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To Reconstruct Turkey, Rebuild Its Democracy

Turkey's massive death toll from the earthquakes in February attests to a much larger problem. From an overly powerful construction lobby and endemic corruption to the steady erosion of democratic institutions, it is clear that the country now needs a thorough political and economic transformation.

BOSTON – The devastating earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey (and at least 7,000 in northern Syria) in February have exposed deep-rooted problems in the run-up to potentially epochal presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14. Turkey, it is now clear, needs more than a change of government; it needs a fundamental transformation of its politics and economy. That means confronting the hugely powerful construction lobby and attempting to rebuild the country’s flailing democracy.

Though the earthquakes were acts of nature, the devastation they caused was the result of corruption within the construction industry and beyond. But this did not stop Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, from blaming the huge death toll on nature, even as he admitted that the authorities were caught off guard. The Turkish people have been asked to believe that everything is now under control, and that Erdoğan should be trusted with the post-disaster reconstruction.

Yet it is worth recalling that when Turkey suffered a major earthquake (7.6 on the Richter scale) in 1999, near the city of İzmit, the large death toll at the time (around 18,000) was rightly attributed to shoddy construction and poor urban planning. The government responded by adopting state-of-the-art building codes and regulations to prevent new construction in the highest-risk areas.