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Turkey's government scrambles to respond to anger over lax building rules

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

There is grief over the more than 35,000 people who have died so far as a result of last week's earthquake. But in Turkey, that is mixed with anger over the government's response. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been deflecting blame for what he calls the disaster of the century. But he's under increased pressure after old videos have emerged showing him praising a policy of forgiving construction violations, even for some of the very buildings that collapsed and killed thousands in the earthquake. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Istanbul and joins us now. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Asma.

KHALID: So why would the president of Turkey have allowed unsafe buildings to be built in this earthquake-prone area?

ESTRIN: Well, it means that housing gets built a lot faster and a lot more cheaply. Let me play you this video from 2019. Erdogan was on the campaign trail for his party and touting housing projects in Marash, which ended up being one of the most hard-hit areas from the earthquake. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He's saying, "We solved the problem of 144,156 citizens of Marash with zoning amnesty." Now, amnesty means some contractors who don't build according to earthquake code can just pay a fine and all is forgiven. For Erdogan, this is all about economic growth. Turkey's economy has been booming with these massive construction projects. It's helped keep him in power all these years. But now, after the earthquake, the government says it's arresting contractors who helped build these shoddy buildings that collapsed, although we're seeing reports now of tens of thousands of these amnesty certificates granted by the government in these earthquake-struck areas.

KHALID: So, Daniel, how are people that you've been speaking with responding to this situation? Are they blaming Erdogan specifically? Are they, you know, blaming the way things broadly get done in the country?

ESTRIN: I spoke to some university students who are actually being forced to leave their dorm to make way for earthquake evacuees. And they said, you know, everyone has been worried for a long time about buildings not being safe enough in earthquake zones. I met this one young law student at a protest. She gave only her first name, Aysenur (ph). She fears she could get in trouble for criticizing the government. And she says her family lives in one of the cities that was hit by the earthquake. Their home is OK, but they made sure it was built safely before they moved in.

AYSENUR: We researched that. We looked, like, can you give us the official report if it's safe? So that's why we didn't have any problems with it, thank God. But just two blocks away, people have died.

ESTRIN: And I know Istanbul is also in a seismic zone. And I asked her about these new signs in the Istanbul metro asking people to prepare an emergency bag in case of an earthquake.

AYSENUR: It's garbage. They're like, we're not going to make the buildings safe, but you should have water, a bag, food. So you will deal with it. When I read it, it's like they're mocking with us.

ESTRIN: You know, there are elections that are supposed to be held this spring, but already there are calls from within Erdogan's party to postpone the election because of the earthquake. It's hard to see how you can even have voting in some of these damaged areas. But it's also hard to see why Erdogan would even want an election right now, given the trouble he might be in. But, you know, many people are not really focused on these politics now. Their priority is to help people get through this crisis and to help people grieve.

KHALID: All right. That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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