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Erdoğan Is In Danger
With elections looming large, last month’s earthquake bodes ill for Turkey’s strongman.
The February 6 earthquake leveled many parts of four Turkish provinces and northwestern Syria. The death toll currently stands at almost 50,000, and will only climb higher. The devastation is shocking and is likely to dramatically alter Turkey’s political landscape, with presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14th. Turkey’s authoritarian-populist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is now in serious peril.
This was the most devastating earthquake of modern Turkish history, eclipsing the 1939 and 1999 earthquakes which left 32,000 and 17,000 dead respectively. Government sources say that more than 156,000 buildings have either collapsed or will have to be demolished. Many others may not be habitable for long periods of time and will require extensive repairs. This is in addition to the widespread damage done to regional infrastructure: the water, sewage, gas and electricity systems have all been severely impacted.
The tragedy was compounded by the government’s sluggish response. Relief workers did not show up for days in some localities. Erdoğan appeared shocked and almost immobilized by the extent of the devastation. The state-funded relief organization, AFAD, which had seen its funding severely slashed in the 2023 national budget, was not ready with the requisite equipment and manpower. This is despite a special “earthquake tax” that had been levied on all taxpayers following the 1999 quake. Erdoğan also failed to effectively deploy Turkey’s military to help with relief efforts.
Instead, the government initially appeared more worried about protecting its own image. Typical of populist regimes it sought to put the blame on others, especially building contractors. A number have been arrested. It tried to prevent the spread of criticism of its own poor performance by temporarily blocking Twitter, apprehending critics, punishing TV stations and websites for the barest of critiques, and going after organizations such as Ahbap, a popular humanitarian NGO.
Turkey’s civil society, on the other hand, snapped effectively into action. Volunteers from all over the country rallied to help, from professional trade organizations to local organizations in unaffected parts of the country to soccer clubs. Some sent volunteers, others collected necessary items or sent teams to assess conditions on the ground. The contrast with the government’s slow response was stark.
The disaster and its bungled handling have cast a shadow over the upcoming elections. The four devastated provinces represent some 16 percent of the population. It is highly unlikely that polls can be conducted fairly, given that as many as 1.5 million residents, according to some estimates, will be forced to seek refuge with family and friends in other parts of the country.
Still, the Nation Alliance, the main opposition grouping, made it clear that it would not accept any delay of the elections, and Erdoğan seems to have conceded the point. On March 1st he indicated that the election would go ahead as planned on May 14th.
But trouble lies ahead for Erdoğan. In the 2018 elections, his Justice and Development Party’s party (AKP) was a clear-cut winner in the four provinces primarily affected by this earthquake. Erdoğan has taken a hit to his popularity in these regions, which until now had been reliable sources of votes. Elsewhere, there are signs of growing opposition to the country’s leadership: calls for the government to resign have arisen at soccer games, prompting authorities to impose attendance bans last week. This only helped spread and deepen anti-government sentiments.
One problem is the public’s perception of Erdoğan’s deep and unhealthy political and economic alliance with the construction industry. This industry is one of the most important beneficiaries of state largesse and, in turn, serves as an engine of economic growth. In 2018, in anticipation of the first elections under a new presidential system, Erdoğan and his allies in parliament passed a “construction amnesty” that offered forgiveness to all those who had violated building codes, provided they paid a fine that flowed into the treasury. This had the effect of legalizing shoddy constructions, such as the addition of unauthorized extra floors. In 2023, these were, in some cases, a death sentence.
Erdoğan will struggle to shift the blame to others. In addition to local builders, some of whom have been detained, Erdoğan needs folks who will fall on their swords for him. Some may be local Ankara-appointed governors, others senior bureaucrats and maybe a party official or two. Will this suffice? Unlikely. No amount of sacrificial lambs or aid for reconstruction is likely to erase the pain and loss resulting from this devastation.
Another problem relates to the large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. By some estimates as many as 1,500 have been repatriated in body bags. So far, Turkish support for Syrians fleeing their country’s deadly civil war has been extremely generous. But tensions have started to grow. Some opportunist politicians have already floated falsehoods aimed at stirring up animosity, and the ground remains ripe for misinformation.
The earthquake has also complicated Erdoğan’s hitherto belligerent foreign policy stance. Bitter attacks on allies and neighbors had become a rhetorical staple for Erdoğan, his ministers, and the pro-AKP press outlets that dominate the Turkish media. The international reaction to the earthquake, by contrast, has been overwhelmingly supportive. Countries Erdoğan has poured invective on—such as the United States, Greece, Armenia, Israel, Sweden and others—rapidly mobilized their relief workers. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently pledged $100 million in fresh aid to both Turkey and Syria.
In the months to come, it will be difficult for Ankara to resume its verbal attacks, robbing Erdoğan of a convenient and cheap weapon of political distraction. Aggressiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean towards Greece and attacking the United States for its support of Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS will have to be tamped down, at least for the time being. The same goes for Sweden, which organized EU aid as the bloc’s rotating president. The country had been a favored target of Erdoğan’s, who vetoed its post-Ukraine invasion application to NATO while he demanded the rendition of “120 terrorists”—mainly political refugees connected to Turkey’s Kurdish opposition or allies of his nemesis Fethullah Gülen, a cleric based in the United States. For now, Erdoğan will have to rein in such belligerence.
Ironically, it was the mismanagement displayed by the incumbent government during the deadly 1999 Izmit earthquake that helped propel the AKP to power in 2002. Erdoğan is acutely aware of this precedent, and his state machinery has belatedly initiated a massive reconstruction effort.
As the pressure mounts, one cannot rule out the possibility that Erdoğan will also resort to electoral chicanery. Of the thousands of buildings that have been destroyed, some are likely to be polling locations. This will lead to confusion on the ground, creating ideal conditions for electoral malfeasance by the government to boost its chances—something which has been increasingly common in recent years.
Nevertheless, things do not look good for Erdoğan. For years he has skillfully equated his own success with Turkey’s success, building a deeply personalist political system. As Galip Dalay has argued, in the run up to the election Erdoğan was searching for greater prominence for himself and Turkey on the international stage. Now, all the attention will be on the disaster at home. As the eyes lift from the rubble, they might well turn to the presidential palace in Ankara—and the man who has spent two decades reshaping the country in his own image.
Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.
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