In Pazarcik, at the epicentre of the first earthquake, the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) worked with local organisations to establish a Crisis Coordination Centre where they could gather aid from across the country and distribute it according to need. Yesterday, the district governor, a state official who was backed by soldiers and police, forcibly installed a government trustee to take over the running of the centre. HDP members and volunteers left the warehouse, declaring that, “We delivered aid to the people in need, working collectively and providing essential needs. This solidarity was stopped by the state today.” The HDP has shared a video showing how their carefully packed boxes have been tipped out by a government dumper truck.
Already, in other places, there had been confiscations of truckloads of aid collected by the HDP, and aid workers had been detained. HDP volunteers have left Pazarcik to avoid being detained too.
While the HDP is the target of especial government ire, all aid not coming from the Turkish state is in the government’s sights. Frankfurter Allgemeine shared reports that all aid arriving at Adana Airport is branded with the stickers of the government disaster agency, AFAD, and that “numerous videos are circulating on social media showing that private aid deliveries or those from smaller cities governed by opposition parties are pasted over with the logo of the ruling AKP party or are even prevented from continuing by the local governors”.
At the same time, accusations of looting, and incitement of racialised vigilante violence, are being used to attempt to create division and replace solidarity with fear.
The Turkish state, which has demonstrated its inability to provide and coordinate anything approaching the help that is needed, is, instead, expending its energy in thwarting the vital aid efforts being organised by others. They are trying to take credit for all aid themselves and to prevent any other organisations being looked up to as aid givers, and they are trying to stifle the development of any sort of independent social structures.
A dictator’s position rests on their perceived power. Power to suppress opposition, but also power to persuade people that they are the father figure, the protector, that can guide and save the nation. Turkey’s one-man rule is, in many respects, a dictatorship, and the earthquake has riven apart President Erdoğan’s carefully constructed protector image. He is struggling to rebuild it using his powers of suppression.; and, since reality is not in his favour, he has been trying to control the narrative through even more impositions on freedom of speech.
But, the truth is that authoritarian regimes are not good at responding to disasters. When government positions depend on pleasing the man at the top, and when criticism can land you in jail, conditions are not conducive to the development of efficient and well-run government. When politicians buy support by pardoning breaches of vital regulations, safe buildings are a rarity. And when the people are viewed from the palace as masses to be manipulated through destructive populist rhetoric, massaging perceptions can come to seem more important than improving, or even saving, people’s lives.
On top of this, when authoritarian governments attempt to restrict social organisation, they are attacking structures that play an essential role in disaster recovery.
Rita Jalali, in an examination of the response to the 1999 İzmit earthquake, noted, “Evidence from both developing and developed countries has repeatedly shown that no government in the world can provide immediate, effective disaster relief without community participation.”
Grassroots organisations are already there on the ground. They have local knowledge and networks. They are best placed to find out what is needed and by whom, and they have every incentive to put all efforts into making things work better, both now and for the future.
For this, these organisations need to be allowed to work freely, openly, and unmolested. Freedom of speech is needed for sharing information of what is happening, and for putting pressure on the government to use all its resources and equipment to do more to help. The Turkish government’s media restrictions included blocking Twitter, which also had a direct impact on search and rescue operations that were relying on messages from victims’ mobile phones. (There was still just enough freedom left for public pressure to force that restriction to be lifted.)
In looking at the performance of centralised regimes in disasters, Cuba, with its strong history of disaster preparedness, could be said to provide the exception that proves the rule. Cuban politics is centralised and freedom of speech is restricted, but, as a recent study explains, this is combined with a prioritisation of human welfare over private property and a decentralisation of implementation. Communal working and communal defence are the backbone of Cuba’s existence – be that defence against the US Army, against US economic sanctions, or against the many hurricanes that buffet the Caribbean. Cuba has other problems, but Cuban authorities have recognised community organisation as their most important asset. That is far from the case in Turkey.
Little in the Turkish Government’s response to last week’s earthquakes has been unexpected. Much is sadly familiar from previous earthquakes, including from 1999, before the current government came to power, though on that occasion it was weeks before the state authorities forcibly took over relief work. The gaping inadequacy of the then government’s response to the 1999 earthquake is seen as a factor in the sweeping victory that brought Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in the 2002 election. Erdoğan is now haunted by the fear that last week’s earthquakes will bring about his own downfall. With government attempts at usurping aid and at media censorship failing to contain national and international awareness of government culpability, fears are growing that Erdoğan will postpone the upcoming election, which legally has to take place by 18 June. Turkey’s constitution states that delay is only permitted in time of war, but in Erdoğan’s war for survival, anything is possible.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter