Last week, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, killing more than thirty thousand people and destroying numerous towns and cities in both countries. A monumental recovery effort is necessary, but neither country is well positioned to mount one. For more than a decade, Syria has been fighting a brutal civil war brought on by Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule; Turkey, under the Presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been in economic crisis for the past five years, and is increasingly subject to authoritarianism, with crackdowns on journalists and political opponents, and the replacement of key governing figures with Erdoğan’s friends and family. There has been extensive criticism within Turkey over the pace of the recovery effort, which is being overseen by the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD)—itself run by someone with little experience in the field. Moreover, Erdoğan has been in power for two decades—first as Prime Minister and now as President—during which he has encouraged a huge surge in construction alongside shockingly lax enforcement of safety standards.
To understand the connections between Erdoğan’s leadership and the tragedy unfolding in Turkey, I recently spoke by phone with Jenny White, a social anthropologist and professor emerita at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. She is the author of many books about politics, religion, and nationalism in Turkey. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Erdoğan’s governing style and policies have hindered the earthquake response, why his approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population has made the crisis especially dire in Kurdish areas, and what the crisis could mean for Turkey’s upcoming election.
How would you characterize the government that President Erdoğan has created during the past twenty years?
Twenty years is a long time, so the government has gone through a number of permutations. Initially, when the A.K.P. [the Justice and Development Party], under Erdoğan, was first elected, it was actually a Party that people from all different walks of life and political views felt they could vote for, because it seemed to be a nice change from the previous Party, which had flubbed the 1999 earthquake. [That year, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake in the northwest part of the country killed more than fifteen thousand people.] That was a major reason the A.K.P. was elected. They elected a Party that they thought was not corrupt, cared about people, and got things done, which, in fact, it did at the beginning.
I went to Istanbul shortly after Erdoğan was elected, or his Party was elected, and I thought, My God, they have green buses—we don’t even have green buses in Boston. He picked up the garbage. He made things work. The city really needed some infrastructure. Under his leadership, the A.K.P. enhanced the subway, which made a huge difference to a lot of people. They built new roads, allowing people to go to their villages in three hours instead of ten. This was a happy period. Lots of other things were going wrong, but at least that seemed to be going right.
Then things started to veer off in quite a different direction. There are people who say, “Well, we knew all along what he was in his heart. He was just hiding it until the time was right.” I think that a better use of one’s time would be to try to explain what happened between 2016 and 2018, when things really flipped in a lot of ways and he became much more autocratic and less responsive.
One word I keep hearing about Erdoğan’s government today and the way it functions is “centralization.” Is that a fair way of thinking about it?
Well, the centralization occurred at an actual point in time: there was a referendum in 2017 in which the entire system of government changed from a parliamentary system to a Presidential system, a hyper-Presidential system as they call it. Beforehand, there was a more dispersed governmental system, with the state having different ministries, the parliament, and then the Presidency, which was a weak Presidency. Overnight, it became a Presidential system where ministries were disabled and new institutions sprung up.
I remember the day after this happened. I felt like those people who had spent their lives studying the Soviet Union, and then, the day after it became Russia, everything they had ever learned was irrelevant because the entire system had changed. I got a map of the new governmental system. It looked like the solar system, with the Presidency in the middle, and then surrounding it, like planets, were these new government offices that were not ministries. Nobody knew who was in charge; people in those new governmental organizations didn’t know what their jobs were.
So, to talk about centralization, you have to picture this map, with Erdoğan in the middle and everything else orbiting around him. The relationship between those planets and the central body around which they orbited was in flux, because it had yet to be defined. It turned out to be defined almost entirely in terms of loyalty. Previous institutions that had some kind of standards, an educational system that primed people for being members of those institutions—some of them were closed. The military academy was closed. The judicial training system was changed.
It’s not just the usual patron-client system. When you think of patrons and clients, it’s like a cascade. There’s someone at the top, but then the person below them has some kind of ability to use that power to help someone else below them. And it goes both ways. You ask a favor, and maybe a member of parliament can do something for you. That has broken down in Turkey completely. We were hearing that people who were in parliament, people who were in government offices, would no longer do things for their constituents because they were afraid that they might be doing the wrong thing. Maybe they were helping someone who would later be called Gülenist, and then they would be in trouble. [The Gülen movement, led by the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, is a religious movement that was once allied with the A.K.P. against Turkey’s secular liberals and military.] Maybe they were making the wrong decision in a court case, and then they would be sent to the backwoods. The whole system was stalemated. It was frozen. No one would help anyone do anything because everything had to come from the body in the middle, from Erdoğan. It didn’t move in both directions anymore. Erdoğan was making decisions about everything.
How have some of these dynamics manifested in the government’s response to the earthquake?
Think of the corruption that developed out of this system: government contracts were given to people who were not necessarily the most competent, but the ones you owed favors to, to allow them some graft. There was just so much graft in the construction industry. The government, which had put out regulations about how buildings should be safely built after the 1999 earthquake, basically kept issuing amnesties. If a new building wasn’t up to code, instead of making them fix it, they would grant amnesty, or there was just a small punishment fee of some kind. These were favors that were given to people in the construction industry who were friends of the A.K.P.—they were saved from having to spend extra money. Many of those buildings collapsed. People are absolutely furious and talking about it in Turkey.
The other thing, of course, is that, when loyalty is the most important thing, lack of expertise makes no difference. You see that in the university system, too: Erdoğan has put his own people in. The guy in charge of the relief operations has no expertise whatsoever. He was only put in place, like, a month earlier. I don’t know. It’s hard to go through all of the different things that went wrong.
Kurdish areas in both Turkey and Syria have been hit really hard by this quake. Earlier in Erdoğan’s tenure, he tried to make himself out to be an ally of Turkish Kurds, or at least not an enemy of them. But it seems that, especially in the last several years, there’s been a huge crackdown on the Turkish Kurd population. Many of their local political leaders have been thrown in jail and replaced with Erdoğan loyalists. How do you understand Erdoğan’s current relationship with the Kurdish community?
Well, the Kurdish community is diverse. There were quite a few Kurds who still voted for A.K.P., because, for example, they were particularly religious. There are also many Kurds who don’t like the P.K.K. and just want peace. [The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) is a militant group that pushes for more rights for the country’s Kurdish minority.] There were a number of reasons to vote for the A.K.P. But the way that this situation affected the relief efforts is that, after the 1999 earthquake, the government didn’t respond properly or quickly. So, civil-society organizations got into gear very quickly and did a lot of the heavy lifting, literally, early on, to organize assistance. This time, there are very few civil organizations left. During the past ten years, the government has closed down hundreds of civil-society organizations, especially in the Kurdish region. I went through a list of the ones that had been closed down, such as the Kurdish Women’s Association, for instance. Just anything with the word “Kurdish” in it was closed down. Many others were closed down, too. Part of this, I think, is a response to the Gezi protests, during which Erdoğan became very suspicious of associations that he feared were organizing against him.