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Turkey's president takes heat for earthquake response and poor quality of buildings

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Turkey, there is growing anger at the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many say the response to the earthquake has been too slow. They say that some of the more than 35,000 who died there could have been rescued. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on the mood in Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Istanbul resident Ceylon Orhan takes a minute from talking with friends on the street to say he's been thinking about what could have been done differently, what might have saved more lives in this disaster. He says he's no expert, but it's clear that very little was actually in place and prepared for a major earthquake. The buildings were unprepared, the people were unprepared and so was the government. Orhan is especially angry over the zoning amnesties that were granted to contractors, allowing them to build housing more quickly by skipping safety measures. He says the result was catastrophic.

CEYLON ORHAN: (Through interpreter) Zoning amnesty is almost like putting people in cemeteries while they're alive. Amnesty cannot be made. It's not right ethically nor is it within the law.

KENYON: Orhan notes President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did acknowledge that the government's response was slow and insufficient in the immediate aftermath of the quake. He also was not impressed by the performance of AFAD, Turkey's emergency management agency. But the news that the government had given amnesties to contractors that left buildings in earthquake-prone areas lacking the defenses to keep people safe is, in his view, the worst failure.

ORHAN: (Through interpreter) We have seen the places that were given this amnesty. Two buildings, side-by-side - one is standing, the other isn't. Zoning amnesty is against the law and humanity. My friends lost their families. A lot of my friends lost their families in Hatay. We have so many losses. We all feel pain and sadness.

KENYON: People grew even more angry when video surfaced of President Erdogan making campaign stops for ruling party candidates during 2019 local elections. At one stop, he boasted about the amnesties that enabled housing to be built more quickly in cities like Kahramanmaras, which was hit very badly in this earthquake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) We solved the problems of 144,156 citizens in Maras with the zoning amnesty.

KENYON: Two other Istanbul residents, Selma and Mahir Toymaz, seemed resigned to the bad news that has been coming from the earthquake zone.

SELMA TOYMAZ: (Through interpreter) Turkey's never ready for any kind of disaster. We have heard the zone amnesty. I hope they don't make it. They shouldn't. They forgive everyone.

MAHIR TOYMAZ: (Through interpreter) Well, thousands of people have died. The amnesty's results is out there. The realities reveal themselves slowly.

KENYON: Fifty-four-year-old Hulya Necip also feels just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

HULYA NECIP: (Through interpreter) From what we see on TV, nothing started on time. And first of all, the army came late. They put the military very late into the area. That was the biggest fault.

KENYON: Erdogan and his supporters have called this a once-in-a-century disaster, something no government could be expected to cope with. But he's under criticism from the public, and speculation is beginning to rise about his chances for reelection. Elections were due to be held before the end of June, but now people wonder if they'll be postponed. Certainly, some say, holding elections in the earthquake zone would be enormously challenging, while others say Erdogan may feel he'd fare better if elections are held later. But if elections are put off, some ask, what will that mean for Turkish democracy and Erdogan's political future?

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.