Thinking about the Earthquakes in Turkey: A Call for Local Democracy

Picture: FCDO/Russell Watkins

Professor Rabia Karakaya Polat

The earthquakes that took place in Maraş province of Turkey on February 6, together with the terrible destruction they caused, also led to the questioning of state institutions and capacity. An important dimension of the subject is the relationship between central and local governments in the country. These earthquakes and what happened afterwards have been instrumental in questioning the overcentralized structure of the state in Turkey[i]. Discussions centered on why the earthquakes were so devastating[ii] as well as the inadequacies in the post-earthquake response[iii].

In Turkey, the authority to issue city planning and zoning permits belongs to the central administration. The authority to carry out urban transformation processes in existing settlements also rests with the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change, which is the relevant ministry of the central government. Therefore, the possibilities of municipalities to make cities earthquake resistant are very limited. The authorities of municipalities, such as controlling and licensing the buildings against earthquakes, are not used effectively enough.

Turkish people have witnessed that the excessively centralized structure also hindered the post-earthquake rescue efforts. It was not possible for local actors to take the initiative and act. The lack of timely mobilization of local capacity increased the loss of life. It is very important that not only local governments, but also civil society mobilize in such crises. However, there was a process in which non-governmental organizations and volunteers carrying out aid campaigns were also targeted[iv]. In a televised speech to the nation, President Erdoğan complained about critical news and declared that he planned to hold critical voices to account. Later, access to Twitter was throttled while rescue operations were still underway. The government claimed that it did so to prevent “disinformation”. Some government actors and their supporters also raised concerns about the extent to which public support and fund-raising has been directed at civil society organizations like Ahbap, rather than the government’s own relief organization, AFAD.

In fact, we have witnessed such challenges to local actors in the face of complex and multiple crises by the central government before. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to collect aid were stopped and the donations amounting to 6.2 million liras collected in the bank accounts were confiscated and transferred to the central government bodies[v]. The 3.5 million lira aid collected by the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality was blocked. The solidarity campaigns of municipalities were evaluated by President Erdogan as “the logic of being a state within a state”[vi]. Determining the policies and practices related to the pandemic from a single center instead of being shaped according to local conditions increased the negative effects of the pandemic on the society.

Municipalities were also left alone in the refugee issue, one of the deepest crises Turkey has experienced recently. Even municipalities with a refugee population of up to a quarter of their own population did not  receive a penny of additional support from the central budget[vii]. Moreover, municipalities do not know what to do about refugees, as there is no clear legislation and coherent policy in this area. While the discourse and policy towards refugees shifts from hospitality and religious solidarity to ‘voluntary’ return, municipalities are forced to cope with this uncertainty[viii]. Despite this, they develop and implement creative and entrepreneurial projects in cooperation with civil society to meet the needs of refugees and integrate them into society[ix].

The European Charter of Local Self-Government[x], signed by Turkey in 1992, obliges the parties to implement the basic rules that guarantee the political, administrative and financial independence of local governments. Despite this Charter, which provides for the recognition of the principle of local self-government in domestic legislation and, if possible, in the constitution, trustees appointed from the center serve instead of those elected[xi]. At the local elections on March 31, 2019, the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party) won 65 municipalities in the Kurdish-majority provinces. While six of the elected mayors were not given their certificates of election, trustees were appointed by the central government to 3 metropolitan, 5 provincial, 45 district and 12 town municipalities. While the municipalities are under such tutelage in regions where Kurdish voters are concentrated, a politically motivated judicial process hangs like the sword of Damocles over the head of Ekrem İmamoğlu, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s elected mayor[xii].

Earthquake is one of the realities of Turkey. However, the strict centralist structure and the authoritarian regime, which further increases its negative impact, prevent local initiatives, resilience and solidarity not only in earthquakes but also in all kinds of crises that arise today. Complex crises such as pandemics, mass migration and climate change that we have faced in recent years and will face in the future are far from being problems that a single actor can deal with at a single level. It is not possible to deal with these crises without vertical cooperation between local, national and international levels of government and horizontal cooperation networks between state and non-state actors such as civil society organizations.

Although we can see the damages of over-centralized administration most clearly in times of crisis, the cost of not having resilient and participatory local government that meets local demands is much greater than we think. Local governments cannot be ‘local’ enough because they are financially dependent on the center and because of the arbitrary and partisan practices of the central government. If this earthquake is to be a start, taking big steps to strengthen local democracy should also be a part of it.

Rabia Karakaya Polat is a professor of political science at the Department of International Relations at Işık University (Istanbul). She recently completed a British Academy-funded joint research project, with Prof. Vivien Lowndes, analysing local refugee policies in Turkey. She published numerous articles in journals such as Security Dialogue, South European Society and Politics, Citizenship Studies, Parliamentary Affairs, Government Information Quarterly, Local Government Studies and Journal of Refugee Studies. Currently, she is working on refugee integration policies at the local level.

[i] Cemal Burak Tansel (2020) Reproducing Authoritarian Neoliberalism in Turkey: Urban Governance and State Restructuring in the Shadow of Executive Centralization, Authoritarian Neoliberalism, Routledge, 88-103







[viii] Vivien Lowndes & Rabia Karakaya Polat (2020) How do local actors interpret, enact and contest policy? An analysis of local government responses to meeting the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Local Government Studies, 48:3, 546-569

[ix] Rabia Karakaya Polat & Vivien Lowndes (2022). How does multi-level governance create capacity to address refugee needs, and with what limitations? an analysis of municipal responses to Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Journal of Refugee Studies, 35(1), 51-73




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