Turkey’s president faces scrutiny after earthquake for construction standards

The death toll from the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria has crossed 41,000. The disaster has also exposed Turkey's President Erdoğan’s political fault lines. He's facing scrutiny for failing to enforce construction standards that could have saved lives. Amna Nawaz discussed the frustrations with Gönül Tol of the Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The death toll and the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria has crossed 41,000.

    As hope of finding any survivors fades, the focus is shifting from rescue to reconstruction. In Turkey, thousands of buildings have been reduced to rubble.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the widespread damage in towns and cities is not the only permanent scar left on the landscape.

    Here's a report now from a village in Southern Turkey where the sheer destructive power of this earthquake is clear.

  • John Irvine:

    Since the earthquake struck Southern Turkey in the early hours of Monday morning last week, most of the focus obviously has been on the consequences for human beings. Far less attention has been on the consequences for the earth itself.

    But here in the farmland outside Antakya, there is a very good example of that. This is the world's newest valley. During that awful night, as they cowered in their homes, the locals knew that something cataclysmic had happened. But imagine their surprise when they first saw this chasm. We went to the bottom of it for the perspective from down there.

    But, actually, the best way to illustrate what we're talking about here is from above. The local people said that, at the time, they thought it was an air raid, the sound of explosions created by cracking rock, the flashes by the sparks that flew as the earth's crust was torn apart.

    "It used to be a flat field. I would ride my motorbike on it, said this boy."

    It was all an olive grove which is now bisected by a gorge that in places is the width of a football field. The rift is so deep that a 13-story building could fit in it.

    This boy said that, just after first light that morning, they came out here and found this. They were terrified and started crying.

    "We thought we had witnessed something that's out of this world."

    Eventually, the cities and towns will be clear of rubble. But this rupture, shaky ground permitting, will endure as a reminder of the power of the quake, the power of 7.8.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just astonishing. That was John Irvine of Independent Television News.

    Turkey's disastrous earthquake has also exposed President Erdogan's political fault lines. Anger, recriminations and demands for accountability are echoing across Turkey just three months ahead of a scheduled election.

    To discuss this, we turn to Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute's Turkey Program and author of the book "Erdogan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria."

    Gonul, welcome to the "NewsHour" and thank you for joining us.

    We invited you here because of your professional credentials. But, on a personal note, I know you were in Turkey when the earthquake hit. You lost family that night. We are so very sorry for your loss.

    These numbers are staggering, though, over 41,000 dead. Help us just understand what people on the ground are feeling right now.

    Gonul Tol, Founding Director, Middle East Institute Center for Turkish Studies: There is a lot of anger, Amna, on the ground over the government's slow response.

    It was not only slow, but it was very disorganized too. And the narrative on the ground from the victims is that Erdogan's government has not prepared the country for the earthquakes and did things that paved the way for last week's tragedy. The practice of granting government infrastructure projects to cronies who cut corners on safety played an important role in the high death toll.

    And another problematic policy enacted by Erdogan government was granting amnesties to unsafe buildings. And, according to state agencies, there are millions of almost more than half of all the buildings in the country received these amnesties. So people understand that.

    And compounding the problems for Erdogan's government is the fact that state agencies' rescue workers were not there on time, and, when they finally arrived, they couldn't do — they did not want to do enough to help the victims. And that really just frustrated a lot of people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Help us understand a little bit about the granting of these amnesties and President Erdogan's role in that, because the country did undergo a massive construction boom in recent years.

    What was behind that, and what exactly was President Erdogan's role in allowing some of those construction companies to get around the enforcement standards?

  • Gonul Tol:

    That's right.

    Erdogan's government rode high on a construction boom starting from earlier in his tenure. And he started — almost immediately after coming to power he started granting these government contracts to a handful of cronies that had little regard for environmental concerns or safety regulations.

    And he granted those contracts without competitive tenders or any regulatory oversight. So, I think that really compounded the problem. And, on top of that, he collected large sums of money in earthquake tax, and those taxes were meant to build stronger buildings. And, apparently, from what we have seen from last week, he has not built strong enough buildings.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, the Turkish government says that they have ordered over 100 people detained that they say were responsible for those many buildings collapsing.

    Is that the accountability you wanted to see here?

  • Gonul Tol:

    Not really, because I think these are small private contractors.

    I think a little over 100 have been arrested. But I think the bigger problem here is, the five largest companies in the country, and they are very close associates, personal friends of Erdogan. And they have become very rich because of these government tenders. And I doubt they will be held accountable.

    One of them is called Cengiz Holding. He is one of the richest men in the country, a personal friend of our Erdogan. And he has received, according to World Bank reports, $42.1 billion in tenders since Erdogan came to power.

    So those people, I doubt will be held accountable. And, actually, on the country last night, there was a government-led campaign to fund-raise for the victims. And Cengiz Holding was there donating over $160 million. And that happened right after President Erdogan's government gave Cengiz Holding incentives.

    So, even that effort from last night was an effort from Erdogan government to provide legitimacy to those companies.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Gonul, the elections are slated for May, right?

    President Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency that will go right up until those scheduled elections. Do you believe they should be postponed? Could they be postponed?

  • Gonul Tol:

    No, I think they have to be held on time.

    According to the Constitution, Turkey cannot hold elections later than June. But Erdogan tested the waters in the last few days. One of his close associates suggested that Turkey should not hold elections soon. And the opposition parties responded strongly, saying that it was unconstitutional for Turkey to hold elections after June, June 18.

    So, I think Erdogan will probably keep pushing for a later date, in the hopes that he could use that extra time to rebuild those cities, probably with financial — international financial aid, and use the media under his control to shift the narrative in his favor.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute's Turkey Program, joining us tonight.

    Thank you.

  • Gonul Tol:

    Thanks for having me.

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