The devastating earthquakes that struck southern Turkey on Feb. 6 spell trouble for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of elections that polls had already shown would be no easy victory. Within days, the disaster had reshaped electoral calculations ahead of the May 14 vote by directly challenging several key and longstanding elements of Erdogan’s narrative claim to leadership.
These include his image as the nation’s “master builder” who initiated and has overseen a vast physical transformation of the country since first coming to power as prime minister in 2003. Widespread perceptions of a severely problematic handling of the earthquake’s ongoing aftermath have also tarnished Erdogan’s image of competence, which dates back to his days as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. And the entire episode undermines Erdogan’s belligerent nationalism, a central ideological feature of the second half of his two-decade reign.
The quake has killed tens of thousands of people and sparked a major humanitarian crisis. Bodies remain in the ruins, and relief workers are struggling to aid survivors huddling in the winter cold. Amid such suffering, the disaster’s political implications might seem secondary.
But Turkey’s disaster response efforts and the zoning and urban development missteps that exacerbated the quake’s damage are all closely entangled with domestic politics. Addressing these political issues is essential to a recovery that may last years, to say nothing of the need to address the shortcomings before another major earthquake—always a possibility, given Turkey’s seismic geography—occurs.
The Earthquake and the Election
In addition to striking about 100 days before crucial presidential and parliamentary elections, the series of quakes and aftershocks also coincided with Turkey’s centennial anniversary, adding to the nation’s trauma. A hundred years ago, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and the vote this year was seen as a battle to determine Turkey’s near-term future. Erdogan is facing off against an increasingly assertive political opposition, of which the two largest blocs are a coalition of centrist parties joining forces despite conflicting agendas and a leftist alliance led by the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP.
Both Erdogan and his opponents have decried the political instrumentalization of the earthquake. But each side has also accused the other of politicizing the disaster, despite the pleas to focus on relief efforts. Pro-government media has decried any criticism of the relief efforts as harming “national unity.” Meanwhile, pro-opposition voices highlight Erdogan’s own boisterous criticism of the then-government’s handling of the 1999 earthquake in Izmit province, which paved the way for his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to triumph in elections three years later.
There are hints that the election may not even take place as scheduled on May 14. Some of Erdogan’s allies have already called for a delay of weeks and even months, even though such a push past June might violate the Turkish constitution, which only allows for such a postponement in the event of war.
“We all have funerals to go to,” AKP lawmaker Hakan Kahtali, a representative from the stricken region of Malatya, told the local newspaper Busabah. “Right now, nobody cares about the election. Our souls are gone. Our hearts are broken. This is not the time to talk about the election.”
But Erdogan’s opponents strongly suspect he and the AKP are merely worried about how they will fare in the polls. They have described the proposals to delay the voting as an “auto-coup” meant to solidify what they already lambast as one-man rule.
“If the election is postponed once, Erdogan will postpone it again and as a result, he will remain in power for life without elections,” opposition journalist Veysi Sarisozen warned in a column.
Erdogan’s Response—and His Legacy
Many Turks, including in AKP bastions such as the earthquake-ravaged Gaziantep or Adiyaman provinces, are outraged by what some described as an incompetent, haphazard response to the earthquake.
Perhaps more damaging to Erdogan, the earthquake has undermined one of his main claims about his 20-year rule: that he transformed Turkey by launching ambitious transportation infrastructure projects and laying the fiscal and political groundwork for a two-decade building boom. Just two weeks before the earthquake, Erdogan was cutting the ribbon for a new subway line connecting the massive Istanbul airport he built to the city. But the earthquake has called this entire legacy into question.
It is emerging that shoddy construction, loose regulatory standards and slipshod urban planning under Erdogan’s watch gravely exacerbated the toll of the earthquake. Erdogan’s close identification with property developers who are both patrons and clients of the AKP at both the local and national levels will likely damage his prospects in any vote, whenever it takes place.
Prosecutors have identified scores of property developers and building owners whose buildings collapsed during the quakes, killing uncounted thousands. Some, such as the owner of a collapsed hotel in Adiyaman under which an entire girls’ volleyball team visiting from North Cyprus was crushed to death, are AKP politicians and supporters.
Erdogan’s problem is that he is on record both defending property developers and his government’s track record of selling them “amnesties,” essentially permits for buildings that failed to measure up to codes. Those monies, along with earthquake taxes collected since the 1999 Izmit earthquake, were supposed to finance earthquake resilience in Turkish cities. But they appear to have been squandered.
Earthquakes measuring 7.8 in magnitude are rare. The scale, depth and early morning timing of the Feb. 6 quake would have unleashed apocalyptic havoc in any area as densely populated as the affected regions. But Erdogan’s handling of the earthquake aftermath was anemic. In the earlier years of his reign, Erdogan would have been in the disaster zone immediately, wearing a hard hat and carrying a clipboard, perhaps leading the recovery efforts himself. This time, however, Erdogan took at least 48 hours after the disaster to arrive at the scene. In the meantime, he appeared on television to menace his opponents against saying bad things about him on social media. At one point, the government even briefly blocked Twitter, even as survivors were using it in real-time to call for help for themselves and neighbors.
Rescue workers complained publicly that they were delayed for dozens of hours in getting the necessary approval to help in relief efforts, even as groups and organizations seen as loyal to Erdogan were fast-tracked. None of this has gone unnoticed in the Turkish media, where even staunchly pro-government outlets have been forced by the sheer scale of the tragedy to allow critical voices on the air.
Erdogan himself has admitted that there were shortcomings in his response, an exceedingly rare moment of contrition for the president. But in the same breath, he and his supporters also say the scale of the disaster would have overwhelmed any government. “Whatever happened, happened. Such events are part of destiny’s plan,” he told survivors after the quake.
Despite the tendency in recent years to repress critical coverage by the Turkish media, authorities quickly approved visas and accreditations for international journalists seeking to cover the disaster. And to the government’s credit, rescue groups from abroad were not only welcomed but requested. Sensing the epic scale of the disaster early on, Erdogan wisely made a humble appeal for international help, welcoming aid even from erstwhile rivals such as Israel, Greece and Armenia.
But even that shift in tone will likely be jarring to Erdogan’s supporters. For years, Erdogan has both raged against the West and engaged in military brinkmanship with weaker neighbors in the name of a muscular Turkish nationalism that he has peddled. The image of him admitting that Turkey needs help from the U.S., European Union and other neighbors he has disparaged for years flies in the face of the triumphalist rhetoric he has used since 2013, when he began abandoning the liberal and cosmopolitan pretenses that characterized his and his party’s first years in power and began drifting toward hard-right Turkish nationalism.
A Redrawn Political Landscape
With Turkey’s economy in shambles, the destruction of thousands of housing units in the southeast will only exacerbate the escalating real estate prices across the country that have angered Turks. But perhaps most importantly, the earthquake has shattered Erdogan’s can-do image, hampering his ability to whip up his supporters with appeals to nationalistic jingoism.
Less than three months before an election that polls show is very close, Erdogan and the AKP will struggle to come up with political themes to convince voters to give him another five years in office. Given the redrawn post-earthquake political reality, it is little no wonder that his allies are pushing for an election delay by as much as a year, in the hope that the political ground shifts in the meantime.
Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent and a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He has lived in Turkey since 2015.
This is an excerpt from a WPR article, linked here
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