Will Turkey’s earthquake failures bring about the end of Erdoğan?

President seeking to enter third decade of power faces accusations of inaction and hindering relief effort

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey
Erdoğan has said it was not possible to be prepared for such a disaster
(Image credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected to power 20 years ago, he did so by capitalising on public outrage over the government response to a devastating earthquake.

Now three months away from another election and following another similarly catastrophic earthquake, there are obvious parallels as Erdoğan’s political opponents line up to criticise the president’s “autocratic style for hindering relief work”, writes Mark Almond, director of the Crisis Research Institute in Oxford, for The Telegraph.

Hopes of finding survivors from last week’s earthquakes “are fading as rescue operations draw to a close”, said The Times, with the “true scale of this disaster still emerging”. The death toll stood at more than 33,000 across both Turkey and Syria on Sunday, with the UN emergency relief chief Martin Griffiths saying he expects it to rise to at least 50,000.

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“It is going to be a big challenge for Erdogan, who has established a brand for himself as an autocratic figure but an efficient one that gets the job done,” Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute, told AP News.

The “pressure on Erdogan is massive”, agreed Al-Monitor. Among the ten Turkish provinces that are in the disaster zone, “seven (Adiyaman, Malatya, Kilis, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaras, Osmaniye, Sanliurfa) are controlled by mayors from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)”. The earthquake “hit home with Erdogan’s core constituency, and he needs to show them he can deliver with an election looming”, said the website.

What did the papers say?

The 68-year-old leader is facing “the strongest opposition yet to his presidency”, said CNN, with Erdoğan’s political rivals already criticising the government’s response to the earthquake.

“Let me be very clear; if there one person responsible for this process, it is Erdogan,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, said in a video address last week. “For 20 years, this government has not prepared the country for an earthquake.”

One of the country’s most eminent civil engineers, Professor Mustafa Erdik of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, also indirectly blamed Erdoğan, saying: “We allow for damage but not this type of damage – with floors being piled on top of each other like pancakes. That should have been prevented and that creates the kind of casualties we have seen,” he told the BBC.

Erdoğan, for his part, has said the response to last week’s earthquakes – which he described as the “strongest in the history of this geography”, according to AP News – has been hampered by poor weather and the destruction of a key airport.

“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Erdoğan said, promising that “we will not leave any of our citizens uncared for”.

The Turkish authorities have now made several arrests of those responsible for building some of the now destroyed housing, including detaining one of the contractors who built luxury developments in Hatay, one of the provinces worst affected by the earthquakes.

But this has “seemingly done little to put the public at ease”, said The Spectator’s Gabriel Gavin. With frustrations growing over what critics say was a delayed response to a preventable disaster, Twitter was blocked for many users across Turkey last week “as officials sought to dampen tensions and halt the spread of alleged ‘misinformation’”, he added.

What next?

While officials say the extent of the destruction is not yet clear, “they believe rebuilding will stretch Türkiye’s budget”, said the Daily Sabah. The country has already been coping with “soaring inflation and depreciation in the Turkish lira”, the website added.

Erdoğan has also implemented emergency powers to deal with the earthquakes. But some observers worry that the powers could also be used to clamp down even further on critical media, while a Turkish official told Reuters that authorities could consider postponing this year’s election, because of the “serious difficulties” resulting from the earthquakes.

If the elections do go ahead in May, the three-month state of emergency gives Erdoğan the power to “lavish public spending” in the affected areas, Hamish Kinnear, Middle East and North Africa analyst for risk-intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, told AP News. He added that he believed an Erdoğan victory was still likely as the president has the “levers of state at his command and Turkish politics was hardly a level playing field before the earthquake”.

On top of this, with less than 100 days to go before the election, Erdoğan’s rivals “have yet to put forth a candidate to run against him”, said AP News.

The most popular option is Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul. But in December, İmamoğlu was convicted of insulting election officials and his prison sentence, if upheld on appeal, will ban him from politics. Critics accuse Erdoğan of “influencing the judiciary to prevent rivals such as İmamoğlu from running, an allegation the government has denied”, said The Washington Post.

Amid the wrangling over the elections, the country’s geopolitical importance is not to be overlooked, said Almond in The Telegraph. If Turkey “descends into a political crisis after a disputed election amid the rubble and hardship left by the earthquakes, the shock waves will surely spread West”, he wrote.

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