[This article is part of the Roundtable Discussion: “Remembering Gezi—Beyond Nostalgia Ten Years On" produced by Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page Editors. Read the roundtable introduction by guest editors Birgan Gökmenoğlu and Derya Özkaya and see the other articles of this roundtable here.]
The devastating earthquakes of February 6, 2023, resulted in the total destruction of Kahramanmaraş, Hatay, and Adıyaman, along with numerous towns and villages reduced to rubble. Over 50,000 people perished, with scores more displaced. The timing of the calamity, just months before the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, turned the disaster into a political tool. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) promised speedy reconstruction; the opposing coalition led by the People’s Republican Party (CHP) criticized the government’s construction policies that allowed shoddy buildings to be erected in an earthquake-prone area and its mismanagement of the acute stages of the disaster.
However, Turkey’s “earthquake election,” as one New Yorker article called it, did not end up toppling Erdogan. Many imagined that the provinces affected by the disaster would vote for the opposition, but they overwhelmingly did not. As a response, social media experienced an upsurge in hostile messages directed at the earthquake victims, implying that the overwhelming support and assistance received in the aftermath of the earthquake were contingent on them delivering electoral results for the opposition. But it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand their decision to vote for the ruling party. In a region that faced under-development and neglect until the 2000s, people do not expect the CHP and its conservative allies to deliver on their promises.
It was facile to imagine that people would change their political positions because of a disaster, especially when the opposition failed to deliver a compelling alternate vision for the future. Yes, many undecided voters cast their ballots for the AKP due to the opposing coalition’s decision to enter a strategic alliance with the Kurds, but post-Gezi politics shows that political allegiances—whether motivated by national, ethnic, religious, or other subjectivities—can be destabilized by participating in conjoined struggles. Meaningful political change requires grassroots organizing and the exploration of alternative political visions. Political struggles and contestations over how to organize urban and rural spaces can play a crucial role in this transformative process.
Just as it had happened ten years ago during the Gezi Uprising, the question of how people organize their living spaces—whether cities, towns, or villages—is at the center of the political struggle for Turkey’s future today. And if it isn’t, it should be. Gezi reminded people that they should have a say over the spatial organization of their cities, that they need not submit to baneful mega-projects eating up green spaces and constricting life. Since then, many struggles have arisen across Turkey that carry on the protests’ ecological vision, intersectional solidarity, and non-hierarchical practices. In the earthquake zone, some organizations and collectives are thinking creatively with locals about what post-disaster architecture might look like. We can, and should, hold onto this vision of Gezi, especially right now when an area roughly the size of Portugal in southern and southeastern Turkey is being built anew.
Beyond Electoral Politics
Both the Gezi Uprising and the Kahramanmaraş earthquake gave rise to imaginaries of political change, and both failed to produce such change within the temporal horizons of electoral cycles. It is, therefore, necessary to direct our attention to somewhere other than electoral politics, both in terms of how we understand the longer impact of Gezi and how we build political alliances in the current moment. The post-disaster organizing and community-building that oppositional organizations are undertaking in the earthquake zone inspire hope. They can give rise to new political horizons within and beyond the electoral moment.
Until the election cycle of 2015, the agitation from below and the new political alignments they inspired allowed Gezi to remain a beacon of hope. In the June 7, 2015, elections, the AKP lost its majority in the parliament for the first time since coming to power in 2002. To achieve this, many, for the first time, voted for a party that aligned itself with the Kurdish cause, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Not conceding defeat, Erdogan moved to delegitimize the election results and introduced roadblocks to coalition-building. That summer, the state renewed its war with the Kurds. While he used the Syrian Civil War and the YPG’s armament as an excuse, it was ultimately a punitive action for his electoral loss of the southeastern Kurdish-majority provinces. Instilling fears of Kurdish “terrorism” and the need for stability at a time of war of his construction, he won the November 1, 2015 elections, reinstating the AKP’s parliamentary majority.
