On February 6, 2023, in the very early morning, around 04:17 by the local time, a terrible earthquake hit southeast Türkiye (Turkey) and northwest Syria. Called as 2023 Gaziantep-Kahramanmaraş earthquakes by the Turkish media and 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake by the international media, the disaster led to the death of more than 5,000 people in two countries. In this piece, I am going to summarize latest developments about the earthquake.
With the magnitude of 7.7, 2023 Gaziantep-Kahramanmaraş earthquake was the second biggest earthquake disaster Turkey had after the 1939 Erzincan earthquake (7.8). The earthquake was even stronger than 1999 İzmit earthquake (7.6), which caused the death of 18,000 Turkish citizens. Turkish authorities announced the death toll around 3,400 and casualties as 20,000 so far, but it is almost certain that these numbers will go up in the coming hours and days. The earthquake was followed by numerous aftershocks, the strongest of which had a magnitude of 7.5 and occurred 9 hours later than the first earthquake. That is why, many began to call the disaster in plural form as 2023 Gaziantep-Kahramanmaraş earthquakes. Aftershocks and seismic activities in the region still continue and experts warn people to leave the region for safer places as soon as possible. It must not be forgotten that there are thousands of deaths on the Syrian side as well. That is why, we can make an early prediction that the death toll will surpass 5,000 in the coming hours and days.
Of course, there is little we can do to completely eliminate the negative consequences of natural disasters. In fact, comparing with the 1999 İzmit earthquake (also called as the 1999 Gölcük earthquake), a relatively smaller disaster, the death toll creates the perception that Türkiye has made progress about the quality of its residences and urban settlements. But one should keep in mind that the 1999 earthquake took place in a densely populated region (Kocaeli, Düzce, Sakarya, Bolu, Bursa, Yalova, Eskişehir, and İstanbul), whereas 2023 Kahramanmaraş-Gaziantep earthquakes were limited to southeast Turkey. So, one can claim that Türkiye’s progress is still not enough to reach the high standards of earthquake countries. Take Japan for example; as a real and terrible earthquake country, Japanese sophisticated technology in construction industry has been able protect the citizens of the country from death even in greater disasters. In fact, most of the killings in Japanese earthquakes are resulted from tsunamis, not from earthquakes. In Türkiye however, it is sad to see that even some new buildings that were constructed a few years ago were also demolished. As some say, “Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do“. So, I think we still have a long way to go on that matter.
Looking from the perspective of Political Science, another interesting point is that, natural disasters are like a test for politicians in office. If leaders perform well, solve the crisis, and achieve to create a special bond with their people during the time of crisis, in fact they could get empowered. A Political Psychology expert from North Cyprus, Professor Vamık Volkan for instance has interesting views about how the political communication becomes a one-way street between the leader and its people during the times of crisis. Especially in the U.S. politics, there are many examples of this successful strategic communication prudently conducted by American Presidents and their advisors. However, natural disasters could turn into political disasters as well if leaders panic, could not unify and lead the society, and/or give wrong emotional messages.
In Türkiye, earthquakes are very significant for politics. In 1999, the massive earthquake in Gölcük marked the beginning of a new era of growing Islamism with AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rise to power. Some religious/pious groups in Türkiye perceived the earthquake as God’s response to immoral secular life in the country. Accordingly, Islamism gained power and Turkish people swept away secular right-wing parties by replacing them with the Islamist-originated AK Parti in the next election. I am not sure whether this earthquake will create the similar consequence or not, but one thing is for certain: things are not getting very good in Türkiye recently although the country is ready to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the Republic this year. The inequalities and injustices within the system as well as corruption and mismanagement, create anger towards the government among the ordinary people.
Thank God, Turkish society is still very strong and loyal and except for some radical groups, people stick to each other and act in solidarity. It is amazing to see how young university students and professors from all over the country organize help campaigns for the victims. This shows that Türkiye will always continue to exist and Turkish society will never be divided during hard times.
Moreover, Türkiye has many friends outside of its borders. Many world leaders expressed their condolences to Türkiye after the disaster. In addition, many countries sent their rescue teams and help materials to Türkiye. Among them, Azerbaijan and Israel took the lead. In a globalized world, of course, a country cannot live in isolation and it needs friends and allies. So, Turkish people will never forget its true friends and allies that appear in times of crisis and hardship.
Finally, the disaster will cause despair in the country for a while (in fact, 7 days of national mourning was declared by the government), but I am sure that Türkiye will rise again even stronger than before after this tragedy. This is because Türkiye has mostly achieved its national integration in the last century and it has a strong state tradition.
Geçmiş olsun Türkiye…
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