The earthquake that hit Turkey has killed and injured tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands without homes. Entire cities have been devastated in western Turkey, and the initial estimate of the financial costs by the Turkish Employers' Federation runs as high as $25 billion. This will place an additional heavy burden on an economy that was going through difficulties even before the earthquake.
The people of Turkey are in a state of shock and bewilderment at the enormity of the calamity. However, there is also almost universal disappointment and anger at the failure of the Turkish authorities to respond quickly and effectively to the disaster. It is likely that once the grim and massive task of trying to find survivors and victims is over and the long and painful process of recovery begins, the traditionally stoic Turks will want answers from their government.
While it is true that the sheer size of the earthquake would have strained the resources of any country, including those of the United States, past negligence and corruption, combined with the inadequate emergency response, resulted in higher casualties than might otherwise have been the case. The government is clearly on the defensive.
President Suleyman Demirel, who was confronted by earthquake victims criticizing the government during a visit to a devastated town, argued in front of TV cameras that anger "should be directed at the earthquake and not the government." Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who heads the three-party coalition government, was stung by sustained Turkish media criticism and attacked "irresponsible" journalists who were "undermining morale" with their stories.
Demirel and Ecevit, along with other members of the Turkish government, have been arguing that everything is back under control. However, a retired four-star general, who frequently gives voice to sentiment in the powerful military establishment, said that it was "necessary for the military to control the relief efforts through the declaration of emergency rule." Although Ecevit said that no such demand had been made by the Turkish military, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, the chief of staff, publicly confirmed that there had been discussions of the question with the government. It is noteworthy that the earthquake victims cheered the soldiers who came to their assistance even as they denounced the central and local authorities.
The earthquake has brought to the surface in the most painful way the glaring problems in the government of Turkey. The political system has long been creaking under the ineffective direction of successive generations of politicians, who have been forced out of government by military intervention or pressure four times in the past 40 years, most recently in June 1997.
The current system pays little attention to the average citizen and his living conditions except during elections. It does not encourage sustained efforts to tackle Turkey's long-neglected issues such as housing, education, health, social security and income disparity. Instead, politicians spend the bulk of their time and effort trying to satisfy the demands of members of the Turkish business elite.
While the Turkish private sector rightly has been praised for its entrepreneurial dynamism, its failure to restrain itself in its dealings with the government has contributed to the chronic political problems of Turkey. Although Turkey has been trying to wean itself from reliance on state control during the past 20 years, Ankara retains immense influence over the economy. Turkish companies compete with one another with little legal or ethical constraint to ensure access to politicians and bureaucrats. The most powerful tycoons use newspapers or TV networks that they control. Corruption extends all the way down to the local officials who failed to impose the existing building regulations on construction companies, thus ensuring heavy casualties in the earthquake.
The minister of state for the economy, Recep Onal, has been arguing that Turkey soon will recover and that there will be no lasting damage to the Turkish economy; he has predicted an early standby agreement with the IMF. His predecessor tried to commit suicide in early July after the last round of talks with the IMF amid controversy over "insider dealing."
It is far from clear whether public anger will be sustained and what the ultimate political impact of the earthquake will be. What is certain is that unless Turkey faces up to the inadequacies of its political system, no amount of outside assistance will suffice.
The writer is senior associate and director of Turkish Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.