The full extent of Monday’s massive earthquakes that ripped through southern Turkey and neighboring provinces in Syria won’t be known anytime soon. Seismologists say they are the worst set of earthquakes to hit Turkey in modern times. The death toll stood at more than 2,600 at the time of publication of this article and is set to rise significantly as hundreds, if not thousands, of people remain trapped under the rubble. As night sets in and temperatures dip under harsh winter conditions, the likelihood of their survival under flattened edifices will fade. And what of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
Even as tragic images continued to pour in from the disaster zones, some were already weighing the possible impact of the earthquakes on Turkish politics. The most immediate question is whether parliamentary and presidential elections will be held as scheduled on May 14. This will depend on two factors: whether the physical conditions for elections exist closer to the time, and whether Erdogan decides it’s in his favor to prolong the state of emergency declared after the first quake and postpone balloting beyond the June 18 deadline for holding polls.
Turkey is facing its worst economic crunch since Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) shot to power in 2002, with year-on-year inflation running at over 80%, the lira falling by 30% against the dollar last year and the country’s current account deficit ballooning to almost 5% of the GDP. The downturn is eating into Erdogan’s popularity, and opinion polls continue to suggest that the opposition might just be able to unseat him.
A key test is how the government handles what is arguably one of the biggest crises it has faced in office. The pathetic response of a ruling coalition government to the huge earthquake in northwest Turkey in 1999 was widely seen as a determining factor in the AKP’s rise. It didn’t help that the fiercely anti-Islamist military that ran the country from behind the scenes rushed to rescue its own first.
The current government, in contrast, mobilized rescue teams, including 3,500 military personnel, soon after the first temblor measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit at 4:17 a.m. local time. The ever-pragmatic Erdogan swiftly shed his prickly nationalism to welcome aid from Western countries, including from Israel and Turkey’s arch-rival Greece, and declared seven days of national mourning.
Pro-AKP Islamic charities and fraternities, known as the “tarikats,” are being mobilized.
The 1999 earthquake struck Turkey’s industrial heartland, killing around 20,000 people. Monday’s temblors — as Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of the London-based risk consultancy outfit Teneo, observed in a research note — hit one of the country’s poorest and least developed regions. “They did not affect areas …favored by foreign tourists, who have become one of Turkey’s most important sources of foreign exchange,” Piccoli wrote. If anything, “an effective emergency response may even strengthen the AKP leader” and trigger “a sense of national solidarity under Erdogan’s leadership,” he opined.
With a good 80% of the mass media in the hands of Erdogan’s business friends, coverage of the government’s response is bound to be favorable. Opposition sniping in such early days would not sit well with a nation immersed in grief.
But the public mood may soon shift amid widespread reports that rescue teams are not arriving in time.
Social media was awash with cries for help. Metin Ergun, a lawmaker for the opposition nationalist Good Party, described scenes from Hatay, a province bordering Syria that is among the worst affected. Ergun said he could hear people saying “help us” from beneath the rubble. “Hatay has become a ghost town. Everywhere is destroyed. There is no electricity. The rescue teams are highly inadequate,” Ergun tweeted.
In Pazarcik township, the epicenter of the first earthquake, local citizens dug through the rubble with their hands to get to loved ones. Mehmet Gedik, who joined the effort, told independent broadcaster Arti TV, “We have a village with 350 homes; 90% are destroyed. People are hungry and thirsty. We called the police and [the state-run disaster relief agency] AFAD but nobody has come so far. We have at least 30 of our people trapped under the rubble. The gendarmerie told us ‘make do with your own means.’”
As in 1999, questions about building codes and safety standards under two decades of AKP rule marked by unprecedented corruption will grow. Erdogan’s contractor cronies, known as the “Gang of Five,” made billions of dollars in public tenders. The main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is widely expected to run against him, has vowed to take them down.
Erdogan has turned to spending to revitalize the economy before the election with offers of early retirement for 2.3 million workers, fat energy subsidies and promises to erect half a million homes for low-income families. Cash injections from friendly Gulf regimes and cheap energy from Russia, which helped to grease the spree, are unlikely to mitigate the colossal costs of Monday’s tragedy.
Rising public hostility to the presence of almost 4 million Syrian refugees will make it hard for the government to justify any diversion of funds to Turkish-occupied northern Syria. Close to 1,000 people are believed to have died in Syria in Monday’s earthquakes, nearly half in the rebel-held northwest of the country. The silver lining for Syria’s Kurds, whose northeast region was barely affected, is that Erdogan is now even less likely to invade as he’s been threatening to.
The coming days will reveal just how adept Erdogan remains at turning adversity to his own advantage as he did after the abortive coup in 2016, using it as a pretext to crush his opponents. Some say he is already using the crisis to sow further discord within the opposition. Rather than brief Kilicdaroglu on the relief effort, he chose to call Meral Aksener, leader of the nationalist opposition Good Party. Aksener has made no secret of her opposition to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy and to cooperating with the Kurds, whose support is vital for the opposition to win. Some accuse her of stitching up backroom deals with the president. Today’s phone call may have reinforced their suspicions. However, the scale of Monday's disaster suggests that even Erdogan may be out of his depth this time.