How big disasters change views, launch activism

For decades, Turks have held sacred the idea of devlet baba, or father state, in which every citizen could rely on the state to provide all basic needs. But after government bungling and delays in handling Turkey's recent earthquake, a tectonic shift appears to be under way in Turkish society.

Feeling let down by the state, Turks are sowing the seeds of self-reliance and calling for political accountability.

"For the first time, people are thinking that the omnipotent state may not be so omnipotent after all," says Ilter Turan, a political scientist and president of Istanbul Bilgi University. "This has been brewing for a long time, but the earthquake was a catalyst. It is going to be the seed of something."

Natural disasters have been seen as a catalyst for reform and local activism before - such as in1995, when an earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, and after hurricane Mitch last year in Central America. Now the same phenomenon is happening in Turkey.

"The Turkish people have great respect for the state, but this experience has exposed a lot of weakness," says Sahin Alpay, an editor of the mass circulation Milliyet newspaper in Istanbul. "But how will the emergence of a civil society translate into a political movement? There is no alternative to the people in power now."

Among survivors of the quake, a steady refrain has been "Where is the government?"

Turks say they were shocked by the absence for days of government authorities and the Army, the second largest in NATO after that of the United States. In the hours following the Aug. 17 disaster, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who visited the quake zone, had to communicate with ministries in the capital of Ankara by using live television interviews beamed by journalists' satellites because the phone system was down.

But there were shocks as well on the grass-roots level - although these were more pleasant. Turks say they were surprised by the outpouring of solidarity among themselves. Locals shared everything from food and diapers to willing hands for digging for survivors. Private bulldozers, cranes, and generators were mobilized immediately for the rescue effort.

"All ideological arguments were flattened by the earthquake," said the Erkan Mumcu, the tourism minister and youngest - and most candid - member of the cabinet. "Lying under the rubble is the Turkish political and administrative system."

The Army claims to have rescued 40,000 people, but many Turks scoff at the impossibility of such a high figure. Previously an unassailable icon, the Army has come under popular criticism.

Article 159 of the penal code, however, makes it a crime to question the "moral personality" of the state. Criticizing the government - which the increasingly irreverent Turkish media have done with vigor - is permitted, but attacking the system until now has been taboo. Tearing up a lira currency note can bring a jail sentence.

Fallout in Kobe, Japan

The aftermath of the 1995 Kobe temblor in Japan may show how events will play out in Turkey. Four years after Kobe's earthquake, citizen groups there are still trying to shake the rigid structure of the local government.

"We have learned that we cannot rely too much on the government," says Sojiro Kawamura, a victims' advocate and survivor of the quake, which killed more than 6,600. "We need to keep a close eye on them because they don't much care about what victims really need."

City planning official Yuichi Honjo disputes that and counters that the top priority has been rebuilding. "With the help of Kobe residents and businesses, we have been working hard to revive the city," he says. The number of those in temporary housing has now been cut from 47,000 to about 500.

As in Turkey, national and local officials in Japan were harshly criticized for their slow response and inefficient work, while impromptu groups of volunteers became the key for relief efforts. More than 30 nonprofit groups, including dozens that emerged after the quake, are still active.

Seiji Yoshimura, who quit his job in Tokyo after Kobe and formed Response Association Kobe Genki Mura, says the group has learned that "we have to act by ourselves. There are no manuals and textbooks here. We are the ones who are making history."

"Whether activism follows initial public outrage over perceived state shortcomings really depends on the culture and the public's readiness for involvement," says Joanne Nigg, a disaster sociologist at the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center.

"In Kobe you saw people who had not been involved in any form of activism before suddenly were, and it had an impact."

Concern over rebuilding

Citizens' groups in Kobe are concerned that uneven rebuilding has widened the gap between rich and poor. More money has been poured into the reconstruction of municipal offices and high-profile commercial centers, they argue, while less work has been done for elderly and low-income residents.

"Unless we unite and strain our wits, we cannot beat those in power," says Mr. Kawamura, the victims' advocate. "We also need to make sure that our voices are heard."

Significant as these changes are, they are hardly going to bring down Japan's well-established government structure. And even in Turkey, analysts say that the revelation of grass-roots activism, for the moment, is unlikely to bring down the patchwork ruling coalition.

But the fallout from hurricane Mitch, which swept through Central America last November, led to speculation that the political landscape, too, would be changed.

Nicaragua's polarized political system could be especially vulnerable, because of criticism that the government had mishandled the crisis. The army, on the other hand, was seen to have dealt with the devastation efficiently.

In the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, some assert that self-help groups born out of the quake went on to play a role in - and eventually accelerate - the country's democratization process.

But that view is controversial, and some say the process was already under way.

"You often hear that the Mexico City earthquake led to important changes in Mexico's government, but that's hard to determine," says Ms. Nigg at the Disaster Research Center.

"We also heard right after the earthquake that the realization about an overcrowded capital and the necessary reconstruction were going to lead the government into a major decentralization. But that didn't really happen."

Central vs. local power

In Turkey, some decentralization had already been under way. But in the aftermath of the earthquake, which has left at least 14,000 dead and 200,000 homeless, authority to approve permits for new buildings has been taken temporarily from the hands of corrupt local officials.

Many of the dead were killed as a result of collapsing buildings and shoddy building practices - too much sand and even seashells mixed into concrete, or weak support structures that flattened multilayer apartment blocks like pancakes.

"Very few politicians have emerged with any credit," says a Western diplomat in Ankara. "And if I were in the building trade, I would emigrate."

The result of the quake in Turkey is likely to have far-reaching consequences, because in the immediate aftermath, popular anger has been unrelenting.

"Everybody wants a change in government, because they want the government to work for the people, not to fill their pockets," says Ozlem Hersan, a diplomatic correspondent in Ankara.

"People were expecting a better rescue, better care, better tents, but nothing has happened. The idea of the 'father state' has vanished."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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