Turkey’s Presidential Election in the Shadow of Devastating Earthquakes

The devastating February 6 earthquakes in Turkey, which caused nearly 45,000 deaths in Turkey and Syria and rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless, have struck a traumatic nerve in Turkish society, where memories of the 1999 Izmit earthquake are still fresh. The two earthquakes, which struck within 24 hours of each other with 7.8 and 7.6 magnitudes, were more powerful than the 7.4 magnitude 1999 earthquake; and as also occurred in the case of the latter, the political implications of these recent quakes may be far-reaching. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power on the heels of the earlier calamity, which revealed incapacitated state institutions and widespread corruption led by the Turkish military elite and their cronies—also the root causes of the 2001 financial crisis that led to the collapse of the country’s entire banking system. Increasing public demand for reforms then created a political opportunity for the newly-founded AKP, which succeeded in coming to power in 2002 with major promises of financial reforms and better governance.

Erdoğan, who rose to power with the AKP, now faces one of the most significant tests of his decades-long political career because the recent earthquakes have exposed widespread malfeasance and ineptitude. With the earthquakes having hit just months before critical presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdoğan’s government is under extreme pressure from the Turkish electorate to answer difficult questions. There are strong indications that Erdoğan aims to postpone the elections and that he is currently testing the waters to see how he may convince some parliamentarians from the Turkish opposition to agree to a constitutional amendment to reschedule them. Opposition parties’ immediate denunciation of the postponement idea, however, signals a bumpy road ahead. The earthquakes have united the opposition like never before, especially since the government’s blatant failure to properly respond to the earthquakes offers an unprecedented opportunity to defeat Erdoğan at the ballot box.

A Disastrous Response

The Turkish authorities have begun referring to the twin earthquakes as the “disaster of the century.” Their impact on a vast geography is indeed remarkable: 11 Turkish provinces where 13.5 million people reside, including about 2 million Syrian refugees, have been officially declared a disaster area. Infrastructure has crumbled, more than 61,000 buildings have been heavily damaged or have collapsed, hundreds of thousands have been evacuated from the most greatly affected cities, and more than 2 million people have lost their homes. The estimated total losses caused by the earthquakes is $84 billion, equivalent to about one tenth of Turkey’s entire economy in 2022. Population displacement and a mass exodus from these provinces will put an additional strain on Istanbul and other metropolitan areas where high population density is already a major problem.

Erdoğan, who rose to power with the AKP, now faces one of the most significant tests of his decades-long political career because the recent earthquakes have exposed widespread malfeasance and ineptitude.

While it is true that this disaster is the biggest in modern Turkish history, the government’s repeated references to the events as the disaster of the century is a purposeful strategy. Following mounting criticism of the government’s incompetent response, Erdoğan admitted “shortcomings,” but tempered this acknowledgment by adding that, “It’s not possible to be ready for a disaster like this.”

A furious speech in which Erdoğan called government critics “dishonorable” and warned that state prosecutors will take action has added fuel to the fire. The government’s swift detainment of some journalists and opening of criminal investigations has faced strong resistance from the Turkish opposition. All eyes were on Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) as a microcosm of the centralization that exists under Erdoğan’s presidential system. AFAD was far too slow in responding to the crisis, to the extent that the hardest-hit cities, including Maras and Hatay, did not receive any evacuation help in the initial days—the most critical period in which to save lives. Frustrated local victims who were facing cold and hunger on the streets questioned why the Turkish Army was not fully deployed. Despite the extreme need for help, government officials insisted that “any coordination other than AFAD coordination” would not be allowed.

This response stood in stark contrast with the 1999 earthquake, when various NGOs, other government agencies like the Turkish Red Crescent, and Turkish military personnel were mobilized in tandem. The Turkish military’s involvement this time around was slow and extremely limited; fewer than 8,000 soldiers were deployed from an army of half a million. The restrictions on the Turkish Army’s involvement may be explained by Erdoğan’s policy of curbing the military’s visibility in domestic affairs. Not only did the centralization of decision-making around Erdoğan hamper the military’s independent mobilization to help address the disaster, but it also impeded a timely response by municipalities and civil society organizations.

Not only did the centralization of decision-making around Erdoğan hamper the military’s independent mobilization to help address the disaster, but it also impeded a timely response by municipalities and civil society organizations.

Public attention focused on AFAD’s inner workings made the situation worse for the Erdoğan government. The fact that the head of AFAD’s disaster response department is a theologian who previously had a long career in the Presidency of Religious Affairs and possesses no experience in disaster management drew the public’s ire and raised charges of nepotism. And news stories regarding AFAD’s 2019 response drill at Maras, the very epicenter of the earthquake, revealed that the Turkish government has received frequent warnings since 2011 from scientists who have urged it to prepare for a devastating earthquake in the region. In recent years, the Chamber of Geophysical Engineers of Turkey published several reports to raise red flags about existing building violations and new construction on fault lines in the areas that were subsequently leveled by the twin quakes. Most strikingly, in August 2022, a local representative of a Turkish opposition leader made a public speech in Maras with a plea to government officials to pay attention to scientists’ cautions. Instead of taking necessary precautions, the Turkish government granted mass amnesties for buildings with code violations in Maras, Hatay, and other vulnerable cities as part of Erdoğan’s 2018 electoral campaign.

