Turkey’s political fault lines exposed by government opposition to anti-earthquake measures

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its junior partner in parliament, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), voted against legislation proposed by the pro-Kurdish opposition to better prepare the country for earthquakes, BirGün reported on Thursday.

The pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party introduced the bill after a 6.6 magnitude earthquake struck the western province of Izmir last week, leading to the death of at least 114 people and the destruction of more than a dozen buildings.

In response, three HDP members on the Parliamentary Budget Commission proposed to increase the Education Ministry’s budget for the fortification of school buildings and to allocate financial resources to hire 200,000 more teachers.

The strengthening of school buildings would cost 10 billion liras ($1.18 billion) and the hires another 20 billion liras ($2.36 billion), BirGün said.

“There are hundreds of thousands of teachers waiting to be appointed,” one of the HDP politicians, Garo Paylan, said in the commission meeting. “Some have committed suicide.”

The rejection of the measure underscores Turkey’s widening political divide. The legislation is the latest in a long line of opposition proposals to be thrown out by the AKP without the government proposing anything in its place. The AKP’s relations with the HDP are particularly fraught, with scores of officials from the pro-Kurdish party have been arrested on terrorism charges in recent years under a government crackdown.

Paylan told BirGün that the education minister had agreed with the opposition, but the budget commission’s AKP and MHP members voted the proposal down.

“It is possible to increase the ministry’s budget if resources allocated to the presidential palace and its sycophants are cut down in part,” Paylan said.

Turkey has two major seismic fault lines spanning the length of the country, including through the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country, and is therefore prone to high magnitude earthquakes. Three of the four deadliest earthquakes across the world this year occurred in and around Turkey, and the country was home to 85 percent of 2020’s earthquake-related fatalities.

An earthquake in the eastern Elazığ province killed 41 people in January. More than 500 people were killed in a 2011 earthquake in the province of Van, near the Iranian border. And another huge tremor in the northwestern İzmit/Düzce region claimed the lives of 18,000 people in August 1999, the repercussions of which are still felt today.

The 1999 earthquake was among the key factors that destabilised the country’s then coalition government, led by the centre-left. Together with the 2001 financial crisis, the disaster paved the way for the AKP’s first-ever election victory in November 2002, marking the start of an uninterrupted 18 years in government.

Since then, Turkey has been discussing how to handle a possible earthquake in the megacity of Istanbul, which has a population of 16 million. Experts say the nearby North Anatolian fault line has the potential to produce tremors with the magnitude of 7.0 and above. While geologist Naci Görür said the next major earthquake in the city would likely have a magnitude of at least 7.3.

The Istanbul Planning Agency (IPA), an initiative by the city’s metropolitan municipality, has estimated that at least 48,000 buildings would be severely damaged in a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, while another 194,000 would register at least medium-severity damage. The city stands to lose 120 billion liras ($14.2 billion) in the immediate aftermath of such an earthquake, the IPA said. The human cost will be even higher.