’ resilience against seismic events. But there is considerable uncertainty about where these funds went.
With such a staggering death toll and hundreds of thousands left homeless, one might expect Turkish voters to turn out en masse against the government on May 14. But so far, at least, there is little evidence that the media and civil society are eager to hold national and municipal politicians accountable.
Unlike in 1999, when most media outlets described the damage from the earthquake as a failure of governance, the near-total consensus in Turkish media today is that it was an “act of God,” implying that Erdoğan and his government are blameless.
This type of coverage is no surprise, given that Erdoğan has gradually assumed almost direct control over all national media outlets, including TV channels and high-circulation newspapers.
Open dissent has become increasingly dangerous: journalists are routinely jailed for critical reporting, and websites and social-media platforms have been closed for challenging Erdoğan.
Mounting repression had unintended consequences in February. Four months earlier, in October 2022, the parliament enacted a “censorship law” that significantly deepened online censorship.
Using the new law, the government blocked access to social-media sites in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes – inadvertently complicating rescue efforts.
This astonishing level of media control – and the polarization it has engendered – has left opposition parties and politicians struggling to get their message out to voters, especially when they try to highlight endemic corruption and government incompetence.
But even if a coalition of opposition parties can win, replacing the government will not fix Turkey’s problems. The country’s institutions need to be rebuilt, and that process cannot be completed unless the construction lobby is cut down to size.
While the odds of achieving transformational change may appear low, Erdoğan’s control over the media and state institutions does not guarantee his re-election.
There is a palpable desire for change among the electorate, even if it is not reflected in the media. One place to find it is in soccer stadiums.
At recent matches for two of the country’s most widely followed teams, thousands of fans chanted, “Lies, cheating, it’s been 20 years, resign.”
Of course, this story was underplayed by Turkish media, and pro-Erdoğan officials and journalists have tried to smear such dissent as terrorism.
The clubs themselves have faced fines, and many of their fans have been barred from attending away games. Nonetheless, these views are not going away, and they could well be echoed widely at the ballot box.
Demands for political change can emerge from unexpected places, and when they do, they can offer hope to millions of others. That, more than a new government, is what true change requires.
To rebuild Turkish democracy, Turks will need to remove Erdoğan, confront the construction lobby, and then get to work restoring essential institutions – perhaps starting with the news media.