'Rotten buildings': Corruption in spotlight after Turkey quake
People sit and stand near a collapsed building, in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake, in Adiyaman, Turkey, February 12, 2023. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
What’s the context?
The death toll in Turkey's worst earthquake in modern history is fueling longstanding criticism about lax enforcement of construction regulations
- Death toll in Turkey-Syria earthquake exceeds 37,000
- Turkish opposition cites weak building controls, graft
- Government orders arrests, meticulous investigation
- Erdoğan's party oversaw rapid construction boom
As rescuers race to find survivors in the rubble a week after Turkey's deadliest earthquake in a generation, anger is growing over why so many buildings collapsed and crumbled to the ground.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government has vowed to meticulously investigate anyone suspected of responsibility for the collapse of buildings, ordering the arrest of more than 100 suspects so far.
But Erdoğan's critics accuse his government of failing to enforce building regulations, fuelling corruption, and of misspending special taxes levied after the last big quake in 1999 in order to make buildings more resistant.
"The murderer is not the earthquake, but ... those who turn the cities into mass graves in the name of urban transformation, those whose signatures are at the bottom of every building approval," columnist Feray Aytekin Aydoğan wrote in the left-wing BirGün newspaper last week.
Environment Minister Murat Kurum said 24,921 buildings across the region had collapsed or were heavily damaged in the 7.8-magnitude quake, based on assessments of more than 170,000 buildings.
The combined death toll from the disaster, which hit parts of Syria and Turkey, rose above 37,000 on Monday and looked set to keep increasing.
For many Turks who have lived through past earthquakes, there is a depressing sense of déjà vu.
After the 1999 quake, which killed more than 18,000 people in the northwest, building regulations - and corruption - were also widely blamed for exacerbating the disaster.
"Once again rotten buildings, once again thieving unscrupulous building contractors," one major Turkish newspaper said at the time.
It is common for developers to skirt planning regulations and critics say corrupt politicians and local officials often benefit by turning a blind eye to violations.
In the 10 years to 2022, amid a rapid boom in construction in Turkey, the country slipped 47 places in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index to 101, having been as high as 54 out of 174 countries in 2012.
Erdoğan's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment by Context.
Public anger and economic problems, partly caused by the 1999 quake, helped catapult Erdoğan's AK Party into power in 2002, promising a clean start free from the endemic corruption of the past.
The party embarked on a programme of massive infrastructure projects - new airports, ports, roads, railways and public housing projects sprang up across the country, contributing to Turkey's significant economic success.
"Construction was one of the pillars of the economic boom of Turkey in the first 10-12 years of the AK Party," said Wolfgango Piccoli, director of research at consultancy firm, Teneo, citing the party's "close connection" with the construction industry.
The rapid infrastructure growth won praise from foreign investors.
"It's one of the things we have celebrated – their ability to do infrastructure very quickly, but actually maybe too quickly with hindsight," said Timothy Ash, a Turkey analyst at BlueBay Asset Management.
"The reasons are all the expected ones, cost-cutting, greed, there's no other way to explain it. You have a culture of going for growth at all costs," he said.
Opposition politicians accuse the government of institutionalising what Turks call the "rentier system", a circular funding model in which friendly contractors are awarded lucrative state contracts in exchange for political and financial support.
"This collapse is the result of systematic rentier politics," opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said in a statement after visiting quake-affected cities in the south.
Erdoğan has accused opponents of trying to exploit the situation for political purposes and of failing to face up to corruption in opposition-run municipalities that were also hard-hit by the disaster.
Regulations and amnesties
In 2007, the government passed new regulations aimed at cleaning up the construction sector, seeking to make new buildings earthquake-proof and shore up the old ones.
Planning rules have been further tightened since, most recently in 2018, requiring more steel columns and beams to absorb the impact of earthquakes.
But during the same year, the government issued an amnesty for existing buildings that had broken the rules - for a fee.
More than 10 million people applied, netting the state more than $3 billion in property taxes and registration fees.
More than half of Turkey's 13 million buildings contravene regulations, according to official data, making amnesties popular among property owners, as well as a lucrative source of government revenue.
Another amnesty was proposed last year and was making its way through parliament, despite criticism, even before the latest quake.
Marking the Aug. 17 anniversary of the 1999 quake last year, the Architects' Association said "anyone voting for a planning amnesty is responsible for incitement to murder".
The earthquake has handed Erdoğan a huge rescue and reconstruction challenge in the run-up to an election scheduled for June that is already set to be the toughest of his two decades in power.
Any perception that the government is failing to address the disaster properly, or had not enforced adequate building codes, could hurt Erdoğan's prospects in the vote, but some analysts say he could rally national support around the crisis response.
On a visit to the province of Hatay, one of the areas worst affected by the disaster, Erdoğan pledged to activate all the building contractors working in public housing to clear the rubble and rebuild what had been lost within a year.
"We are a government that has proven ourselves on these issues," he said.
(Reporting by Jon Hemming in London. Editing by Helen Popper)
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