Ready: for the wrong kind of emergency

Creaking state exposed

Earthquake fallout

The earthquake which devastated the industrial region on the southern coast of the Marmara Sea in mid-August has shaken the Turkish state from top to bottom.

Leaving 30,000 dead and around 50,000 injured, its effect was most deeply felt by the working class and new migrants from rural Turkey. Poor quality housing and shoddy construction were the main reasons for the death toll in a region containing almost a third of the country’s population. Today more than a quarter million are homeless and, if they are lucky, live in tent cities wholly dependent on food aid.

The shocked population was entitled to expect an orderly and speedy search and rescue effort. They did not find it and there was an outcry against the government as a result of its inability to mobilise the manpower and equipment of the armed forces. The inefficiency and disorganisation of the state was exposed, as it seemed incapable of distributing aid and organising health services and temporary accommodation. The insensitive and downright abusive actions and speeches of fascist ministers in the coalition government also caused outrage.

The growing anger of the people brought the cracks that the state had previously managed to paper over into the open. The much criticised army was obliged to defend itself before the public, which it did by blaming the government.

The top brass told a press conference that the government had three options for dealing with disasters: it could place the civil administration on an emergency footing; it could declare an ‘extraordinary situation’; or it could impose martial law. The last two options both bring the civilian administration under overt military control to varying degrees.

As the government did not choose to implement any of the three, it was to blame, according to the generals. The local government administration had no legal powers to coopt the military. And as an armed service remaining loyally under civilian authority, they could not take independent action. This from an army that has blatantly intervened in public life three times in the last 40 years and whose veiled control of civilian government has been more than apparent.

Government ministers could not admit to the impotency of the administration in the most urbanised and industrialised part of Turkey. But it was clear that they were incapable of coordinating the relief effort since the state was not geared for this sort of emergency.

Since constituting itself as a republic, the state of Turkey has had two parallel administrations. The governors, appointed by the central state, were the mainstays of the central power in the provinces. They command a retinue of police chiefs, prosecutors and judges, the tax collection service and the provincial representatives of all ministries, who are again centrally appointed.

However, local units of the armed forces are not, during normal times, under the governors’ command, but operate under a powerful general staff based in Ankara. In reality, through the National Security Council - that is, representatives of the general staff, plus key cabinet ministers and the president - the armed forces oversee and direct the executive and legislative arms of the state.

The elected municipal councils and mayors are at best empowered to run city services under the tight financial and operational restraints of the central government agencies.

This domination of the central apparatus has completely blocked any development of local civil initiative or democratic local politics. Any independent civilian initiative - apart from capitalist enterprise - has been seen as a threat against the state and is therefore crushed.

The inability to organise an effective relief effort in the immediate aftermath of the quake left a vacuum which was filled by popular initiatives and self-help organisations. Youth all over the country volunteered for action and for two or three days were in control of local operations. Comrades taking part in organising the relief tell us how easily they countered the half-hearted efforts of the local police to direct things.

Later, after the state had finalised contingency plans for putting down challenges to its authority, the official relief operation became more apparent. The state stamped its authority over the “illegal organisations” who had coordinated the local population. For example, the police baton-charged a march by people who had not even been provided with a simple tent a fortnight after the disaster.

On the other hand they openly promoted the fascist youth groups who claimed to be ‘organising’ aid through channelling state resources. In one town, after the police dispersed a left demonstration, two tent camps were erected side by side - one sponsored by grey wolves in government and the other by grey wolves in opposition. Both were of course formally recognised as providing assistance to the state.

Those who follow developments in Turkey might remember that the grey wolves were the notorious assassins and shock troops of the fascist party in the 70s. Since then the fascist party has split and the larger section appeared to moderate its rabid rhetoric. It is now a coalition partner in the government. The other, smaller section became an independent party and continues openly to expound fascist and racist-nationalist rhetoric in opposition.

The state has established tight control over the aid coming into the area. It prohibited unauthorised collections and paid particular attention to donations in foreign currency. Government ministers and the heads of so-called non-governmental organisations such as the Red Crescent gave speeches asking donors to be vigilant against “illegal organisations” making collections and using them for their own purposes. While shamelessly sabotaging the efforts of independent organisations, the Red Crescent itself devoted a mere six percent of its budget to emergency relief.

This dirty work was not restricted to Turkey. In Britain the aid organisation centred on the embassy tried to discredit leftwing organisations in public speeches, and through local Turkish radio and press. They even coopted British banks where official relief accounts were held. Managers refused to open them for ‘non-recognised’ groups.

Sickeningly, the bourgeoisie now looks hungrily at the disaster area, hoping for juicy profits from rebuilding. The first tenders are for the provision of temporary accommodation. There are already indications that foreign companies will be barred, so that lucrative contracts will fall into the laps of well connected businessmen.

Housing construction and rebuilding of the infrastructure will certainly bring opportunities. New credit, grants and aid from the IMF, World Bank and European Union have whetted appetites. Istanbul’s stock exchange index registered an upsurge. The US government has indicated that it will temporarily lift the quotas imposed on cotton goods and textiles from Turkey, leaving industrial exporters full of joy.

The bourgeoisie is hoping for a boom in the economy. Like wars, natural disasters also destroy accumulated value and pave the way for new demand. However, foreign aid is not sufficient to finance this boom. Ways must be found of putting the burden onto the shoulders of working class.

Therefore the government and the grand national assembly - that is, the parliament - are looking to rush through a raft of tax legislation. Mobile phone companies will be obliged to levy an additional 25% tax on air time - with a hefty commission, of course. The ministry of labour and trade unions have already agreed to donate one day’s pay for the relief effort, to be funnelled into the government budget.

When the earthquake struck, parliament was in the process of discussing a social security reform bill. Nowadays when ‘social security reform’ is mentioned workers understand that a cut in welfare provision is in the offing. In this case the aim was to raise the retirement age in order to save the public retirement insurance scheme from bankruptcy. The draft met with strong opposition. There were 100,000-strong demonstrations and one-day stoppages. Moreover, trade unions of all persuasions came together. The quake interrupted the protests, but parliament did its duty and rushed the social security reform through on the second and third day after the devastation. The president promptly granted his consent without any further discussion.

The next item in the legislative assembly’s agenda was an amnesty bill put forward by the government. It was paraded as a general amnesty. However, as a matter of course, it omitted all crimes against the state: that is, armed resistance - for example, by Kurdish guerrillas - offences committed by prisoners of conscience, and all the other ‘crimes’ on the statute book wielded against the left. The bill proposes to free all mafia bosses, drug-smugglers, state-protected assassins and those who took part in kidnapping, torture and disappearances.

During their rush to pass it in the mayhem of the earthquake, government officials made several mistakes. As a result, the legislation yielded very strange results. Those found guilty of murdering somebody to whom they were in debt would be freed. If, however, they had refused to repay a debt and had been found guilty of wilful misconduct, they would remain in prison. In other words a mess.

In the face of mounting criticism the president did not dare sign this sorry piece of legislation and returned it to the assembly for further consideration. The opposition claimed this as a major victory for the forces of liberalism and enlightenment. They did not of course raise any objections to the bill’s discrimination against the left and working class movement.

Despite the creaking sounds coming from the state’s infrastructure, the organisations of the left, working class and communist movement are in no shape to further their revolutionary aims. They did not mobilise large sections of the youth or trade unions. The vital need to expose the nature of the state at a time when the public was receptive was not sufficiently recognised or grasped.

However, as winter rapidly approaches, the tent cities are sure to provide an important focus of opposition.

Aziz Demir