Authors: T-Fai Yeung and K. H. Wong*
2023 is an important year for Turkey, not only because it marks the 100th anniversary of its establishment as a republic, but also because its next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in mid-2023. Some foreign media are even regarding these two elections as the most important in the world this year (partly because there are no political elections for any of the other big states). Unfortunately, on February 6, two devastating earthquakes took place in southern Turkey within 24 hours, resulting in more than 45,000 deaths and making millions homeless. Critics have claimed that the corrupt practices and indecisive response of Erdoğan’s government exacerbated the death toll. There was even a rumor that Erdoğan would use the earthquake as an excuse to postpone the elections for fear of suffering political defeat. However, that does not seem to be the case as he has decided to go ahead. The upcoming Turkish presidential election will be perceived as a referendum on his conservative and populist style of governance.
Debating the root causes of the high death toll and damage
The scale of devastation is unprecedented, with more than 61,000 buildings destroyed or severely damaged. The World Bank estimates that the earthquakes have caused Turkey roughly USD34.2 billion in losses. However, a report from the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation suggests that the estimated losses could be as much as USD84 billion, equivalent to about 10% of Turkey’s “entire economy” last year. Erdogan has stated that the magnitude of the earthquakes made the sheer scale of tragedy unavoidable.
While critics acknowledge the destructiveness of the earthquakes, they claim that Erdoğan’s government is to blame for the following reasons. First, he approved “construction amnesties” for many substandard buildings, which was the fundamental cause of the high death toll. Second, it was the concentration of power in his hands that caused the post-earthquake response of the Turkish government to be so disastrous. It should be noted that Erdoğan deliberately increased his control over the Turkish Armed Forces after a faction within it attempted a coup d’état in 2016. Regrettably, the cost of this has been a weakening of the armed forces’ autonomy. Compared to the 1999 Marmara earthquake, the Turkish military’s rescue operations this time were negligible. It is estimated that the Turkish Armed Forces has over 500,000 personnel, but only about 8,000 were deployed to provide disaster relief.
In fact, during the 1999 Marmara earthquake, Erdoğan, who was banned from participating in parliamentary elections due to being convicted of “provoking hatred and animosity by discriminating people based on their class, ethnicity, religion, sect, or region” by the Turkish Constitutional Court, denounced the then Turkish coalition government for its shameless handling of the situation. Ironically, soon after the outbreak of the 2023 Turkey–Syria earthquakes, Turkish opposition leaders, dissident journalists, and scholars criticized Erdoğan in much the same way that he had criticized the government more than two decades prior.
Erdoğan blamed critics for their malevolent intentions, but it was his post-disaster management that made things worse
Erdoğan responded to the fierce public criticism in three ways. First, he attempted to silence his critics by issuing a 12-hour Twitter ban and arresting some of them soon after the earthquake. Second, he looked for a scapegoat by establishing the Earthquake Crimes Investigation Bureau and subsequently arresting over 100 suspects accused of negligence, corruption, and bribery, including some of the building contractors. Third, it is suspected that the Erdoğan government mobilized the state-controlled media and its political allies to criticize Turkish opposition politicians for making partisan accusations about the government’s post-disaster management as a part of their 2023 election campaigns. Erdoğan himself sharply criticized the critics as being “dishonorable.”
Yet, the post-disaster management of the Erdoğan government has been highly political. Erdoğan claimed that Turkey faced an unprecedented level of emergency, but his government refused to accept any assistance from “Doctors Without Borders” (a non-government organization that had little choice but to end its activities in Turkey in 2016 because of political pressure from the Erdoğan government) and from Greek Cypriots (due to the on-going dispute between Turkey and Greece over the sovereignty of Cyprus). These are two salient examples of overriding political considerations at the expense of humanitarian concerns.
