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Earthquake could shake up Turkish election 

Democracies face more pressure than dictatorships after natural disasters; Assad is content to continue rule amidst the ruins. 
Erdogan earthquake

Turkey: Earthquake puts Erdogan re-election at risk 

Stay tuned for the political aftershocks of the devastating and tragic earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria last week. 

“Earthquakes and other natural disasters shake up political systems,” write Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, authors of the best-selling The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics . 

Whether a natural disaster can take down a government, the authors say, depends on two things: the size of the ruler’s “winning coalition,” a measure of democracy or popular support (the smaller the better for staying in power after such disasters), and how long the ruler has been in power (the longer the better). 

“The risk is greater for democracies than it is for dictatorships,” said Bueno de Mesquita, the Julius Silver Professor of Politics at New York University, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor. 

Citizens hold democracies accountable for good governance, especially in response to disasters like earthquakes, and more so during election years. Dictatorships experience no such accountability. 

And that means the fallout from the earthquake will be more problematic for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than it is for his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan has been in power 20 years, either as president or prime minister, but he will face the voters on May 14 in a tight race.

The pressure on Erdogan is massive. Nearly 20,000 have so far died in Turkey as a result of the quake. Among the 10 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); Diyarbakir is controlled by a government-appointed trustee; and only two (Adana and Hatay) are administered by the opposition party. 

In other words, the quake hit home with Erdogan’s core constituency, and he needs to show them he can deliver with an election looming.    

“That Turkey is reasonably democratic puts Erdogan and the AKP at high risk,” says Bueno de Mesquita.   


Not surprisingly, the earthquake has become campaign issue number one. 

“With Turkey’s critical dual elections just months away, Turkey’s political leaders have all paid lip service to political unity,” writes Nazlan Ertan. “As the people's rage grows along with the death toll, however, the public, the opposition and the media have begun allocating the blame both for the response to the quake and the shoddy building construction that cost lives.” 

“With its economy already fragile, Turkey now braces for a widening budget deficit, fresh inflationary pressures and a blow to its gross domestic product (GDP),” explains Mustafa Sonmez.

Erdogan has had a star turn on the world stage since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, positioning himself as a key mediator between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  He is the last holdout to NATO membership for Sweden.   

Since the earthquake, he has put his network to work for his country, showing himself as the one with the international connections to deliver international support for Turkey at this critical time. 

Erdogan has also implemented emergency powers to deal with the earthquake. Some observers worry that the powers could also be used to clamp down even further on critical media, or even postpone the elections. 

Syria: Assad content to rule amidst the ruins 

For Assad, the earthquake is not likely to shake his hold on power, and actually presents an opportunity to press his case for ending international sanctions on Syria. 

Assad easily meets both of Bueno de Mesquita’s criteria for survival, despite the nearly 3,500 people so far reported killed by the quake: he is long-lived as president for more than 22 years, and rules via a narrow constituency. 

“As an entrenched dictator, Assad has little accountability to the people for his response to the earthquake and is therefore at low risk of losing power,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “And he sees opportunity in controlling whatever international relief and assistance is channeled through his government. “ 

Despite the carnage, Assad may therefore have a bounce in his step. The earthquake gives him an elevated, global platform to appeal for the lifting of international sanctions, restoring relations with Arab countries, and insisting that aid and assistance be delivered via Syrian government networks, as Amberin Zaman reports. 

That the earthquake devastated parts of Assad’s Alawite stronghold in Lattakia “exposes some of the holes in Washington’s narrative on sanctions,” writes Zaman.   

The US claims that sanctions do not limit international assistance, but there are prohibitions, or at least a “gray area,” about distributing aid in government-held territory.   

The Syrian government tweeted today that it will allow cross-border aid into both government and rebel-held territory. The devil will be in the details. Assad is unlikely to allow UN agencies or NGOs unfettered access to Lattakia, or anywhere else, without a price.  

The UN relief operation has been stymied by the closure of the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria because of damage to the roads from the quake. UN officials have been scrambling to find alternatives, but there is overall frustration with the slow and so far wholly inadequate response, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reports

Khaled Al-Khateb reports from Aleppo that international assistance had not arrived by Thursday, leaving local citizens and NGOs alone to dig out those buried under the rubble, deal with the injured, and repair essential services and infrastructure. The only vehicles so far getting into Syria via Bab Al-Hawa, Al-Khateb reports, are those carrying the corpses of Syrians who died in Turkey. 

Another potential hurdle is that the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham controls most of Idlib province, which was also impacted by the quake. HTS is designated a terrorist group by the United States and the UN Security Council. Its leader, Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani, also sees opportunity in crisis to coordinate relief operations with the West. Jolani has been on a public relations campaign the past few years, sometimes ditching his fatigues for a snappy suit, haircut, and beard trim, and saying all the right things when talking with Western reporters, while simultaneously cracking down on the hardline jihadists to consolidate control in Idlib. 

All this is cold comfort for Syrians in Idlib and elsewhere affected by the earthquake.  

“The current disruption to aid deliveries compounds the suffering in Idlib, home to one of the world’s most vulnerable populations even before the earthquake,” writes Hagedorn. “Over the years, Syrian and Russian airstrikes on the densely populated rebel enclave have leveled entire neighborhoods, destroyed hospitals and created a new wave of displaced people.”

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