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In Turkey, fears grow of Erdogan postponing elections as earthquake toll passes 30,000

As public anger over the government's earthquake response grows, speculation about the possible postponement of Turkey’s elections in May is heating up.
Turkey earthquake rubble

At least six people including three children were miraculously rescued on Monday after they spent more than a week trapped under the rubble following two devastating earthquakes in Turkey’s south, amid growing public anger and speculation over delays for the country's crucial general election.

The election is scheduled for May 14, but the massive destruction, and devastation from the earthquake could prompt the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to postpone it. Government critics fear that such delay will be to prevent Erdogan, who is being blamed for inadequate response in the quake aftermath, from facing an inevitable defeat in the polls. 

Turkish authorities put the official death toll at 31,643 and injured at 80,278 as of this writing. Search and rescue teams are still scrambling to spot traces of life under the piles of rubble that critics say were turned into mass graves first by the earthquakes and then by the government's failure to respond to the disaster quickly.

The political and socio-economic impact of the massive scale of destruction remains unknown, but the humanitarian toll is growing. Millions of displaced people are still desperately seeking to meet basic needs including shelters, hygiene products and heating in frigid weather. The 10 Turkish provinces that were affected by the twin devastating earthquakes that hit the country only nine hours apart were home to more than 13 million. 

Experts are warning of disease risks as footage coming from the disaster zone shows piles of garbage amid repeated calls for portable toilets for displaced families. Speaking in Gaziantep on Sunday, opposition Iyi (Good) Party leader Meral Aksener said trash is out of control in the disaster zone.

“These garbage heaps will draw rodents after a while. Then the next phase will be an epidemic,” she added, reminding listeners that some 10,000 people were killed during the cholera outbreak that devastated Haiti’s infrastructure in 2010.

Even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who usually remains defiant in face of criticism, admitted last week that government agencies were slow in dispatching rescuers and delivering relief to the victims in the first days of the earthquake, and Turkish social media is still buzzing with pleas for tents and other supplies.

Speaking in Gaziantep Monday, Filiz Kerestecioglu, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, said tents are still needed in many places and that several villages across the disaster zone were still waiting for relief aid. 

In addition to coordination failures, critics are also pointing at the government’s persistently centralized decision-making, even at the lowest levels. 

Speaking in Hatay on Sunday, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu slammed the government agencies for failing to act swiftly.

“If the bureaucracy remains silent in the face of a problem, waiting for instruction from one authority before acting, it means the state is gasping for breath,” he said. .subtext-iframe{max-width:540px;}iframe#subtext_embed{width:1px;min-width:100%;min-height:256px;}

Nearly 100 individuals, including some of the contractors behind collapsed buildings, have been detained across the country, Turkish officials said Monday. In Hatay, a man arrested for allegedly looting died due to "heavy blows to his head" at a police station, independent news outlet Duvar reported, citing his autopsy report. The Progressive Lawyers Association said the man was killed as a result of torture, setting off a wide outcry from civic groups. 

The government has also been under fire for switching to online education in higher institutions and universities across the country until summer as the state makes dormitories into shelters for survivors. Meanwhile, primary and secondary schools across the country are expected to remain closed until Feb. 20 across the country and until March 1 across the disaster zone, Turkey’s Education Minister Mahmut Ozer said Monday.

Along with the Turkish authorities, Turkey’s mobile carriers have been widely criticized for failing to dispatch sufficient numbers of mobile stations to the disaster zone. Communication in and with several affected provinces was almost impossible with no internet access in the first week of the earthquakes. The region is still facing heavy communication disruptions. Elon Musk announced on the first day of the disaster that he had offered to send Starlink satellite internet service to the region, but the Turkish authorities had rejected the offer. 

The earthquake struck the country at a time when the Turkish government’s popular support was already sagging due to skyrocketing inflation. On Monday, speculation that the government might be planning to postpone elections due by June 18 according to the country’s constitution.

Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s former deputy prime minister and an Erdogan ally, called for the elections to be postponed "immediately" on Monday. 

“Elections cannot be held either in May or June. The elections must be postponed immediately in order for our state bureaucracy to focus on healing the wounds of our citizens,” Arinc said in a statement on Twitter. 

Journalist Fatih Altayli wrote on Monday that the government might be planning to postpone the elections “for at least six months or more likely for a year.”

As Turkey’s constitution only allows the government to delay elections in “war time,” several prominent law professors and constitutional experts believe that such a move would be a blow to the country's democracy and blatant rights violation of Turkey's electorate of some 65 million. 

Meanwhile, some 9,400 rescue workers from 77 countries continue their work on the ground as of Monday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced.

Garo Paylan, an opposition lawmaker of Armenian descent, said on Sunday that the sole land border between Turkey and Armenia was opened after more than three decades to allow Armenian aid and rescuers into the disaster zone. The earthquakes came amid ongoing talks between Yerevan and Ankara to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time since Armenia’s independence from the Soviets. The crossing has been opened to third-country citizens last month as part of the talks. 

Shelving tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece united their efforts. Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has been the second top foreign diplomat to visit Turkey. Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu visited the disaster zone on Sunday. 

Cavusoglu also hosted his counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Equatorial Guinea and the Libyan Tripoli government over the past two days. 

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been the first foreign leader to visit Turkey. The Qatari leader met with Erdogan on Sunday. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen are expected to travel Turkey in the coming days, several international media outlets reported. 

Israeli civic group United Hatzalah, which traveled to Turkey along with Israeli rescue workers, left Turkey on Sunday, citing an “immediate and concrete” threat. Turkey’s social media users flooded Twitter with messages of gratitude after the group's announcement in a tweet that was later deleted.

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