Moreover, Erdoğan hopes to regain popularity by rebuilding in the aftermath of the earthquakes. However, the key decisions of his government have repeatedly proved his incompetence. For example, the Turkish government approved the use of construction equipment to clear the rubble and debris in the disaster area before the completion of search and rescue work. This was highly irresponsible since victims who had yet to be found were at risk of being crushed to death by the heavy machinery. In response to this, the Spanish and Slovak search and rescue teams decided to leave Turkey. It is also worth mentioning that the Erdoğan government did not properly handle security in the earthquake-affected areas, with violent conflicts frequently breaking out. In turn, this caused the Austrian, German, and Israeli rescue teams to suspend their relief work.
Worse still, Erdoğan insists on maintaining a lower interest rate policy despite skyrocketing inflation in Turkey. It is thus estimated that Turkey’s reconstruction expenditure will be incredibly high because of the need to import a significant amount of construction materials. Also noteworthy is that the lives of many in Turkey have been miserable for a number of years already due to soaring commodity prices, and the devastating earthquakes have undoubtedly added fuel to the fire.
Speculation on whether the election will be postponed
The negative impacts of Erdoğan’s monetary policy will be more profound if he wins the upcoming Turkish presidential election. This is why Turkish opposition parties and many voters are desperate to oust Erdoğan. They believe this is a necessary prerequisite to restoring the parliamentary political system and the independence of the central bank in Turkey.
Some early signs suggest that the opposition does have a chance to win the election. In fact, the Erdoğan-led Justice and Development Party was defeated in the mayoral elections of Ankara and Istanbul in 2019, which is a warning that his increasingly authoritarian style of governance, with the support of conservative populism, may have lost its magic. At the same time, although Erdoğan deliberately turned the Turkish political system into a presidential one in order to concentrate political power in his hands, doing so has encouraged opposition parties to coordinate with each other and put forward a political candidate to run against him. This is because the system only allows two candidates to compete for the presidency in the second-round if no candidate can secure a majority of votes in the initial round. The Republican People’s Party, the largest Turkish opposition party, has established a platform with five other opposition parties called the “Table of Six” (later known as the Nation Alliance) for this very purpose. More importantly, even before the February 6 earthquakes, some polls indicated that Erdoğan was facing a crisis of popularity. It is no surprise then that some believe his poor post-disaster management will cost him dearly. Indeed, some were concerned that he might postpone the political election for fear of suffering political losses.
Nevertheless, Erdoğan, who announced before the earthquakes to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 instead of June 18 (the original date), has stuck to his original decision. If the assumption is correct that holding political elections soon after the earthquakes will be favorable to the opposition camp, then Erdoğan is committing political suicide. However, things are not so simple. It has been speculated that scheduling the elections earlier aims at minimizing the time available for coordination among the opposition parties so as to divide them. In fact, there has already been public infighting among the opposition parties after their original favorite candidate, the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, was barred by the Turkish Constitutional Court from running in the presidential election. However, his replacement, the Republican People’s Party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is perceived as old and weak and incapable of uniting the opposition camp. After being chosen as the candidate to represent the alliance between the Turkish opposition parties, the Good Party leader, Meral Aksener, publicly criticized the decision and argued that the candidate should be one of the popular mayors of either Istanbul or Ankara. Aksener even left the “Table of Six,” but rejoined on the condition that one of these mayors would be appointed as executive vice president if the opposition camp wins the upcoming elections.
Erdoğan’s long-standing practice of oppressing dissidents
Splitting the opposition parties is only part of Erdoğan’s strategy to preserve his political power. His main tactic is to oppress all opposition parties and dissidents who pose a potential threat to his presidency. In October last year, Turkey’s parliament, which comprises many of Erdoğan’s political allies, passed a new “disinformation” law to strengthen the censorship of the Turkish media. Any journalist convicted by the Turkish court for spreading disinformation or “fake news” can be sent to prison for a maximum of three years. Given the vague definition of fake news, dissident journalists are therefore prone to being found guilty.
Moreover, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors has been filled by members of the pro- Erdoğan clique. Critics argue that this is more evidence that Erdoğan aims to purge any dissidents. On December 14, 2022, a Turkish court sentenced the Istanbul mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, to prison for almost three years, depriving him of his right to run in the upcoming presidential election. Apparently, this was because he had been found guilty of insulting public officials due to his criticism of members of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council as “fools” three years earlier. Yet, it is well-known that the move was to eliminate one of Erdoğan’s biggest election rivals (an opinion poll suggested that Erdoğan’s support rate lagged far behind İmamoğlu’s).