The Coming Political Earthquake

The twin quakes enabled Turkey’s opposition to unite in their main message to the electorate. One of the joint promises that the opposition has made is to restore Turkey’s traditional parliamentary system and to terminate the presidential system that Erdoğan introduced. The inefficiencies with “one-man rule,” as the opposition calls it, have become increasingly evident in the aftermath of the disaster, and may continue to cause public anger if the Turkish government cannot meet the future needs of the millions who were directly affected. Facing charges of corruption and nepotism is not new for Erdoğan’s AKP government; however, the visible connection between corruption and the government’s ineptitude was not previously made quite so crystal clear for Erdoğan’s constituency, who are used to listening to stories of Turkey’s great projection of power in the Middle East and Africa. Thus, Erdoğan’s job will be made much harder if the opposition’s description of his government as hollowed out state institutions under one-man rule manages to convince the Turkish electorate.

The twin quakes enabled Turkey’s opposition to unite in their main message to the electorate. One of the joint promises that the opposition has made is to restore Turkey’s traditional parliamentary system and to terminate the presidential system that Erdoğan introduced.

Another opportunity for the Turkish opposition is found in increasing questions about Erdoğan’s “success story” with regard to the construction sector in Turkey. In his election campaigns, Erdoğan has been fond of bragging about Turkey’s growth under his rule. His growth model, however, came to an end with the massive earthquakes that flattened entire Turkish cities. At the expense of environmental and societal costs, the regime’s cronies long benefited from lavish government contracts for massive infrastructure and construction projects. The government passed numerous bills to grant extraordinary powers to AKP-run municipalities to administer urban renewal projects and to sell publicly owned land to private developers.

The profit-oriented construction sector was insatiable, and the government was turning a blind eye to irregularities. According to the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, more than half of all buildings in Turkey—making up some 13 million apartments—were constructed in violation of regulations. Despite repeated warnings by experts and local opposition members, about 294,000 buildings across the affected earthquake zone received “construction amnesties,” legal safety exemptions in exchange for a fee. The Erdoğan government has gathered billions of dollars through construction amnesties. How that revenue was spent and what happened to an additional $40 billion that was collected, and that was popularly known as “earthquake taxes,” is not known. Breaking this vicious cycle of the government-sponsored construction model is virtually impossible because the regime’s construction cronies are also the tycoons who own mainstream media outlets, which operate as propaganda arms of the Erdoğan regime.

In the aftermath of the twin earthquakes, the Turkish opposition has gained an upper hand to speak out for the victimized millions who are now suffering from the regime’s construction greed, which the mainstream media often portrays as a story of successful growth. After public pressure, Turkey’s justice minister declared that the government will punish anyone responsible for the collapse of thousands of buildings, and opened investigations against 134 contractors. But going to the very deep root of the corruption would entail the government undertaking a process of self-interrogation, something that is unlikely to happen. However, the opposition can still push the agenda as an election campaign strategy.

Will Erdoğan Postpone the Elections?

Being a savvy politician, Erdoğan has overcome many tests in the past two decades. Noticing the decline of his popularity in recent years, he has put a Herculean effort into stopping the bleeding and getting ready for the 2023 elections. Erdoğan aimed to restore Turkish relations with the Gulf Arab states and Israel in order to receive support for the Turkish economy, and also sought to gain informal cash inflows from Russia. He pressured Turkey’s Central Bank to keep interest rates low despite high inflation, hoping that low interest rates would encourage Turkish exports. When the Turkish lira collapsed in 2021, Erdoğan ordered the Central Bank to handle the crisis by postponing harmful effects on citizens. Thus, with investors and ordinary people selling lira, the bank spent more than $100 billion to prop up the currency—a policy that strained Turkey’s foreign assets, which are already net negative. Despite the long-term harmful effects on the economy, Erdoğan’s short-term election calculations were on the right track. In the past year, he has announced significant hikes in pensioner and civil servant salaries and a generous increase in the minimum wage. This electoral spending strategy will temporarily relieve the harsh impact of record-breaking inflation rates, which climbed to 85 percent in October 2022.

Despite all of his efforts to win the elections, Erdoğan feels vulnerable in the face of the shocking earthquakes and the ensuing political atmosphere, which is filled with public anger. He has promised to rebuild the devastated cities within a year’s time, but elections are expected to be held on May 14, 2023, or possibly as late as June 18, the constitutional deadline. Bulent Arinc, one of the founders of the AKP and a former speaker of parliament, suggested that the elections should be postponed due to the extraordinary circumstances. Such a move was interpreted as Erdoğan testing the waters. Turkey’s opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, however, was swift in responding by saying that any delay would be a “coup against democracy.” According to the Turkish Constitution, parliament could only postpone the elections during a state of war, and they could be postponed for up to a year under such conditions. If Erdoğan wants to change the constitution with an amendment, he needs 400 votes in parliament, which means that some opposition party members would need to support the bill, which is, so far, an unlikely prospect.

Advocates of an election postponement point to another option: to play the legal game. Turkey’s Supreme Election Council could rule that the devastated cities are not ready to hold elections amid the mass relocations of voters to other cities. The problem with this option, however, is that the council has arrived at such a decision only once, following an earthquake that hit cities two days ahead of a vote in 1966. With the modern registration system, and with the elections still three to four months away, the council’s hypothetical ruling using this technical incapacity argument will not sound convincing to most Turkish voters.

Erdoğan is facing a huge dilemma. He needs to deal with growing public criticism and an emboldened opposition if the current election schedule is to be respected. However, if he chooses to pressure the Supreme Election Council to issue a controversial ruling postponing the elections, he will appear afraid of the ballot box, and thus as a weak politician. In addition, a postponement does not guarantee the elimination of the current negative public atmosphere because the economic impact of this huge catastrophe will certainly shake the entire financial system, and the consequences will therefore gradually be felt by all of Turkey’s citizens and residents.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: shutterstock/Jasminko Ibrakovic