The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Earthquake’s tragic aftermath puts spotlight on Turkey’s leader

6 min

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has loomed over his nation’s politics for a generation. A liberal reformer who turned into an autocratic nationalist, he is the most transformative and influential figure in the history of the Turkish republic since its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan is gearing up for pivotal presidential and parliamentary elections in May, where voters will decide whether to extend his 20-year rule and that of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Much seems to hang in the balance, with inflation soaring, the value of the Turkish lira collapsing and, if you listen to Erdogan’s critics, the future of Turkey’s democracy itself hanging by a thread.

Then, on Monday, a disaster of unprecedented scale struck. Rescuers and relief workers are still sifting through the debris created by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tremors that ripped through a wide swath of southern Turkey and northwestern Syria. In Turkey alone, more than 5,800 people have died and more than 34,800 have been injured. Thousands more are feared to be still trapped beneath the rubble, either dead or dying as severe winter conditions hamper rescue efforts.

On Tuesday, Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency in 10 affected provinces. At a news conference, he announced that his government was allocating more than $5 billion to support state emergency and relief operations, and dispatching tens of thousands of relief workers and security personnel to aid in the recovery.

In an ominous turn, a visibly angry Erdogan gestured at criticism from opponents about the apparent difficulties or failures that have beset the relief operations as “fake news and distortions” and warned that his government would ultimately go after those who try to “cause social chaos.” Later in the day, an Istanbul state prosecutor initiated a criminal investigation into two journalists who voiced criticisms of the government’s response so far.

But the Turkish president may be bracing for backlash as a painful recovery begins. Months away from the general election, the trauma of the moment may dictate Erdogan’s political fate. There’s brewing anger over how many people remain trapped beneath the rubble, waiting for help. Just two weeks prior, a prominent opposition politician in badly hit Hatay province appeared on television, bemoaning the lack of initiative from Erdogan’s government in helping his region improve its earthquake readiness.

“Political analysts said that Erdogan, who is personally overseeing the response, is trying to get ahead of possible political blowback over allegations of lack of preparedness, corrupt and poor-quality building practices, and the use of a dedicated earthquake fund,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

The earthquake’s widespread destruction, in photos, maps and videos

“There is definitely no professional aid coordination,” Ugur Poyraz, secretary general of center-right nationalist IYI Party, told Reuters. “Citizens and local teams are joining the rescue operations by themselves to save people in the rubble.”

Soner Cagaptay, Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of multiple books on the Turkish president, told me Tuesday that Erdogan could be in genuine political trouble if his government can’t accelerate relief efforts and rescue large numbers of people soon. “The next 48 hours will be definitive for Erdogan’s career,” he said.

Analysts point to the legacy of Turkey’s last mammoth earthquake. In 1999, a temblor struck near Istanbul, killing some 17,000 people and injuring 40,000 more. The disaster exposed the shoddy, lax construction standards of many Turkish buildings, as well as the sclerotic ineptitude of the Turkish state, shaped for decades by secular Kemalist orthodoxy. The moment paved the way for Erdogan’s more religiously minded movement to come to power, animated by a popular desire for change and effective government.

“The bumbling failure of the Turkish government in the wake of the 1999 … earthquake played a key role in softening support for his predecessors, helping to create the political opening that the AKP stepped into in 2002,” wrote Howard Eissenstat, nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The AKP, after all, did not win its first victories promising Islamism and international belligerence, but rather good governance and transparency. They promised competence, not revolution.”

That competence is now in question, especially after years of Erdogan touting the success of his vast construction projects all across the country. “In 2018, nearly two decades after the massive 1999 earthquake, Turkey finally passed much-awaited earthquake legislation,” wrote Asli Aydintasbas, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a Washington Post op-ed.

“But those rules have been more honored in the breach than the observance,” she added. “Erdogan has frequently described the construction industry as the crown jewel of the economy — encouraging a tacit lack of oversight. Turkey’s big public contracts tend to go to the same government cronies. Make what you will of this.”

Photos: Rescuers search for survivors after earthquake in Syria and Turkey kills thousands

There are other ways to read the political moment. The urgency of the crisis and the need to come together could hamstring the opposition, which may be compelled to show unity with the government at a time of catastrophe. Moreover, Erdogan and his ruling party could benefit from implementing a robust response as long as the president remains “visible on the ground and maintains momentum until the polls with not only immediate aid but also long-term reconstruction pledges,” argued Eurasia Group analyst Emre Peker.

Given the outpouring of international support for Turkey and Syria, the crisis may offer Erdogan a chance for a reset on the world stage, easing some tensions with various Western countries. The disaster could “provide an opportunity for Turkey to resolve its own geostrategic issues, as was the case in the wake of the 1999 earthquake between Turkish and Greek leaders who were, at the time, exchanging similar levels of heated rhetoric,” wrote Erol Yayboke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But at home, Erdogan could end up fighting an uphill battle. “Erdogan in the past two decades has built an image of the feared autocrat, one who is also effective at governance,” Cagaptay said. That image may be crumbling as he faces his own 1999 moment.

The aftermath of the 1999 quake “challenged the ideological standing of the 80-year-old Kemalist state established by Ataturk,” Cagaptay added, explaining that it shook Turkish faith in the state’s capacity to address problems and take care of its citizens.

“Just like the Kemalist state came down like a house of cards, unless we see dramatic relief, citizens in Turkey will question whether Erdogan is also a paper tiger,” he said.