Since then, politics and public life in Turkey have taken a nose-dive for the worse. With the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, Erdogan obliterated opposing factions within the military and the bureaucracy. It ushered in a new era of political repression, leaving little space for contentious politics. The sieges of Silvan and the Sur district of Diyarbakir announced a new era of state violence in Kurdistan that is ongoing. Attempts to combat gender-based violence hit a significant roadblock with Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in March 2021. With the conclusion of the Gezi trialsin June 2022, activists Mücella Yapıcı, Tayfun Kahraman, Can Atalay, Mine Özerden, Çiğdem Mater, Hakan Altınay, and Yiğit Emekçi were sentenced to 18 years in prison alongside philanthropist Osman Kavala, who is serving a life sentence. There is an ongoing lawsuit initiated in 2021 aimed at shutting down the HDP. Its co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been in prison since 2016 and 2017, respectively. Its members—local politicians, candidates for parliament, and others—are either behind bars or face the threat of confinement daily. The number of journalists jailed in the country doubled in 2022. In the meantime, the ongoing economic and financial crisis has led to the erosion of the Turkish lira’s value and runaway inflation, creating a cost-of-living crisis, the burden of which falls on the country’s working classes and the poor.
The earthquakes hit amid this economic crisis, which had already galvanized opposition to the AKP and Erdogan’s fiscal policies. The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) mismanaged search-and-rescue operations, and the state failed to quickly provide adequate aid to survivors. The preventable character of the deaths and destruction that ensued in the days after the earthquakes made the grievous outcome all the more enraging, a sense that gripped many in Turkey in the following weeks. Before the earthquake, experts had warned for years about the increasing tension along the South Anatolian fault line, highlighting the potential for a disastrous earthquake. These warnings went unheeded, and public institutions, like the Hatay Iskenderun State Hospital, which had previously failed earthquake resilience tests, were not rebuilt to meet the necessary standards. What made matters worse was that not only older buildings that had been built during the construction craze of the last century collapsed. Those built under new construction codes, put in place after the 1999 Gölcük earthquake that claimed 17,000 lives, also crumbled.
As the disaster occurred only a few months before the anticipated elections of 2023, it quickly became an object of electoral contention. Many in the opposition, bolstered by surveys, believed that the earthquake and the systemic violence it exposed would spell the end of days for Erdogan and the AKP in office. This optimism was short-lived when the AKP won the majority of seats in the parliament in the first round of the elections, and Erdogan won the presidency in the second round. The electoral failure of the opposition has generated considerable pessimism among citizens of Turkey, that are dissatisfied with the AKP and Erdogan’s 20-plus-year reign. While despair is an ever-present option, it remains important to attend to the less visible, yet perhaps more critical, transformations that are taking place in the post-disaster spaces of encounter.
Gezi did not topple the regime, nor did the February 6 earthquakes. Nonetheless, it introduced a modest break in the political structures that had been dominant since the 1980 coup d’état. In the period following the military takeover, the brutal repression of the left in Turkey overwhelmingly disempowered civil society. This is not to say that political life in Turkey was dormant for three decades until Gezi erupted out of nowhere. In many ways, Gezi spoke to a protest tradition carried on despite the state repression of the 1980s by different organizations and collectives. However, it involved new political actors (it was a mass movement) and practices.
The Gezi Uprising brought together large factions on the broader topography of the discontented in a dual criticism of neoliberalism and authoritarianism. Highly polarized and antagonistic publics arrived at the park with a shared purpose. These publics included Alevis and Sunnis, Kurds and Turks, the rich and the poor, and the violently marginalized LGBTQ community, among others. They aimed to preserve Gezi Park as a green space in a city increasingly congested by concrete. Ultimately, they also sought to end a regime that allowed little room for public discourse and debate on issues that profoundly impacted their daily existence.
Gezi did not only assemble diverse groups in the vocal critique of neoliberalism and authoritarianism but involved them in discursive and spatial practices that countered their logic. It was an exercise in political participation and solidarity that valued intersectionality and mutual respect. It introduced many to the principles of non-hierarchical social organization for the first time and new and bottom-up conventions of decision-making. Finally, it was a situated experience of creating and protecting (with barricades) an urban commons where the logic of neoliberal enclosure of public spaces could be subverted, giving way to new forms of relationality among people and with the spaces they occupy.
While these principles did not always perfectly translate into practices, Gezi offered a calisthenic experience of living democratically, and this was ultimately the event in the Sewellian sense described above. From neighborhood assembliesto producer cooperatives, from the Validebaǧ Defense Initiative to the continued struggle for Istanbul’s urban farms, it has had many afterlives.
