Any disaster, natural or man-made, is always a challenge to the current government. Victims and society as a whole expect immediate and, most importantly, correct action from their government, closely monitoring both the statements and actions of the leadership. A similar situation now exists in Turkey. The enormous tragedy, the victims of which were hundreds of thousands of people (about 40 thousand dead) became not only a test for all the Turkish people, but also a catalyst for political battles. At the same time the opposition has started to be proactive.
Challenges for Erdoğan
Before Erdoğan appeared on television to address the nation, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s largest opposition People’s Republican Party, said he would travel to Hatay with his colleagues, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Izmir Mayor Tunç Soyer, who won the 2019 elections over candidates from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Kiliçdaroğlu made an appeal to citizens from Hatay late in the evening of February 7. In stark contrast to Erdoğan’s address, Kiliçdaroğlu appeared by the light of a spare overhead streetlight in the city, still without electricity, dressed entirely in black, and without much ceremony placed the blame for the disaster on the regime, saying: “this collapse is entirely the result of systematic rentier policies. There is no meeting ground either with Erdoğan, or with the palace, or with these rentier gangs”.
On the eve of the earthquake, the opposition coalition also announced that it would name its candidate to run against Erdoğan on February, 13. Although there were fears that there would be a split within the opposition over disputes over who would go as the main candidate, the days after the earthquake showed unity. This poses certain risks for the AKP.
Turkish journalist Ceyda Karan points out six key aspects that relate to the problems of the earthquake and its aftermath:
1) the long delay or lack of assistance to the victims by the state. This was affected by the scale of the disaster, so the state simply could not help everyone at the same time;
2) the inadequate response of the emergency agency, which is within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Lack of necessary rescue equipment and qualified personnel;
3) attempts to censor criticism of the government by the opposition and temporary blocking of social networks;
4) contradictory use of Turkish Armed Forces to respond to the earthquake. In the first 24 hours, only 3,500 military personnel were deployed, while 50,000 Turkish soldiers and officers are in Syria. Rescue teams from Russia, Spain and Israel managed to deploy field hospitals earlier;
5) complexity of the elections scheduled for May. Erdoğan has a mandate to postpone elections only if there is a war, and the current disaster provides him with a negative backdrop for the Justice and Development Party to win a majority of parliamentary seats;
6) relationship with foreign policy because Turkey’s relations with EU and NATO countries worsened on the eve of the earthquake. Conversely, there was a rapprochement with Syria mediated by Russia.
The fifth point is the most important right now because, by law, elections cannot be postponed. But supporters of postponement say there is another way. The Supreme Electoral Council, known as the YSK, the final arbiter of electoral disputes, can rule that it is not prepared to hold elections in the 10 hard-hit provinces and amid an unprecedented displacement of voters to other cities. Indeed, in 1966, the YSK ruled that local elections could be postponed after an earthquake struck the eastern provinces two days before voting, making it impossible to hold elections. It is likely that a decision will be made soon, and now the emissaries of the YSK are listening to public opinion so as not to lose their reputation.
However, James Ryan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) actually linked the earthquake damage to the work of Erdoğan’s own party. He writes that “the reason this is so unsettling for Erdoğan is that the nature of these tens of thousands of deaths—pancaked concrete apartment buildings—strikes at the core of his party’s governance strategy…. In a rush to build massive amounts of new housing, the Turkish government has issued hundreds of thousands of exemptions from earthquake safety standards across the country, including 75,000 buildings in the area affected by these earthquakes. In the last decade, this development has gone into overdrive to build not only massive and expansive new housing projects, but questionable “mega projects” including two new bridges over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, a massive new airport in Istanbul’s exurbs, and a planned canal project meant to circumvent the Straits, cutting a huge swath through Turkey’s Thracian province. For a large part, this construction was paid for with injections of foreign debt—much of which came from Turkey’s allies in the Gulf, beginning with Qatar and more recently with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Visitors to Istanbul over the recent years can not help but notice the speed with which skyscrapers and development projects appear across the landscape—less well observed but no less true is that this development has proceeded at a similar pace across the country, and especially in rapidly urbanizing southeast Turkey, a region that has also been bearing the social and economic brunt of the influx of millions of Syrian refugees since 2011. To put it bluntly, a decade’s worth of economic and political capital has been poured into this region by the AKP government, and it fell to ruin in the space of a few hours”.
Obviously, Erdoğan will be blamed for all this. Although it is already known about the detention of representatives of construction companies, whose houses turned out to be less reliable than others, it should be taken into account that this business would hardly have been possible without the patronage of the authorities. It will be the opposition, which has been deprived of various privileges, to take an active search for a scapegoat.
Erdoğan should not underestimate other political risks, including a possible escalation of conflicts within the country. A study of the impact of earthquakes on intra-state conflicts, based on a statistical analysis of 185 countries from 1975 to 2002, shows that earthquakes “not only increase the likelihood of conflict, but that their effects are greater for higher magnitude earthquakes striking more densely populated areas of countries with lower gross domestic products as well as preexisting conflicts”.
The author of the study writes that “although many scholars, policy makers, and relief organizations suggest that natural disasters bring groups together and dampen conflicts, earthquakes can actually stimulate intrastate conflict by producing scarcities in basic resources, particularly in developing countries where the competition for scarce resources is most intense”.
to be continued