Turkey’s twin-earthquake disaster “represents a collective trauma and will clearly have an impact on voters as the country prepares for a general election on May 14”.
So writes Yaprak Gursoy, professor of European politics and chair of contemporary Turkish studies at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science, in an analysis for The World Today magazine of Chatham House.
Gursoy notes that in Turkey, the area affected by the earthquakes (which also impacted northern Syria) housed more than 15mn people, approximately 18% of the country’s population—of whom 2.7mn are now homeless.
“Millions more in Turkey and beyond became witnesses to this tragedy through their relatives and friends. The knowledge that much of the rest of the country lies on earthquake fault lines has led to fear, anger and despair,” observes Gursoy.
Recapping on the sheer scale of the earthquake catastrophe, with the death toll now standing at more than 50,000 and damage running to tens of billions of dollars, Gursoy refers to a passage in Trauma and the Memory of Politics, a book by Jenny Edkins, which suggests “What we call trauma takes place when the very powers that we are convinced will protect us and give us security become our tormentors”.
In that sense, says Gursoy further referencing the book, large-scale traumatic events “are overwhelming but they are also a revelation”. The events, she continues, compel “communities to reconsider the political and social order that gave meaning to their lives”.
And she points out: “After the devastation caused by this natural disaster, people affected were let down by institutions supposed to protect them. Thousands of buildings collapsed and buried people. Rescue teams were slow to respond and poorly equipped.
“The sense of betrayal was compounded when the focus fell on a 2018 government amnesty that gave legal status to at least 7.4 million sub-standard buildings. New buildings that should have met earthquake regulations turned to dust due to the poor implementation of existing codes.”
The political consequences of a collective trauma can still be felt decades later, something that was seen in the recent 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, says Gursoy, adding: “Although caused by violent terrorist attacks, the assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in September 2001 were nevertheless comparably traumatic for the United States. Within days, the Bush administration labelled its response a ‘War on Terror’.
“The focus on security in domestic and foreign policy contributed to the invasion of Iraq, to the re-election of President George W Bush in 2004 and Republican control of Congress until 2007.
“The attack on the Twin Towers demonstrates how governments can take control and turn people’s reactions into preconceived notions of victims and enemies. In this way, feelings of security can be re-established.”
Looking at a contrasting example, Gursoy reflects back on Turkey’s August 1999 earthquake, which eventually led to profound change in the country. She recalls: “That quake, which caused more than 17,000 deaths, provoked a similar sense of betrayal by the political system. Widespread corruption led to buildings crumbling and chaotic rescue efforts. The governing coalition was penalized by the voters and booted out three years later, allowing Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party to rise to power.”
Addressing the question of which way Turkey will vote if the elections on May 14 go ahead as planned, Gursoy assesses that so far, “the Erdogan government is attempting to control the narrative. The earthquake is fate, and the cities will be rebuilt in a year through a reconstruction drive, says the president – a policy inspired by the AKP’s previous model of spurring economic growth.
“Erdogan has added that anyone who goes against the official account of the state’s response to the devastation is ‘immoral, dishonest and vile’.
“While this might galvanize anger among opposition voters, it may garner support from those who believe Erdogan’s stance of strong leadership can restore their lives to pre-quake normality. Even without the government’s encouragement, some voters are falling back on familiar enemies such as the Syrian refugees or foreign powers, for making the situation worse. They stand accused of carving out benefits for themselves in the chaos, or even causing the earthquakes.”
Gursoy concludes: “Turkey faces a huge rebuilding task following the quakes. Given those challenges, the outcome of the elections might only be the prelude to an impending transformation. It will take years to know if Turkey will bury the memory of the earthquake with the rubble or use it to rebuild its politics along with its cities.”