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Erdogan struggles to contain political fallout from Turkey’s wildfires

The wildfires scorching Turkey since last week threaten not only an environmental disaster but also a big political fallout for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Man injured by fire near Manavgat

The wildfires raging across Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts have given rise to a massive public outcry that might prove a critical juncture in Turkish politics as criticism over Ankara’s failure to efficiently tackle the crisis has been moving toward an existentially threatening level for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

The disaster, which has seen dozens of fires engulf pine forests, agricultural land and residential areas since last week, caught the government badly unprepared, with officials forced to admit that Ankara lacks a single firefighting plane of its own. Despite its claim of having a strong state apparatus, Erdogan’s three-year executive presidency appears stuck in a management crisis. And instead of focusing on improving its response to desperate calls for help from affected areas, the government has been trying to politicize the disaster to provide a smokescreen against its own inadequacy.

The broadsides of opposition parties aside, people’s criticism of the government’s conduct has grown bolder, blunter and more organized despite the country’s increasingly repressive climate, where even a critical tweet can land someone in jail. 

The criticism of the government focuses on the lack of proper measures and precautions despite obvious climatic risks; this has thrown Ankara’s lavish spending on presidential palaces, aircraft and other luxury items into sharper relief. Strikingly, the disaster laid bare how Turkey had been left without any working firefighting planes of its own and had to lease foreign ones as its existing aircraft lie idle, grounded by lack of maintenance. The government has come under fire also for failing to coordinate the response with the local administrations of affected regions, which are held mostly by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and for its refusal to accept some foreign offers of help, particularly from Turkey’s regional rival Greece, in a bid to preserve an image of strength and prowess.

The discriminatory language that the ruling Justice and Development Party has increasingly used in recent years has manifested itself even in the disaster. Instead of keeping the nation and institutions united in the face of crisis, the government has maintained its polarizing stance in a bid to divert attention from its own incapacity. Ostensibly, it sees the calls for help and the criticism of the opposition as threats to its political survival, or more precisely, the survival of the executive presidency system, which was tailor-made for Erdogan and introduced in 2018. 

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli went as far as to blame local administrations for slowing the firefighting efforts by failing to secure residential areas. “We had to let forests burn because the forestry teams were busy protecting residential areas," he said Aug. 1, although the fires had started in rural areas before spreading to residential ones.

The local administrations have indeed struggled to cope with the blazes, which ravaged the landscape in some of Turkey’s prime tourism hotspots. Yet CHP officials spoke of staff and equipment shortages due to financial strains and political obstacles set up by the central government; these have grown since the CHP swept Turkey’s main urban centers, including those on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, in the local elections in 2019. The central government's discriminatory policies toward local administrations have had disastrous consequences in the wildfires, the CHP officials argue.

The disaster comes as the latest example of how the Erdogan government’s preoccupation with managing public perceptions instead of efficiently running the state is becoming the norm in the face of governance challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive mucilage outbreak in the Marmara Sea earlier this summer.

Take, for instance, the controversy on how Turkey ended up without firefighting planes. After Ankara admitted it had no firefighting aircraft and those owned by the Turkish Aeronautical Association were left without maintenance, government officials turned to building a perception that the neglected Turkish Aeronautical Association planes were already unfit for use, without offering an ample explanation why. 

Pakdemirli dismissed the planes as obsolete and unsafe. “We need the best equipment on the ground. … None of the technologies we are currently using is available in the old planes,” he said. Thus, the minister was trying to create a perception that a highly professional firefighting effort was under way and obscure the fact that Turkey has been left without any firefighting aircraft. 

Leading the perception management efforts is the communication directorate of the presidential office. Shortly after a social media campaign began under the hashtags #HelpTurkey and #GlobalCall late Aug. 1, the head of the directorate, Fahrettin Altun, condemned the campaign as a malicious attempt to portray the Turkish state as inept and weak. “This so-called aid campaign, orchestrated from abroad and by a single center, has been launched with ideological motives, aiming to make our state look incapable and undermine the unity between state and nation,” he tweeted. “Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing tall," he added.

The pro-government Yeni Safak daily is another conduit of Ankara’s perception management. Its columnist Ibrahim Karagul claimed in an Aug. 2 article that the fires were the work of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the armed outfit that has fought Ankara since 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group, and accused opposition parties of “siding with the PKK” over their criticism of the government's response. By using the PKK rhetoric and accusing the opposition of seeking political gains from the disaster, Karagul is effectively trying to deflect popular anger with the government to the opposition.

Yet people’s despair and anger with the government seem to be growing across the country as fast as the wildfires. Residents in the disaster regions have begun to speak up openly against the government. In Manavgat, one of the worst-hit areas, a man whose house was badly damaged in the blaze boldly declared before the cameras, “There was no state here since the day the fire started. Manavgat was abandoned to its own fate.” 

Villagers carrying water containers up a hill to extinguish a blaze near Marmaris were similarly outspoken. “We are here as the entire village, from the locals to others. We didn't run or anything, so the government must see this and also not run away,” a woman in the group told Reuters.

Many are questioning how Ankara was able to allocate bulky budgets to controversial infrastructure projects as well as posh palaces, aircraft and cars for the president and his ministers but did not bother to buy a single firefighting plane. That scrutiny of prodigal government spending — both by the public and the opposition — is likely to continue and increase even after the wildfires are over, fueled also by Turkey’s economic turmoil. And the more Erdogan’s super-presidency stumbles, the more the government’s polarizing rhetoric and propaganda will increase. 

Yet spinning the optics will no longer be enough to cover up mismanagement and ineptitude, as seen in the current crisis, which is likely to prove a critical milestone in undoing Erdogan’s notorious knack for governing perceptions rather than the state apparatus.

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