The earthquake zone in southern and southeastern Turkey is a new political space that offers similar opportunities for encounters, practices in non-hierarchical social organizing, and intersectional solidarity. Relief efforts led by small-scale organizations and self-organized collectives that involve locals in decision-making about how to organize their short- and long-term living spaces are crucial for grassroots organizing and recovery after the traumatic events. These projects aim not to produce electoral changes but to empower civil society against the government's top-down, profit-driven rebuilding schemes.
In the days following the earthquake, I participated in earthquake solidarity efforts from Istanbul and on the ground in Malatya. Within and outside the disaster zone, self-organized networks comprising political activists, architects, chefs, urban planners, labor organizers, university students, local politicians, cultural associations, victims of the earthquakes, and others stepped in to compensate for the state's ineffective assistance. Because many volunteers came from outside the region, some of whom had never been to southeastern Turkey before, they encountered the poverty of infrastructure, the extent of policing and military violence, and the lack of public institutions in the region for the first time. In many cases, activists and organizers have decided to stay in the area long-term, building lasting alliances and friendships with locals. In turn, locals who have often felt marginalized by the cosmopolitan elite in western Turkey and Istanbul have come to see them differently. The earthquake zone has become a space of encounter, uniting the urban and provincial populations in anger, grief, and care.
Like the protestors during the Gezi Park demonstrations, people in the earthquake zone—volunteers and locals—are joined by deep frustration and anger towards the state. AFAD, responsible for search-and-rescue operations and supporting survivors, faced criticism for its lack of preparedness and mishandling of the situation during the critical phase of the disaster. While thousands died under rubble due to the inadequacy of search-and-rescue teams, survivors were left without shelter and necessities for days. Additionally, there was anger directed at the state's efforts to hinder non-governmental organizations and aid trucks from reaching the earthquake-stricken areas. As the death toll stabilized a few days after the disaster, the focus of anger and frustration shifted toward the construction companies and the state itself. As Cihan Tuğal explains in his contribution to this roundtable, these entities had collaborated closely for years, prioritizing profit at the expense of human lives.
Finally, the material devastation wrought by the earthquakes—as was the case during the Gezi Protests—has put the question of space at the center of politics. In Gezi, spatial politics were primarily dictated by what David Harvey called the “right to the city.” Its practices and vocabulary of dissent were shaped by other urban uprisings like Occupy Wallstreet, Tahrir Square Uprising, and Spain’s 15-M movement. In the post-earthquake context, the central political object is how to organize temporary housing for earthquake victims and how cities, towns, and villages will be rebuilt in the aftermath of the disaster. The struggle for space, especially in a post-disaster setting, is also about the future well-being of the urban and rural spaces in areas vulnerable to the crises wrought by anthropogenic climate change. To this end, post-disaster planning must involve a conversation about increasing this area’s resilience to rising temperatures, flash floods, and drought.
Post-Disaster Planning: State-Capital Nexus
The authoritarian and neoliberal reconstruction agenda of the AKP-led government in the earthquake zone is a continuation of the policies that had led to the Gezi Movement. There are two central issues: one, top-down decision-making, and two, the logic of profit over humans.
In the days following the initial search-and-rescue operations, building inspectors were dispatched to assess the extent of damage to individual structures. Unfortunately, the decision-making process behind these assessments remains shrouded in opacity, leaving ordinary people in the dark. Troublingly, residents of Malatya have reported receiving inaccurate damage reports for their homes. According to regulations, buildings deemed "heavy damage" are earmarked for demolition and reconstruction. However, it has come to light that some buildings with relatively low to medium-level damage have also been labeled as heavily damaged. This questionable practice seems to be concentrated primarily in Malatya's Alevi Kurdish neighborhoods, leading locals to suspect a deliberate agenda to disrupt and disperse these communities known for their opposition to the ruling party's politics and participation in the Kurdish movement.
After two weeks, the "Presidential Decree on Settlement and Construction Within the Scope of the State of Emergency" was issued. Following this, the government began the tender process for reconstruction. The Real Estate Investors’ Association (GYODER) volunteered to make a “master plan” for the entire area. Opting for negotiated rather than open tender, which means that only a select group of companies are allowed to enter the bidding and the process is not open to the public, areas in need of reconstruction were parceled out to massive construction companies like Kalyon, Kuzu Grup, Ege Yapı, Dome, Ant Yapı, and NKY. These companies have been awarded lucrative contracts for large-scale projects by the government in the past, with Kalyon (the company that built the new Istanbul Airport and Marmaray) ranking fifth among companies worldwide to receive the highest number of public tenders.
