Turkish President Erdoğan’s Grip on Power Threatened by Devastating Earthquake

Yves here. For readers who keep up on international affairs, the idea that the terrible earthquake that hit Turkiye and Syria would further weaken Erdogan’s re-election prospects is not likely to be a new idea. The article focuses on what Erdogan can do to bolster his prospects given that he backed construction-industry driven growth, and in the last few years, very lax building standards and is thus facing voter ire.

As important a question is what other countries will do to influence election outcomes in this linchpin power. Erdogan is not well liked by the US or NATO ex Hungary for being too friendly to Russia. If they kick Erdogan without being perceived to also kick Turkiye is an open question. Russia clearly has incentives to bolster Erdogan, but may be loath to do much so as not to unduly alienate a successor (unless the candidates are so pro West as to be irredeemable from Moscow’s perspective).

It’s no secret that foreigners can put their fingers on the dial:

Note the US has pledged $100 million, more aid than it gave to Japan post Fukushima ($0, but it did spend a lot on military deployment to provide immediate relief. However, the US has a habit of not always delivering on these promises.

By Ahmet T. Kuru, Professor of Political Science, San Diego State University. Originally published at The Conversation

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 US$84 billion – and its politics.

Analyzing 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 Erdoğan – 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 Erdoğan Deflects Blame

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place in June 2023. Erdoğan 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.

Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan couldn’t have done anything to avoid the extent of the human cost.

Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’s highly centralized 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, Erdoğan’s record makes him vulnerable to claims of culpability over the scale of destruction.

Over the past 20 years, Erdoğan prioritized construction as a motor of economic growth. Initially during his time in office, bureaucratic and nongovernmental 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 2017 constitutional amendments, Erdoğan 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.

Erdoğan’s administration has also faced allegations of being too slow and disorganized to coordinate the rescue operations after the earthquake.

The centralized 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 Erdoğan did not allow the armed forces to join the rescue operations as soon as the scale of the disaster was clear.

Despite Erdoğan’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.

Erdoğan 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, Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan Cancel Elections?

Erdoğan’s party appears concerned that popular anger over handling of the disaster may affect the upcoming elections.

Bülent Arınç, 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, Arınç defined the Constitution “not sacred” and called for disregarding it.

Erdoğan 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% 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 Erdoğan.

For all these reasons, Erdoğan may find the idea of postponing the elections beneficial, even if it is unconstitutional.

Yet Erdoğan 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, Erdoğan will likely find it harder to keep his political hegemony. His grip on power was already under threat, even before the earthquake.

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  1. ddt

    From across the pond (Greece), the media are saying he’s going ahead with elections in May. One of his main rivals, mayor of Istanbul has been convicted of some political crime or other in order to take him out of the picture tho that’s under appeal.

    Consensus is stick a fork in him. Erdogan is done. But he may yet have some cards up his sleeve.

    1. Paradan

      So if he’s gone does that mean Turkey will get new puppet strings installed or are all the competing factions anti-US enough to keep that from happening.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        The polling re:NATO indicates the international course is set. Going back Erdogan’s power is partly due to the EU not keeping promises in regards to EU accession. Borrell types didn’t want to disrupt the purity of the garden.

        Turkey has had an open application for over 10 years. I don’t think this is lost on anyone especially in light of people like Borrell saying the quiet part out loud.

  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    I recall being in Istanbul in 2011 just as the big demonstrations in Syria started. On my last evening, I was in a very Turkish restaurant (with an ayran “fountain”) that had the television on. The chyron included the word Süriye. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was happening.

    Erdogan has made a mess and is an authoritarian. Yet the U.S. foreign-policy elites are fantasizing if they think that the U.S. has much influence, having destabilized Syria, Iraq, and Libya, having managed a decades-long low-grade war on Iran (with which Turkiye has ties that ago back centuries), and is now arming Cyprus.

    Complicating factors: The new faces (if one can call them new) are likely to be nationalists. Nationalism is a strong factor in Turkish history and politics. So Erdogan’s successor may not be pliable at all.

    The post leads to this article about the opposition:

    Informative. The Republican Peoples Party is a major force. But it also is nationalistic.

    Note that the Kurdish-leaning Peoples Democratic Party is missing. So the Kurds are a wild card. Erdogan’s nationalism means that no one even knows how many Kurds live in Turkiye. The information is suppressed. Estimates go up to one-fifth of the population. With unknown consequences.

    Likewise, the Alevis, who overlap with the Kurds. The Alevis are heterodox Muslims, also up to a fifth of the population. Erdogan’s tactic of supporting Sunni orthodoxy likely doesn’t sit well with them. Yet they would be a wild card, too.

    And who knows how to end the presidential system, as mentioned in the Deutsche Welle article…

    In short: This isn’t going to be settled clearly, and the crisis in Turkiye is likely to continue.

    1. Dan

      An important point. Ironically, part of the appeal of AKP in the early days (2003-2008, say) was that it was less nationalist – being Muslims, they reached out for Kurdish votes. In fact they still get a lot of Kurdish votes in the southeast from the more culturally/religiously conservative part of the population l.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    The Turkish economy is doing exceptionally well right now thanks to Ukraine. Erdogan is a wily operator and has shown his ability to cool down his aspirations to be a regional kingpin in order to win short term tactical battles. I doubt Erdogan cares much ultimately about what the US or Russia thinks – his focus is on the eastern Med and central Asia. Nato, the US, Russia and China are all the same to him – relatively distant big powers to be played off against each other.

