Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes. Yet, the magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which ripped through southern Turkey and northern Syria on 6 February, will be remembered for long. Not only because this is Turkey’s deadliest since the December 1939 quake, with 36,000 dead across 10 of its 81 provinces. More because this quake threatens to shake the foundations of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Sure, the February earthquake is making Mr Erdogan vulnerable. Symptoms of this vulnerability are already visible. Quake survivors in Turkey are causing much furore, as they are roiled over Mr Erdogan’s clumsy handling of the rescue operations. Ironically, the same Mr Erdogan had capitalised on the then government’s ineptitude in handling a post-quake crisis and gained power in 2002. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. https://time.com/4410491/turkey-president-erdogan-history
The Failure of an Emaciated Army
Bad luck for Mr Erdogan, this post-quake crisis is threatening his political career now. Add to this, the lethal mixture of continuously ballooning inflation and rising poverty levels in Turkey, plus his idiosyncratic monetary policies, the crisis rising from the quake rubble carries the frightening possibility of turning into a formidable challenge for Mr Erdogan and his hardcore Islamist ‘Justice and Development Party’ (ak).
Yet, viewed from the surface, the Turks appear to conceal public discontent. Understandable, Mr Erdogan has succeeded in turning Turkey into an autocratic state. He has robbed the Turks of their civil rights, has eroded their institutions – the Central Bank and the armed forces – and has debilitated their democracy. This is recoiling on him now: an emaciated army is not able to stand up with a superior post-quake response. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2022/02/22/turkey-under-erdo-how-country-turned-from-democracy-and-west-pub-86045
Questions Get Louder by the Day
Nowhere is this in doubt. The army has been inadequate, Mr Erdogan too agrees. Plus, the Turks are raising questions over the mindless proliferation of inferior buildings and the blatant violation of building codes. These questions prove public anger is building up over how Mr Erdogan has messed up with the post-quake rescue operations. These questions are sure to grow louder by the day, endangering his re-election prospects in the polls scheduled for 18 June or an earlier 14 May. The road ahead looks dark and gloomy. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/12/world/middleeast/turkey-syria-quake.html
Mr Erdogan knows well how catastrophes can erode a politician’s popularity. In 2021, he was assailed for his inept handling of wildfires. Luckily, he escaped political extinction by the teeth and he will not forget those lessons. He is sure to make frequent visits to quake-hit locations now and do elaborate damage control for his initial failure to call in the army. Though he called the forces in, later after public fury, his hold proved he was exercising authoritarian control.
Why Casualties Continue to Rise
Managing a magnitude 7.8 earthquake is a challenge, for authoritarians too. Both in lives lost and financial terms, the quake has been quite severe. Destruction by the quake is estimated to cost Turkey up to over USD 84 bn. Moreover, with a mere 6,000 dead across the border in Syria, the losses in Turkey look much bigger than they are. In turn, this comparative perception is magnifying Mr Erdogan’s political and post-quake woes. https://www.reuters.com/world/middleeast/earthquake-could-cost-turkey-up-84-bln-business-group2023-02-13/
Mr Erdogan is trying hard to dissolve this perception. He has kicked off an extensive salvage operation. Yet, many survivors say they are unhappy with the lackadaisical government response and they had to hunt for food-shelter and rescue their kin, all by themselves. Mr Erdogan’s rescue squads continue to fail to rise up to the crisis of this magnitude. Which is why the casualties continue to rise.
An Erdogan-Assembled Liability
Rising casualties will be Mr Erdogan’s major political crater. In fact, it was Mr Erdogan who helped to create this crater by his systematic weakening of the armed forces, chipping off their strengths piecemeal over time. Not surprising the armed forces were found wanting in the face of a major catastrophe. Sure, Turks hold Mr Erdogan responsible for this pathetic state of affairs. Inevitably, Mr Erdogan’s political future is under grave threat and looking endangered now.
In the coming days, this threat will grow, thanks to AFAD. Translated, the Turkish acronym means Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency. This is a Mr Erdogan-assembled earthquake response team. The AFAD will be a liability for Mr Erdogan, for two reasons. One, AFAD is stuffed with incompetent Erdogan cronies. Two, Mr Erdogan is pushing AFAD at the cost of helpful units like the Turkish Red Crescent. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/afad-turkeysdisaster-management-authority-2023-02-13/
Politicisation of the Military
Despite this push, AFAD will be a problem for Mr Erdogan. AFAD has a tiny budget and it is run by a greenhorn. The AFAD bungling apart, Mr Erdogan is proving he is short-sighted by downplaying rescue-capable armed forces to promote a civil rescue authority, which is poorly staffed with volunteers. With such short-sightedness, how can Mr Erdogan gain the confidence of Turks and win the approaching elections?
