An Erdogan mea culpa must precede Turkey’s recovery

As the Sichuan quake of 2008 showed, an acknowledgment of past failures is essential to building back better 

A DEVASTATING earthquake destroys densely populated cities in a developing country. The death toll, in the tens of thousands, is blamed on builders, for poor construction quality and on officials, for lax enforcement of codes. The government reacts to a public clamour for accountability by bobbing and weaving. 

But under increasing public pressure it eventually owns up, acknowledging that a combination of bad building practices, inept urban planning and negligent enforcement of rules greatly exacerbated the human tragedy. The path is now cleared for a programme of building back better. 

If the first part of that narrative seems a recounting of events of the past week in Turkey, those who lived through the devastation wrought by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed nearly 90,000 people, will also find it familiar. 

For survivors of last week’s twin temblors in south-eastern Turkey, the knowledge that tens of millions of people in southwestern China experienced their plight and their pain not long ago may be little consolation. But they might hope for a similar recovery — if the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan draws the lessons from the second part of the Sichuan narrative. 

The Turkish leader and his officials, facing intense criticism for the country’s poor construction record and the government’s slow response to the quake, have been behaving much like the Chinese authorities initially did. The president has been making excuses, claiming the rescue effort was hampered by the entrapment of so many potential first responders in collapsed buildings. He has attacked critics, with Turkish police arresting people for social-media posts about the earthquake that authorities said were “provocative”. 

Erdogan and his officials have not taken any responsibility for the long and steady decay in governance standards, much less the negligent enforcement of building rules, that have compounded the calamity. Instead, the government seems to be trying to scapegoat builders for the enormous loss in lives. (As of this writing, the death toll in Turkey alone was rapidly heading for the 40,000 mark. Casualties are harder to count in war-torn Syria, but the combined toll will likely match that of Sichuan.) 

The state of denial will be hard to sustain. Awkwardly for the president, videos have emerged of him praising some of the buildings that pancaked last week, and boasting that his government allowed rapid construction by granting builders amnesty from safety codes meant to ensure that apartment blocks, homes and offices were resistant to earthquakes. 

If he hasn’t already, Erdogan will soon discover that stifling complaints is impossible after a tragedy on this scale. Even in China, where the space for criticism is severely constrained and punishment for dissent harsh, survivors of the 2008 quake proved impossible to silence.

As in Turkey, outrage over poor construction and lax regulation was widespread, as were allegations that corrupt officials had been in cahoots with crooked builders. Much of the anger was focused on the flimsy construction of schools, where thousands of children were killed. Parents staged protests for weeks on end. 

Eventually, not even the Chinese government, despite its long experience in suppressing inconvenient information, could sustain a cover-up. A few weeks after the quake, experts sent to assess the damage were acknowledging failures. The official enquiry into the collapsed school buildings would confirm parents’ suspicions that many children might have survived but for shoddy construction. 

The Sichuan tragedy had a positive postscript. Chinese authorities, having acknowledged the failures that led to the devastation of 2008, ensured that the cities and towns in the quake zone were built back better. New rules, more strictly enforced than before, led to the construction of more quake-resistant housing. 

These were put to the test five years later, when the region was shaken by another temblor. Officials proudly announced that not a single new building collapsed. As the response to the quake in Turkey moves from the rescue phase to relief and recovery, Erdogan and his officials should heed the lessons of Sichuan. Once the initial trauma wears off and survivors take stock of their situation, opprobrium over any inadequacies in the government’s response will undoubtedly intensify, along with calls for accountability for any failures that may have contributed to the casualty count. Ahead of a general election scheduled for mid-May, Turkey’s Opposition parties will amplify any criticism of the president and his ruling party. 

In an attempt head off his critics, Erdogan has pledged to rebuild quake-destroyed homes in a year — an impossible promise. If anything, it will only raise suspicion that the reconstruction will be slapdash, with codes again ignored and corners cut. 

Sichuan showed that clearing the air after a natural disaster is as important as clearing the rubble. A mea culpa from Erdogan is essential for Turkey’s hopes of repairing its broken cities and preventing the next calamity. — Bloomberg 

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owner. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition