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As Turkey earthquake death toll grows, so does criticism of the Turkish government


The deadly earthquakes in Turkey reminded Asli Aydintasbas of another moment almost 25 years ago. She was in Istanbul when a massive quake struck in 1999, killing more than 17,000 people. That disaster helped boost the political career of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's now Turkey's president. He's overseen a period of rapid growth and construction, which raises questions about whether policy failures and building shortcuts might have added to the growing death toll.

Asli Aydintasbas is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution here in Washington, D.C. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Hi, Ari. Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: This was, undoubtedly, a natural disaster. What are some of the factors that lead people to question whether human choices might have made the situation worse?

AYDINTASBAS: Look; this was a big earthquake by any stretch of the imagination. We're looking into something that is of biblical proportions. But of course, understand that Turkey is on a seismic zone - two major fault lines - which means, since the terrible earthquake in 1999, the entire country had been talking about earthquake. Like, in Turkey, people know the names of main geologists, earthquake experts, that often appear on television. And what was expected was that there would be a massive earthquake and that Istanbul is not prepared. People are quite angry, increasingly so, because of issues like slow reaction or too centralized a reaction, which prevents other NGOs and some areas still really not reached.

SHAPIRO: What, specifically, do you think could have been done in the last 20-plus years? I mean, what steps could have been taken?

AYDINTASBAS: I mean, first of all, everything has to go through a central government, but the only entity that is allowed to do search and rescue is the government-sanctioned government entity. This decision-making issue that is too centralized - local officials, local authorities don't really have much say. They need the government official body to come and do the aid distribution, do the search and rescue. And that just is - just against human experience in terms of governance over centuries. We want these things decentralized for efficiency.

SHAPIRO: So that speaks to the relief effort. What about all of the construction that happened under Erdogan's rule? Were there lessons that should have been learned from the 1999 disaster that weren't?

AYDINTASBAS: Certainly. Turkey has depended so much on construction as the crown jewel of its economy. When you are pushing for a growth model that depends on construction, that's like feeding your kid with chocolate cake only. That's, A, an unhealthy way of development for an economy - You want actually value-added growth - but, B, it creates, inevitably, at the local level and at a bigger level, the kind of, you know, nepotism, corruption, et cetera that comes with construction in any country. It's hard to talk about these things, and the...


AYDINTASBAS: ...So soon after this tragedy. But I think there will have to come a time when we talk about these things. We - I am a Turkish citizen, even though I live in the states - and we've been paying earthquake taxes for all this time. And people are questioning now, where has it gone to?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. How much do you think political factors around the election are informing the response here?

AYDINTASBAS: I think so much of the response is dictated by the awareness that elections are around the corner. The government is very keen on controlling the sort of what they see as emerging dissent on the ground and trying to control social media. Therefore, we're seeing now restrictions on Twitter. Turkey is slowing it down. And I think that the government understands very clearly that how they respond to this earthquake is going to determine whether they stay in power or not.

SHAPIRO: Asli Aydintasbas is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

AYDINTASBAS: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Seyma Bayram
Seyma Bayram is the 2022-2023 Reflect America Fellow at NPR.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.