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Analysis | The tragic aftermath of the earthquake put Turkey’s leader in the spotlight


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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated his country’s politics for a generation. A liberal reformer turned 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 crucial 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. There seems to be a lot at stake, with skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing value of the Turkish lira and, if you listen to Erdogan’s critics, the future of Turkish democracy itself hanging in the balance.

Then, on Monday, disaster of unprecedented proportions struck. Rescuers and aid workers are still sorting through the debris created by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and subsequent tremors that ripped through a wide swath of southern Turkey and northwestern Syria tore. More than 5,800 people have been killed and more than 34,800 injured in Turkey alone. Thousands more are feared still trapped under the rubble, either dead or dying, as harsh winter conditions hamper rescue efforts.

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

In an ominous turn, a visibly angry Erdogan waved at opponents’ criticism of the apparent difficulties or failures that have plagued relief operations as “fake news and distortions” and warned that his government would eventually go after those who try to “cause social chaos” . .” Later in the day, an Istanbul public prosecutor launched a criminal investigation into two journalists who had criticized 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 could determine Erdogan’s political fate. Anger erupts at the number of people trapped under the rubble, waiting for help. Just two weeks earlier, a prominent opposition politician in Hatay province was badly hit appeared on televisionwho complained about the lack of initiative by Erdogan’s government to help his region be better prepared for earthquakes.

“Political analysts said Erdogan, who is personally overseeing the response, is trying to anticipate potential political backlash over allegations of lack of preparedness, corrupt and poor construction practices, and the use of a special earthquake fund,” the Wall Street Journal noted.

The widespread destruction of the earthquake, in photos, maps and videos

“There is absolutely no professional aid coordination,” Ugur Poyraz, secretary general of the centre-right nationalist IYI party, told Reuters. “Citizens and local teams are themselves participating in the rescue operations to save people in the rubble.”

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of several books about the Turkish president, told me on Tuesday that Erdogan could face real political trouble if his government cannot speed up relief efforts and save large numbers of people. . soon. “The next 48 hours will be decisive for Erdogan’s career,” he said.


Analysts point to the legacy of Turkey’s last massive earthquake. In 1999, an earthquake struck near Istanbul, killing about 17,000 people and injuring 40,000 others. The disaster exposed the shoddy, lax building 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 power, fueled by a popular desire for change and an effective government.

“The bumbling failure of the Turkish government in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake … played a key role in softening support for its predecessors, and helped create the political opening the AKP entered in 2002,” Howard wrote. Eissenstat, nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. “After all, the AKP did not win its first victories with the promise of Islamism and international militancy, but rather good governance and transparency. They promised competence, not revolution.”

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

“But those rules have been honored more in violation than in compliance,” she added. “Erdogan has often described the construction industry as the crown jewel of the economy, encouraging a tacit lack of oversight. Turkey’s major government contracts usually go to the same government friends. Make of this what you will.”

Photos: Rescue workers search for survivors after Syria and Turkey earthquake kills thousands

There are other ways to read the political moment. The urgency of the crisis and the need to come together can paralyze the opposition, which in a time of catastrophe may be forced to show unity with the government. In addition, 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 commitments” argued Eurasia Group analyst Emre. Peach.

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

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

The aftermath of the 1999 earthquake “challenged the ideological status of the 80-year-old Kemalist state founded by Atatürk,” Cagaptay added.

“Just as the Kemalist state collapsed like a house of cards, citizens in Turkey will wonder if Erdogan is also a paper tiger unless we see dramatic relief,” he said.

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