In the wake of Turkey’s worst earthquake since 1939, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is clearly concerned about how the government’s response will affect the result in the May elections.
Erdoğan is striving to show he is at the forefront of relief efforts in those areas where an estimated 35,418 people have died.
But the response and the devastation of the earthquake highlights some of the government’s weaknesses.
A failing economy has made Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) unpopular, according to some polls, but its stranglehold over the state means the result of the elections, scheduled for May 14, is very difficult to predict.
Other countries have weathered far worse quakes with much less physical damage and many fewer casualties, even taking into account government error in the way it is handling the situation.
Larger quakes in Chile in 2010 and Japan in 2011 – while not without significant consequences – hit populated areas with many fewer deaths. Reports have suggested that much of the destruction is caused by lack of investment in building work by the AKP, who they claim have collected the equivalent of £3.8 billion over the past 20 years in earthquake preparation funds – funds to make buildings earthquake resistant – and not accounted for how it has been spent.
They say the regime has allowed the mass construction of buildings with looser and looser regulations on construction and given amnesties for contractors who have not met building codes. Reports suggest that the Chamber of Geological Engineers of Turkey has been raising concerns about existing buildings and new construction taking place in areas hit by these earthquakes for two years, including Kahramanmaras, Hatay and Osmaniye. The AKP government is now promising investigations into contractors and building standards.
This apparent corner-cutting in building standards has been noted over the years, but never fully addressed. At the same time, Erdoğan promised fast economic growth and development.
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Erdoğan’s gutting of civil society organisations has also made housing and feeding the homeless after the earthquakes much harder than needed, and relief efforts overall have been sluggish.
Those in the provinces where thousands have died have made clear their dissatisfaction with the delays in aid, coordination issues and the decision not to supply troops to assist with search-and-rescue efforts. Particular criticism has been made against the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), the country’s disaster management agency.
The government has reacted harshly to criticisms of its response to the disaster. Erdoğan accused critics of fomenting “social chaos” and ominously declared that he was making notes.
He later referred to his critics as “provocateurs”. With criticism coming from Twitter, Erdoğan restricted access to the site in Turkey, despite the fact victims were using it to share their status and location.
In a further attempt to defend himself, the president has denounced criticisms of his response as political opportunism. “In a period like this,” he said, “I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.”
To try to rebuild popularity, the government has offered 100,000 lira (£4,399) in cash aid to the relatives of people who lost their lives and pledged to rebuild all damaged homes. In a search for someone to blame, widespread arrests of contractors have already begun.
Lessons from 1999
In light of all of this, Erdoğan is keenly aware that he must be seen to be involved and leading the disaster response, especially as the earthquake of 1999 contributed to the discrediting of the government of the time and aided Erdoğan’s rise to power.
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In 1999, Turkey was hit by an earthquake that killed an estimated 17,000 people, and the reaction from the government was roundly criticised as disorganised. When the next elections was called, the coalition of ruling parties were voted out. That, at least, was the situation 24 years ago, when the prime minister, Bülent Ecevit, fumbled the crisis and paid the price. But this could also be the case this time.
Aware of growing public anger, and that the disaster will severely harm the country’s already weak economy, Erdoğan is looking for any advantage he can in the elections. AKP MP Bülent Arınç has already called for the elections to be delayed far beyond the June 18 deadline the constitution sets.
The move would be constitutionally dubious at best, with extensions only allowed during wartime. Opposition parties have vigorously condemned the suggestion, fearing that Erdoğan will use the time to crack down further on his opponents. In an election year that already promised to either seal Turkey’s fate by moving it closer to one-man rule or opening the possibility of dramatic change, the stakes have just got even higher.
Balki Begumhan Bayhan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.