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Erdogan rules out postponing Turkey's elections after earthquakes

Analysts maintain that postposing elections would have higher costs for Erdogan at the ballot box as rage grows. 
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to the press during his visit to the hard-hit southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.

Despite speculation that Turkey’s crucial dual polls would be postponed following the quakes that devastated one-seventh of the country, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted Wednesday that they will be held on May 14 as he previously declared. 

“God willing, the nation will do what is necessary on May 14,” Erdogan told the parliamentary group of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as he outlined an ambitious and rapid rehabilitation project for the devastated region.  

Erdogan is expected to center his campaign on “rebuilding Turkey together” as he bids for a third decade in power. Despite angry accusations of a tardy response to the killer quakes and a major tent-donation scandal, the president repeatedly tours the quake-devastated zones with promises of a hasty — and risky — reconstruction and maladroit gestures of handing out small cash donations on the spot. 

“As he heads to the elections, Erdogan will couple his ‘let’s build Turkey together’ discourse with religious rhetoric that the earthquake was an act of God, thus seeking to exonerate his government and the bureaucracy for its late and inadequate response,” said Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of  “A Sultan in Autumn” on Erdogan’s rise in Turkey. “In the next three months, we will see the two faces of Erdogan: the compassionate father who will embrace the victims of the quake, and the authoritarian who will crack down on the opposition and the critics of his narrative.”  

The president’s declaration on polls ends various scenarios floating in the Turkish capital on whether Erdogan would postpone the elections from one month to one year after the quake, whose death toll has exceeded 45,000. 

Some politicians and pundits have also advocated a postponement because hundreds of thousands of displaced people in temporary shelters outside their electoral districts would make it impossible to have an accurate representation in parliamentary elections.  But most of the public and the political opposition remained against it. Turkiye Raporu, an Istanbul-based pollster who surveyed 2,000 people in 26 cities in February, found that 71% were against postponing elections. 

On the other hand, 64.3% of the people in the quake-hit region and who were personally affected by the quake also said they wanted the elections to occur without delay. 

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition and the most likely candidate to challenge Erdogan in the presidential race, said postponement over the earthquake was unconstitutional and, therefore, would be a political coup. His sharp-tongued political ally, Meral Aksener of right-wing Iyi, said the delay would only make things worse for Erdogan at the ballot box. “They see it themselves,” she told journalist Fatih Altayli. 

“Erdogan realized that it is better to carry out the elections as soon as possible before a tsunami of angry protests replaces grief,” Cagaptay told Al-Monitor, describing last weekend’s resignation calls to the government as the tip of the iceberg. “Besides the socioeconomic reason, there is the economic one. Earthquakes always create an economic crisis, as in 2001 after the 1999 quake that hit Turkey’s industrial heartland. So  Erdogan wants to use the emergency aid from international donors as he heads to the elections.” 

“The longer Erdogan waits after the earthquake, the more difficult it would be for him to manage the economic fallout,” pointed out Osman Sert, research director at private polling company Panoramart. Even before the earthquake, which would require a massive budget for rehabilitation and public spending, the economy was Erdogan’s Achilles' heel as Turks started to feel the strain of his unorthodox economic policies. The president increased public spending by raising minimum wages, canceling student debt interest rates and handing out other loans as he headed for elections. A few hours before he confirmed May 14 as the election date, his AKP won parliament’s approval on a key election pledge to enable early retirement for more than 2.2 million people.   

“President Erdogan is not known as a leader who changes his mind often,” Sert told Al-Monitor. “He knows that postponing polls — particularly when the opposition is against it — always comes at an electoral cost to the sitting government. Also, looking at the polls in the aftermath of the earthquake, we do not see a sizable decline — 5% or 6% —  in the AKP votes.” 

Polls vary on what promises to be a tight race between the People’s Alliance — which consists of the ruling AKP and its smaller ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — and the opposition Nation Alliance, better known as the Table of Six, which is composed of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Iyi and four other right-wing parties. Many pollsters say the ruling AKP lost around 2% of the vote between January and February after the quake hit Turkey. But even with the decline, it emerges as the first party, according to pro-AKP Areda, which puts AKP votes at around 40% and Erdogan’s vote in the presidential race at 48%.  

Turkey Report says that Erdogan’s popularity grew slightly by 0.1% in the quake — nearly 80% of his voter base believing that he has been “successful” or “very successful” in disaster management. The pollster puts the AKP vote at 27%, followed by the CHP at 20%, with AKP-ally MHP at a shrinking 5.3% and CHP-ally Iyi securing 10.1%. But, cautions the pollster, 14% say they are still undecided and 10% declare they will not vote. 

“It would be wrong to think that the earthquake would not affect voter’s political preferences," said leading pollster Bekir Agirdir, who had brushed away postponement scenarios from the beginning. In an interview with T24, Agirdir maintained that there was “still a small chance” for Erdogan to win the presidential polls. 

“What could he do to increase that chance?” he asked. “Lay foundations of new buildings in the earthquake zone throughout the next three months and broadcast the ceremonies on all TV channels?” 

But an atmosphere of insecurity may lead the voters to make security-based choices and shift toward the bloc that they think represents the state, Agirdir explained. “In other words, if the society really feels insecure, they may shift toward [re-voting for the] incumbent," he said, pointing out that the failure of the opposition to name a candidate to challenge Erdogan and various disarrays at the Table of Six may also appear as an opportunity for the shrewd president.” 

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