Earthquake recovery tests Erdogan’s policies, popularity

The three months that have passed since devastating earthquakes laid waste to cities across southern Turkey have seen progress towards President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to “rebuild from the ground up”.

The scale of the task ahead, however, remains no less daunting after the clearing of rubble and the unveiling of new housing.

Rebuilding the earthquake zone is taking place as Turkey faces elections on May 14 and the effect of the disaster on voting behaviour has been widely debated. Polls show the race could be the toughest of Mr Erdogan’s 20-year rule.

The economic cost of the February 6 quakes is estimated at $103.6 billion, or about 10 per cent of Turkey’s GDP. The cost, revealed in a March report from the presidency’s strategy and budget office, covers damage to buildings, infrastructure, industry, insurance and the ensuing macroeconomic impact.

Then there is the human cost. The most recent official estimate is that 50,783 people lost their lives in an area covering 110,000 square kilometres, which is roughly the size of Bulgaria.

About 3 million people initially fled the 11 provinces hit by the disaster, leaving more than 300,000 buildings destroyed or unsafe. It is unclear how many have returned.

In the days immediately after the disaster, Mr Erdogan pledged to repair the destruction within a year — a commitment that seemed fanciful given the mammoth reconstruction effort and expenditure required.

On April 22, the President unveiled the first new homes — 10 village houses in Nurdagi, close to the epicentre in Kahramanmaras province.

“We’ve started the construction of more than 105,000 houses and completed the ground-breaking of almost half of them,” Mr Erdogan said.

He has promised to rebuild 650,000 homes, including 319,000 within a year. The new buildings will be no more than four storeys and located on ground that will mitigate the effects of future tremors.

But the government’s timetable seems unrealistic and some say it has underestimated the magnitude of reconstruction.