    The danger for him of course is that the earthquake has tainted him permanently in the eyes of most Turks thanks to his association with the most corrupt elements of the construction industry. The reality that the earthquake killed both rich and poor living in badly built apartments could be particularly bad for him – like most autocrats or quasi-autocrats he needs the tacit support of the better off middle classes. I get the impression that he is more respected than loved, even by his core supporters, which could mean his base could be weaker than seems from the outside. But of course his biggest prop is that there seems to be few viable alternatives.

  4. ChrisFromGA

    I’ll take the contrarian view here.

    Nations tend to rally round the flag when a big disaster hits. See Bush’s approval ratings shortly after 9-11, or Obama’s during the great financial crisis.

    Don’t write off Erdogan – he is extremely shrewd and I suspect he can rally support by pointing at the West as the real enemy.

    1. bojang bugami

      But if the disaster is a kind of own-goal disaster, like the elites building bad buildings sure to come down in an earthquake, will the witnesses and survivors rally round the flag in the same way?

      If a party in Turkiye ran on cancelling all the bad-building amnesties for buildings still standing and forcing a nationwide teardown build-back-safer of all the not yet destroyed buildings, to be paid for by higher taxes on the contractor classes among others, would a lot of Turkish citizens vote for that?

  5. The Rev Kev

    Right after the earthquake I would have assumed that Erdogan would have immediately sent in the army to help rescue people – those units that weren’t shattered by the earthquake that is. And yet he seemed to be behind in reacting to events for whatever reason. Perhaps he suddenly realized the price paid for allowing a lot of dodgy building work to go up under his reign. Still, I wouldn’t write him of yet. Although I do not like the guy, he certainly has a talent for making a comeback after finding himself up a creek without a paddle. He seems to dig in, wait for events to change and then to seize hold of those that will help him come back. And those elections are still months away.

    1. Dan

      This is a key part of the story that Prof Kuru didn’t get into. In the reforms after the abortive coup of 2016, the army was stripped of its disaster response functions as a way to further reduce it’s role in civil society. The new civilian agency (AFAD) that replaced it has only 7000 staff (vs 1m+ in the army) and relies largely on training volunteers to respond. AFAD’s budget was cut by a third in 2023. Per Reuters:

      Two experts consulted by Reuters partly blamed the delays on the centralization of emergency response under AFAD by President Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

      This included restricting the military’s freedom to deploy its troops without direct instruction from civilian authorities, and sidelining of other first-responders, such as the Red Crescent and the AKUT search and rescue group, they said.

      Time Magazine also has a piece that captures the frustration of would be volunteers who were told to go home and wait for a call:

      But sit at home is exactly what AFAD told Berker to do. He had to come back the next day to badger officials to send him and other volunteers south on an overnight bus ride to Iskenderun. There, AFAD employees tried to keep Berker and his ad hoc team from going to the hard-hit city of Samandag, he says. But the team caught a lift with a local man and eventually pulled five people out alive with a jackhammer, generator, and bolt cutter, which also had to be provided by residents.

      The complete absence of the government on the front in the first 24 hours was widely noted and even reported on in Turkish media, which has limited freedom. This as much as anything will create serious headwinds for Erdogan. But I agree with ChrisinGA that he should not be counted out, and is unlikely to go voluntarily.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Thanks for that report. I have heard none of that before and it explains a lot of what was happening and why. It sounds like Erdogan may have not wanted to send in the army as that may have made them too popular with the people.

  6. orlbucfan

    I love the manipulation of English. Actually, I hate it, but it has always been very effective over the decades. Authoritative is the same word as dictatorial/totalitarian. Erdoğanrules a country that is a super active earthquake zone. 45,000 dead now? And a few years ago, major earthquakes killed 17-20,000? Why do people keep coming back and rebuilding there? It’s the same kind of stupidity that dictates people coming back and rebuilding on barrier islands that are hurricane buffers. So, where is the sense in both?

    1. bojang bugami

      In a crowded country, where else is there to build? And if the buildings were built earthquake-safe, would they all fall down like that?

  7. Roland

    Erdogan & AKP have been in power for a long time. An incumbent government usually gets blamed for everything. The government is strongly identified with Erdogan personally–are there successors within the party?

    Erdogan’s achievements: economic growth; employment; the maturing of the modern Turkish republic beyond the rule of a military-backed Westernizing elite, i.e. a Turkey modern, but post-Kemalist.

    Erdogan’s failures: high inflation; a foreign policy that shifted from safe to risky, and thus contributed to wars in Syria and the Caucasus.

    As for the earthquake, there’s not one developing country in the world that has sound building standards, not one country of any kind that has had rapid economic growth without having a big construction boom, and not one construction boom anywhere that hasn’t led to corruption and lax regulatory enforcement. Everybody learns the hard way (even the Japanese, after the big Tokyo quake in the 1920’s.)

    Nevertheless, Erdogan’s been in power for a long time, so it’s his fault. Bucks stop, and kitchens get warm.

    Metaphysically, could this be more evidence of angry gods? The earthquake could cause the political downfall of a man who, despite his errors, sincerely works for peace between the major powers of the world, and at a critical time.

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