Mr Erdogan’s downplaying of the armed forces has another unsavoury fallout. The military has been politicised. To make matters worse, Mr Erdogan did away with the protocol enabling the forces to respond to natural disasters proactively, with or without instruction. These twin dampeners has left the armed forces highly disincentivised. Not surprising, the disinterested military was too slow to respond to the colossal quake tragedy. https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/giga-focus/thenew-turkey-and-its-nascent-security-regime
Too Little and Too Late
The tragedy was further compounded by the blatant violation of building codes. Worse, the codes were old and unvetted, most of them over eight-decades old. Instead of protecting the earthquake-hit, such building codes filled the pockets of Erdogan cronies. Aggravating matters, Mr Erdogan offered amnesty in 2018 for violators of building codes. This had resulted in as many as 6m structures not quake-resistant.
Quite natural, the opposition parties are gunning for Mr Erdogan now. They are saying Mr Erdogan’s claims of having restructured the construction codes after a 1999 quake is plain phoney. Their logic: Mr Erdogan ensured the codes were selectively applied. Not cowed down, Mr Erdogan is now setting up earthquake ‘crime investigation units’ to punish errant contractors in 10 provinces. Again, this is too little and too late. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/11/world/middleeast/turkey-syria-earthquake.html
The Fate of Dedicated Tax-Funds
Unconvinced, opposition parties are questioning Mr Erdogan over huge sums, collected twice, after the 6 February quake. They allege Mr Erdogan collected the sums through his fancifully-named ‘earthquake solidarity taxes.’ Primarily, these tax-funds were created after the 1999 quake for making buildings in Turkey earthquake-resistant. What happened to these funds, they are asking today.
The Turks are getting clear messages. One, concrete used was pathetic. Two, impudent arrogance topped this corruption shocker and bloated the number of casualties. Why did Mr Erdogan pay no heed to the geologists who had been warning of a fast-approaching earthquake? If this is not impudent arrogance, what else is this? Why was Mr Erdogan busy spending billions of dollars to rein in inflation only before the elections? https://saudigazette.com.sa/article/629730
Banking on Nationalism and Patriotism
Angry Turks are in no mood to stop asking questions. They are blaming Mr Erdogan’s reckless spending for tossing Turkey into a recession. Then came the earthquakes as a double-whammy for beleaguered Turkey. As Turks are hit by belated realisation, it is time Mr Erdogan too introspected on what he did and what he didn’t. Blatant remorselessness is sure to take Turkey further down, harming Mr Erdogan’s political career. https://www.euronews.com/2022/11/09/everything-isoverheating-why-is-turkeys-economy-in-such-a-mess
Such introspection is a must for Mr Erdogan and his political career. Particularly because both presidential and parliamentary elections should be held before 18 June this year. As this date is not far, Mr Erdogan should grab the challenges by the horn. Instead, unfortunately for him and Turkey, he will bank on raising the temperature of nationalism and selling his patriotism pitch to his voters.
Turks Thirsting for Deliverance
The fear now is Mr Erdogan may call off the elections and install himself as an undisputed ruler, when he sees the events not progressing as desired. He may thus attempt to gain legitimacy to his one-man rule. This fear is keeping the six-party opposition coalition together. The coalition vows to rout Mr Erdogan and lead Turkey out of its economic and political morass. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/1/30/turkeyopposition-vows-to-strengthen-democracy-ahead-of-may-vote
Sure, Turks are thirsting for deliverance from an economy in a freefall, soaring inflation, high living costs and diminishing standard of living. Mr Erdogan’s response to this economic disaster was to gag democratic mouthpieces and block social media channels. He is accused of ignoring the task of salvaging Turkey’s economy. The opposition is already turning Mr Erdogan’s non-performance into a major poll issue, central to their campaign.
Political observers say the issue is finding resonance among Turks. As reality hits home, Mr Erdogan is sure to lean on his loyalists to ride back to power. Such a strategy will not work this time. Angry Turks are watching the quake tragedy unfold before them in its most gruesome manifestation. In a moment of weakness, Mr Erdogan too did admit the rescue operations were not up to the mark. However, his admission was qualified and couched in generalities.
Unfortunately, Mr Erdogan attempted to deflect the ultimate blame and point fingers at fate. With characteristic impudence, he declared: “Such things have always happened. It’s part of destiny’s plan.” These insensitive words, coming in the midst of a humongous human tragedy, will ensure Mr Erdogan loses the coming election. When he does, he should blame himself for the debacle, not destiny.