Political aftershocks in Turkey: Erdoğan’s days in power may be numbered following earthquake tragedy

By Frederik Brekk

WITH the official death toll of the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria now exceeding 50,000, and the true number likely to be far greater, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) prospects in the upcoming presidential and general elections have taken another hit.

According to most public opinion polls conducted prior to the earthquakes, Erdoğan and AKP were leading by a slim margin.

The region devastated by the recent earthquakes, however, makes up a key part of AKP’s electorate, and the inability to vote (due to damaged infrastructure) or growing anti-Erdoğan sentiment could be detrimental to re-election efforts.

Before February’s events, Turkish voters were primarily concerned with the faltering economy and high inflation (around 57 per cent in January). This has now been compounded by mishandled earthquake relief efforts, a temporary ban on Twitter (due to public criticism), and revelations regarding lax enforcement of building regulations.

Had Ankara handled disaster relief efforts differently, what could have given Erdoğan and AKP a boost in the upcoming elections may instead accomplish the opposite.

The slow arrival of rescue teams to disaster sites and a general lack of preparedness for such an event are two accusations against the government.

It is a sign of poor governance, and perhaps somewhat ironic, that AKP failed to learn the lessons of the 1999 Marmara earthquake – the same earthquake which helped propel AKP to prominence in 2002 on promises of improved governance and disaster preparation.

Initial investigations by Ankara have identified suspects involved in the construction of buildings in the affected region which did not meet Turkish building standards. In the days since the earthquakes occurred, however, videos have surfaced in which Erdoğan boasts about allowing ‘zoning amnesty’ – essentially permitting local contractors to ignore nationwide building codes meant to protect against earthquakes.

This supports claims that these investigations are designed to deflect blame away from the government’s failings and onto those it enabled.

With the declaration of a three-month state of emergency beginning on February 7, one may recall the 2016 coup which saw another state of emergency declared, eventually being extended for two years.

The crackdown following this coup limited Turkish civil society elements which had contributed to rescue efforts in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake, facilitating the delayed response seen this month.

The extension of the state of emergency in 2016 and its utilisation for political ends have fuelled concerns that the current state of emergency may be manipulated in a similar fashion, even going so far as to delay the elections.

Increasingly desperate, Erdoğan and AKP are perhaps hoping for internal disagreements to stymie progress from the six-party opposition coalition – the Nation Alliance.

In recent months the Nation Alliance has struggled to select a candidate, and the incumbent government’s recent decision to move the election up by one month (a decision made prior to the earthquakes) can be seen as an attempt to catch the opposition flat-footed.

The recent tragedy has further complicated an already difficult and tense political situation in Turkey, and has the potential to set the stage for regime change should the opposition seize the initiative.

The conditions which ushered in a new era of Turkish politics more than two decades ago may well repeat themselves – this time, however, Erdoğan and AKP will not be the beneficiaries.

Frederik Brekk is an analyst specialising in politics, foreign affairs, security, and defence, particularly in Eastern Europe and Turkey.

Featured image: Pixabay

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