Erdoğan hints at preferential earthquake aid based on political support, triggers backlash

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks at an event in Hatay, one of the cities hit hard by devastating earthquakes last year, have sparked a fierce backlash because he hinted that disaster relief could depend on political affiliation, Turkish Minute reported.

The magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes affected 11 provinces in the country’s south and southeast on Feb. 6, killing more than 53,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

Speaking at rally of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Hatay province, Erdoğan hinted that cooperation between Ankara and the local administration is crucial for the delivery of aid. He lamented the devastation in Hatay and hinted that the neglect of the city was due to the lack of such cooperation, as the Hatay municipality is run by Mayor Lütfü Savaş of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Erdoğan’s remarks were are seen as an admission of denial of aid to Hatay, one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquakes, and were harshly criticized by opposition leaders and public figures, who accused the president of politicizing disaster relief.

Hatay Mayor Savaş expressed disappointment, stating that the speech had saddened the city and criticized the president’s remarks as divisive rather than unifying.

CHP leader Özgür Özel condemned the president’s words as a form of political blackmail against the people of Hatay, while former CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu accused President Erdoğan of leaving Hatay in a state of neglect and despair.

Nermin Yıldırım Kara, a CHP deputy for Hatay, criticized the government’s approach to disaster management in the region and accused it of withholding necessary aid as a form of electoral leverage.

This opinion was echoed by other politicians, including nationalist opposition Good (İYİ) Party deputy Turhan Çömez and Islamist opposition Felicity Party (SP) deputy Necmettin Çalışkan, who described Erdoğan’s remarks as an attempt to coerce the electorate through the distribution of aid.

İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu of the CHP criticized the remarks as a sign of neglect of official duties and suggested that Erdoğan’s remarks should be subjected to a “psychological analysis” and seen as an attempt to intimidate Hatay residents into voting for the AKP.

Incumbent İmamoğlu’s rival Murat Kurum, the AKP’s mayoral candidate for İstanbul, expressed support for President Erdoğan’s remarks on the necessity of cooperation between the central government and the local administration for aid delivery to Hatay, emphasizing the importance of “harmony and coordination” for the benefit of the city of İstanbul and the country.

Recent remarks by Kurum about the death toll of the disaster brought the official data into question.

Kurum was environment minister from 2018 to 2023 and thus responsible for the country’s building stock at the time of the earthquakes on February 6 of last year.

Kurum said on live television on Wednesday that Turkey had lost 130,000 people while talking about İstanbul’s earthquake preparedness and the major tremors in February that affected 11 provinces, casting doubt on the official death toll of 50,783.

His remarks were followed by a flurry of criticism on social media over what many saw as a momentary lapse in which a government official blurted out the actual death toll from the February earthquakes as opposed to the official figure, which some believe was minimized to downplay the scale of the disaster ahead of the May elections, which Erdoğan narrowly won.

In the wake of the controversy, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya declared that 53,537 people died in the earthquakes in Turkey, revising the previous figure of 50,783. Of these, 24,147 people died in Hatay alone.

Just 250,000 of the original 1.7 million inhabitants remain in the city, according to recent media reports citing local authorities.

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