Additionally, on January 5 this year, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ordered a temporary freeze on the bank accounts of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) because it allegedly has strong affiliations with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which was labelled by both Turkey and the US as a terrorist organization. The prosecutor, Bekir Şahin, urged the court to disband the HDP and deprive the political rights of many of its members for at least five years. Although the Turkish Constitutional Court lifted its decision to freeze the HDP bank accounts on March 9, many HDP members are still facing terrorism-related charges.
It should be highlighted that Erdoğan has oppressed the Kurdish people for a long time. Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine, argues that Erdoğan has played the nationalist card well in order to gain political support. Cook indicates that Erdoğan successfully used the threat of Kurdish-sponsored terrorism to mobilize the nationalist Turkish voters to win back the parliamentary majority of his AKP in the parliamentary re-election in November 2015, which paved the way for him to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. Cook believes that Erdoğan will make use of the Istanbul terrorist bombing on November 13, 2022 to a similar effect in the presidential election campaign.
It is also worth noting that the HDP, which secured approximately 12% of the votes in the 2018 Turkish parliamentary election and has become the third-largest party in parliament (although some winning candidates were disqualified because of criminal convictions), was not invited to join the “Table of Six.” Admittedly, while Kurdish voters could be kingmakers if the contest between Erdoğan and the opposition candidate in the upcoming presidential election is tight, the mainstream Turkish opposition parties have kept their distance from any Kurdish-based parties out of fear of being accused of having close ties with Kurdish terrorist organizations, thus displeasing the nationalist voters.
Worse, the hardest-hit areas of the earthquake in Turkey are the stronghold of anti-Erdoğan Kurdish voters. If Turkey holds presidential and parliamentary elections before such areas have recovered, it will be more difficult for people to get to the polling stations to vote. The Erdoğan government could also close polling stations in earthquake-affected areas by using security reasons as an excuse (or if tensions between the Kurdish and Turkish intensify in the lead up to the elections). Sadly, the number of eligible anti-Erdoğan voters in the earthquake-affected areas may have plunged because of the high death toll.
If Erdoğan loses, he may employ state-sponsored political violence
It is no exaggeration to say that Erdoğan could look to hold onto his presidency through dishonest means. Soner Cagaptay, Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, published an article in Foreign Affairs last year entitled “Erdogan’s End Game” toillustrate how Erdoğan could employ various means to overturn the election, such as claiming evidence of electoral fraud and thus requesting the court’s approval of re-election, similar to what he did in an attempt to reverse the outcome of Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral election. Despite the possibility of encouraging large-scale opposition protests, Cagaptay believes that Erdoğan would respond brutally by initiating a military crackdown, declaring a state of emergency and imposing a curfew, shutting down social media, and mobilizing mobs to assault protesters and key opposition figures, among others. To prevent such a catastrophic scenario from happening, Cagaptay suggests the Turkish opposition camp reaches an amnesty agreement with Erdoğan in case of his defeat in the upcoming elections.
Nonetheless, Cagaptay acknowledges that it would be psychologically difficult for many opposition groups to allow Erdoğan to step down without any retributive punishment. Aggravating the problem is Erdoğan’s humanitarian atrocities in his post-earthquake management. Unfortunately, it is the heightened stubbornness between Erdoğan and the opposition groups which is causing the atmosphere of political uneasiness in Turkey.
*K. H. Wong has been a researcher at the Global Studies Institute in Hong Kong sinceMarch 30, 2022. His commentary articles have appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Linhe Zaobao (Singapore) and Ming Pao Daily News.
This article combines and restructures the contents of the two authors’ co-authored commentary articles that appeared in the Ming Pao Daily News on February 10 (B12) and on March 16 (B13), and in udn Global (Taiwan) on February 10. This version adds updated content and removes outdated information regarding Turkey’s political situation.