The earthquake that struck Turkey on Feb. 6, 2023, is first and foremost a human tragedy, one that has taken the lives of at least 45,000 people to date.
The disaster also has major implications for the country’s economy –the financial loss from the damage is estimated to be USD 84 billion– and its politics.
Analysing this human tragedy and its long-term implications for Turkey is difficult for me. I am a scholar of Turkish politics. But I also grew up in the affected region and lost relatives and friends in the cities of Antakya and Iskenderun. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to examine the implications of the earthquake on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – not for reasons of political intrigue, but because it is crucial in determining how Turkey recovers from the disaster and better prepares itself in the future.
President Erdogan deflects blame
Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place in June 2023. Erdogan had a declining popularity even before the earthquake, due in part to an economic crisis and growing popular concern over his autocratic style of governance, especially among younger voters.
Erdogan has been at pains to mitigate any political fallout from the earthquake and deflect any blame. His Justice and Development Party, AKP, the media under his control, and the government agency running mosques, called the Diyanet, were quick to define the earthquake as "the disaster of the century". The implication is that Erdogan couldn’t have done anything to avoid the extent of the human cost.
Erdogan himself, while surveying the damage caused, announced that it was "not possible to be prepared for such a disaster". He also called it "destiny".
Yet critics have not been convinced. Analysts have held Erdogan’s highly centralised one-man rule responsible for both the lack of sufficient preparations before the earthquake and the failure to provide coordinated help after it.
Lack of preparation and coordination
Certainly, Erdogan’s record makes him vulnerable to claims of culpability over the scale of destruction.
Over the past 20 years, Erdogan prioritised construction as a motor of economic growth. Initially during his time in office, bureaucratic and non-governmental institutions tried to regulate the construction sector, mindful of the devastating 1999 earthquake in the country’s northwest that killed over 17,000 people.
Yet after the 2017 constitutional amendments, Erdogan established a new presidential regime with almost no checks and balances. He hollowed out bureaucratic institutions, placed loyalists in key positions and enriched crony contractors. He did not impose necessary construction regulations. Instead, he gave amnesty to the owners of millions of faulty buildings as part of a populist policy that also raised taxation. After the earthquake, videos of the president bragging about this "amnesty" went viral.
Erdogan’s administration has also faced allegations of being too slow and disorganised to coordinate the rescue operations after the earthquake.
The centralised system has been held responsible by both Opposition parties and foreign observers for what is seen as a very ineffective response on the crucial first day after the earthquake. Critics have asked, for example, why Erdogan did not allow the armed forces to join the rescue operations as soon as the scale of the disaster was clear.
Despite Erdogan’s heavy control over the media, these criticisms have been widely shared in Turkey on both social media and among the opposition parties and activists.
Erdogan has responded by temporarily blocking access to Twitter and publicly announcing that he was writing down the critics "into his notebook" to prosecute them later.
But this has done little to stem the anger directed at the president.
In power since 2003, Erdogan has developed a reputation as an autocrat, prone to stifling dissent rather than engaging with critics. In the minds of many political observers, he is unlikely to transform his political attitudes now.
As such, the Opposition is now calling on the Turkish electorate to choose a new leadership that can better prepare the country for future earthquakes.
Will Erdogan cancel elections?
Erdogan’s party appears concerned that popular anger over handling of the disaster may affect the upcoming elections.
Bülent Arinç, an AKP founder and former speaker of Turkish Parliament, publicly called for the postponement of elections for a year. The Turkish Constitution, however, allows the postponement of elections only during a war. Hence, Arinç defined the Constitution "not sacred" and called for disregarding it.
Erdogan has a major dilemma. If he allows the elections to take place as planned in June 2023, he is likely to lose them. Even before the earthquake, polling suggested that he would lose against one of three possible competitors in the presidential race.
Before the earthquake, Turkey was already experiencing a major economic crisis, with an annual inflation rate running above 80 per cent in the past six months. Six opposition parties –including those founded by a former AKP prime minister and a former AKP vice prime minister– have established an alliance against Erdogan.
For all these reasons, Erdogan may find the idea of postponing the elections beneficial, even if it is unconstitutional.
Yet Erdogan does not know where these multiple economic and political problems are heading – they could worsen into next year. As such, postponing the elections is risky.
Either way, going forward, Erdogan will likely find it harder to keep his political hegemony. His grip on power was already under threat, even before the earthquake.
(The article is written by Dr Ahmet T Kuru, Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. The article is published via PTI from The Conversation.)