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The earthquake in Turkey could have political aftershocks


While the main focus in the disaster zone in Syria and Turkey is to try and rescue people and help the survivors, increasingly, some in Turkey are questioning the leadership of the country's longtime president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Given Turkey's history with earthquakes, critics are asking if his government did enough to prepare beforehand and if the response has been too slow or off the mark in the days since. Those questions are particularly important for Erdogan as he is seeking re-election and could face voters as early as May.

We called Piotr Zalewski for his perspective on this. He writes for The Economist as their Turkey correspondent. He's currently in one of the hardest-hit regions in the country, and he's also been following the political situation in Turkey. Piotr, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

PIOTR ZALEWSKI: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So President Erdogan is no stranger to upheavals and crises of various kinds. As briefly as you can, just tell us a little bit about how he rose to power, and what are some of the other crises that he's withstood to stay in office?

ZALEWSKI: There was a massive earthquake in Turkey in 1999 that killed some 18,000 people - in a way, set the stage for Erdogan's election. Erdogan himself was elected prime minister in 2003, and he has remained in power for the past 20 years. He has also survived a coup attempt, a mass corruption scandal, anti-government protests, a refugee crisis. The fallout from the earthquake in Turkey right now will weigh heavily on the minds of voters as they head to the polls.

MARTIN: I understand that you are in areas that have been pretty hard-hit, and I'm interested in what you've been hearing from people. What do they think about the government's response?

ZALEWSKI: I mean, objectively speaking, the response has been inadequate, and even Erdogan has admitted as much. You know, there have been areas that emergency teams and rescue workers were not able to access for days. One of the places I traveled to was the city of Antakya in southern Turkey, and the place, you know, resembles a war zone. I mean, it resembles a city that has been under heavy carpet bombing for months. Every other building is destroyed, and by destroyed, I mean pancaked-level, entirely.

When I was there, there were some emergency crews or at least official rescue workers on the outskirts of the city. In the city center, there were very, very few to be seen, and people were digging through the rubble with their own hands. There were people who were wounded who had not been looked after, who had not been picked up by ambulances for hours. Some of the wounded died. So yes, the response has been inadequate.

MARTIN: But, you know, you mentioned the 1999 earthquake. Since then, as I understand it, there's been an earthquake tax that was meant to gather the resources to devote to disaster prevention and relief. Do we know where that money went?

ZALEWSKI: On the one hand, you know, the government has taken some measures to earthquake-proof some buildings. But the biggest problem is that there are still millions and millions of homes and buildings in Turkey that have been built illegally or in defiance or disregard of building standards, and the government has just not done enough to address this and, in fact, has made things worse by pushing ahead with several building amnesties, effectively legalizing illegal structures as a way, among other things, to win votes.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you wrote a piece last month where you said, quote, "another five years of Erdoganismo would push the country more overtly toward autocracy." Forgive me for asking you to speculate, but do you see any sign that people are willing to entertain an alternative, given what's just happened?

ZALEWSKI: An alternative to Erdogan?

MARTIN: Erdogan. Yeah.

ZALEWSKI: Already, you know, the opposition was ahead in the polls, and again, it remains to be seen what the impact of the earthquake will be. But the question I think a lot of people are asking is, what is it that we are faced with? Is this, you know, a regime - is this already a regime masquerading as a government, meaning a regime that will do everything to remain in power, or is this still a government that can be elected out of office? And I think this is what makes the election so important, that it is going to - no matter who wins, it is going to provide at least some answers to that question.

MARTIN: Piotr Zalewski writes for The Economist. He's their Turkey correspondent. He's currently reporting on the aftermath of that devastating earthquake, as well as the country's political situation. Piotr Zalewski, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this reporting with us.

ZALEWSKI: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.