On the campaign trail in 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey praised legislation that his political party had pushed through allowing property owners to have construction violations forgiven without bringing their buildings up to code.
The move was risky in Turkey, a fault-ridden land prone to earthquakes that had tightened those same codes to make buildings more tremor proof.
But it appealed to voters. At rallies in the provinces of Hatay, Kahramanmaras and Malatya, Mr. Erdogan said the legislation had “solved the problems” of more than 438,000 property owners.
Now, after last week’s devastating earthquake, those areas are blanketed with toppled buildings that entombed their residents when they fell.
The death toll in southern Turkey and northern Syria passed 33,000 on Sunday, and survivors and building experts have said that poor construction most likely exacerbated the scale of the quake’s destruction, as well as the number of lives lost.
The Turkish government has responded by arresting building contractors with ties to collapsed buildings, and the Justice Ministry has set up investigation bureaus for earthquake crimes across the affected area.
But construction experts say the builders could not have completed their projects without approvals from a range of officials who have so far escaped scrutiny for possibly signing off on subpar work.
“Rounding up contractors is a deed to respond to public outcry,” said Taner Yuzgec, a former president of the Chamber of Construction Engineers, a professional organization. “The true culprits are the current government and the previous governments that kept the system as it is.”
In recent visits to the stricken zone to visit victims, Mr. Erdogan has emphasized the magnitude of the quake, calling it on Saturday “the greatest disaster in our country’s recent memory.”
The 7.8-magnitude quake on Feb. 6 caused widespread destruction in 10 provinces in southern Turkey as well as in northern Syria, with the death toll rising above 29,000 in Turkey and more than 3,500 in Syria by Sunday — a combined figure that makes the quake one of the century’s deadliest natural disasters. More than one million people have been rendered homeless in Turkey, and many others lack shelter in Syria.
Construction has been a driving force of Mr. Erdogan’s economic development policy. During his two decades as president and prime minister, he has made the extensive building of roads, bridges, shopping malls and housing for Turkey’s 80 million people a pillar of economic growth.
Many of the country’s top construction magnates have close ties to him or his governing Justice and Development Party.
But the growth boom has raised questions about whether some buildings were pushed through too quickly to be done well, and Mr. Erdogan’s political opposition has seized on the construction amnesties passed by Mr. Erdogan’s government to try to weaken him before key presidential and parliamentary elections expected on May 14.
“They turned houses into graves for those who live in them,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Turkey’s largest opposition party and a likely presidential contender, said during a visit to Hatay Province on Sunday. “One should ask, did they listen to their conscience while issuing construction amnesty?”
So far, the government has gone after builders only.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters on Sunday that 134 people had been subjected to legal proceedings over ties to collapsed buildings; 10 of them were arrested and seven others barred from traveling abroad.
“We will follow this up meticulously until the necessary judicial process is concluded, especially for buildings that suffered heavy damage and buildings that caused deaths and injuries,” Vice President Fuat Oktay told reporters in the capital, Ankara.
Two contractors responsible for collapsed buildings in the city of Adiyaman, Yavuz Karakus and Sevilay Karakus, were detained on Sunday at Istanbul Airport, the state-run news media reported. They were carrying more than $17,000 in cash and were planning to fly to the country of Georgia.
“My conscience is clear,” Mr. Karakus told reporters after his arrest. “I built 44 buildings; only four have collapsed.”
The new arrests followed the detentions of high-profile contractors on Saturday: Mehmet Ertan Akay, who built a complex that collapsed in the city of Gaziantep; two builders of a 14-story building in Adana that toppled over; and Mehmet Yasar Coskun, who built a 12-story apartment tower in Hatay Province that was destroyed.
Mr. Coskun told prosecutors his building had been properly licensed and audited by the local and state authorities, and his lawyer suggested he had been detained to assuage public anger.
Turkey suffered a powerful earthquake in 1999 that killed more than 17,000 people, and since then it has upgraded its building codes to prepare for future quakes.
But construction experts say this earthquake has made it clear that the regulations are sometimes flouted.
Mr. Yuzgec, the former president of the Chamber of Construction Engineers, said he had seen many indications of poor construction during a five-day visit to the quake zone.
“In all the collapsed buildings, I could clearly see all the technical problems related to the materials used, assessment of the ground and to workmanship quality,” he said.
Bugra Gokce, an urban planner and senior official in the Istanbul municipality, said in an interview that focusing on the contractors missed others who might have failed in their duties.
“This is a system problem,” he said.
Ali Ozgunduz, a former state prosecutor who helped investigate collapsed buildings after the 1999 earthquake, said failures at multiple levels allowed bad buildings to slip through: local officials who looked the other way when issuing permits and inspectors who didn’t look closely enough at work sites.
“As long as those people are not kept accountable, these things will keep happening,” he said.
But property owners, too, play a role, he added, by asking for amnesties and supporting the politicians who grant them.
“The society should be saying, ‘I need a place to live; I don’t need a grave,’” he said.
The quake destroyed thousands of buildings and damaged infrastructure on both sides of the border, but while aid for Turkey has flowed in from around the world, almost none has reached northern Syria because of political divisions on the ground after more than 12 years of civil war.
The United Nations’ top aid official said on Sunday that aid efforts so far had “failed the people of northwest Syria,” while calling the earthquake the “worst event” in the region in a century.
“They rightly feel abandoned,” the official, Martin Griffiths, wrote on Twitter from the Turkey-Syria border. “Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
He praised the response of the Turkish government, saying that victims of natural disasters were always disappointed by early relief efforts.
The Turkish government has mobilized an enormous aid effort, with tens of thousands of rescue workers teaming up with volunteers from around the world to dig through the rubble for bodies and, occasionally, survivors. The government has also erected tent cities for residents whose homes were destroyed and is distributing food, medicine and other items.
But aid efforts in Syria are severely lagging. The earthquake caused heavy damage in areas controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and in enclaves controlled by antigovernment rebels backed by Turkey.
Mr. al-Assad, considered a pariah by much of the world for his troops’ brutality in the civil war, has sought to have all aid sent through his government. That aid, critics say, is then routed to his loyalists.
Only one border crossing into the rebel-held areas, Bab al-Hawa, has been authorized by the United Nations for the transit of aid shipments, but it has yet to become a major channel. The Syrian Red Crescent received permission to send 14 trucks from government-held areas into the rebel-held Idlib Province, but on Sunday, the convoy appeared to be tied up. Even if it goes, the cargo would be minuscule compared to the needs.
While most of the search effort in hard-hit Turkish cities on Sunday focused on removing bodies, unlikely rescues were made.
In Hatay Province, a team from Romania removed a 35-year-old man alive from a pile of rubble 149 hours after the quake, CNN Turk reported.
“His health is good; he was talking,” one of the rescuers told the TV station. “He was saying: ‘Get me out of here quickly. I’ve got claustrophobia.’”
In another rescue broadcast live on HaberTurk television, a 6-year-old boy was pulled from ruins in the city of Adiyaman 151 hours after the quake.