The Presidential Decree not only denies public participation in decision-making processes but also removes the legal avenue for individuals to challenge potentially harmful projects and building decisions. This restrictive measure limits the ability of citizens to voice concerns and ensure that the reconstruction efforts prioritize safety and long-term well-being. The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, as well as the Chamber of Urban Planners, have raised significant concerns about the government's reconstruction plan, citing its rushed nature and disregard for expert advice. There is neither a process for institutional approval nor a period for public review of the proposed projects.
Contested Spatial Imaginaries
Several months after the earthquakes, many organizations and collectives are working in the field to help advocate for impacted communities in the reconstruction process. While these efforts are not directly connected to the struggle at Gezi Park, it is nonetheless possible to draw a line connecting the experiments and practices that emerged ten years ago at Gezi Park and the bottom-up, sustainable, and human-centered architectural visions and urban defense initiatives arising from the earthquake zone.
The KAF Collective arrived in the Dülkadiroğlu district of Kahramanmaraş a few days after the earthquakes. They initially set up a soup kitchen and depot in the backyard of Sümer Middle School, where a tent city was established for earthquake survivors in the Dülkadiroğlu district of Kahramanmaraş. They set up a water purification system and installed bathrooms to address the residents' most urgent needs. Collaborating with Architecture For All Association, they set out to build playgrounds for the over 250 displaced children in the area. In the construction, they attended to refurbishing and reusing furniture rather than new materials.
Architecture for All Association initiated a post-disaster reconstruction project to establish a communal space—with indoor and outdoor areas—fostering social interaction among individuals affected by the earthquakes. This endeavor actively engages the local community in procuring materials for the construction and making decisions regarding the purpose and design of the gathering space. In doing so, it addresses a significant omission in the state's reconstruction plan, which predominantly emphasizes the development of private spaces. Furthermore, it challenges the underlying principles of the state's program, which relies heavily on private companies and top-down planning to rebuild the devastated cities.
Umut Sendikası (Umut-Sen), an anti-capitalist labor collective, has been on the ground in Malatya, Samandaǧ, Elbistan, and other places since day one. At first, their efforts were directed at coordinating the distribution of clothing, food, water, and other necessities in city centers. In Malatya, they cooperated with the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association to open a soup kitchen and coordination center. Twice a day, volunteers provided hot food for upwards of 150 locals. Most importantly, they delivered necessities to villages distant from the urban center. Today, they continue providing goods to villages while organizing earthquake victims into associations based in the impacted cities. These assemblies bring together representatives from city neighborhoods and surrounding villages. Together, they can make collective demands on behalf of their localities and advocate for themselves in the reconstruction process.
Building collective power at this stage is essential for staging a struggle for more just and resilient urban planning in these cities, but it is not so simple. The earthquake area has been subject to a state of emergency, which means constant patrolling by the gendarme, police, and military forces. This creates an atmosphere of insecurity, which deters political participation by the locals. Furthermore, there are challenges surrounding the creation of inclusive spaces that can bring together the different linguistic groups that inhabit the area. There is potential for this in the self-organization of local communities. For instance, in Samandağ, women went on a protest walk on the 40th day after the earthquakes. There, they shouted slogans in Turkish and Arabic. However, on the whole, there remains little interaction between Arabic-speaking refugees and Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking local communities. Facilitating conversations and bringing these groups together in spaces of decision-making over the future of their cities is crucial to engendering solidarity between them.
Ultimately, the proliferation of contestation over how the earthquake zone is rebuilt is one of the most important political battles today. Beyond making earthquake-resilient architecture, it is vital to build cities that are resilient to flash floods and climate change. South and southeastern Turkey experience some of the highest temperatures across the country in the summer, which is projected to rise in the coming years and decades. It is thereby imperative that the new cities preserve and propagate green spaces rather than drown the cities in concrete. Furthermore, rubble disposal is a serious public health and environmental issue that needs consideration. While there is little to be done about the toxic dust that has been released into the atmosphere, unplanned disposal of rubble in the countryside could disrupt the ecosystem and poison the groundwater. The poisoning of the land also threatens the economic livelihood of the agricultural workers of this region.
These are possible sites of political contestation for locals and left-leaning organizations across Turkey. The politicization of space—the struggle to create sustainable and durable urban and rural structures—is a critical element of delivering justice to the victims and survivors of the earthquake as well as engendering deeply rooted political change in the coming decades.