A political earthquake next for Turkey?

This does not mean that the May election necessarily signals the end of Erdogan. The Opposition is fractured and there is still no significant unifying leader who can really challenge Erdogan

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

The Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan, is facing a crescendo of criticism over his government’s response to the earthquake that destroyed large areas of his country. The February 6 earthquake was the strongest in Turkey in more than 80 years – and one of the deadliest.

Last Wednesday, Erdogan admitted there were problems with his government’s initial response to the devastating earthquake in southern Turkey, amid anger from those left destitute and frustrated over the slow arrival of rescue teams. By then the estimates of the death toll stood at more than 11,000. The final true figure may be far higher with the World Health Organisation (WHO) saying it could reach 20,000 while more than 5,700 buildings in Turkey have collapsed

Robert Holden, the WHO earthquake response incident manager said on Wednesday: “We’ve got a lot of people who have survived now out in the open, in worsening and horrific conditions. We are in real danger of seeing a secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster if we don’t move with the same pace and intensity as we are doing on the search and rescue.”

Many in Turkey were angry that it was taking so long for rescue crews with heavy machinery to arrive. In Kahramanmaras, three bodies were recovered from a six-storey building. There were at least six more victims in the rubble. “The volunteers were here, but not the state,” said one relative.

Erdogan has defended his government’s response to the catastrophic earthquakes, saying it was impossible to prepare for the scale of the disaster while critics claimed that the response of the emergency services was too slow and that the government was poorly prepared.

The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu put it bluntly: “If there is one person responsible for this, it is Erdogan,” he said.

During a visit to the disaster zone, Erdogan – who has ruled Turkey for some twenty years and faces an election in May – claimed that operations were now working normally and promised no one would be left homeless. He was reacting to the fact that in southern Turkey there were thousands waiting by piles of rubble, looking for relatives while complaining of lack of state help.

He later condemned criticism of the government’s response. “This is a time for unity, solidarity. In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest,” Erdogan told reporters in the southern province of Hatay.

Political observers believe that the perceived lack of immediate state response to the disaster will pose a big challenge to Erdogan in the election next May. It was already set to be the toughest fight of his two decades in power. The aftermaths of the earthquake have made it worse for Erdogan as the perception that the government failed to address the disaster properly and immediately could hurt his electoral prospects.

Even before the earthquake, the election campaign was already going to be tough for Erdogan, considering Turkey’s struggling economy with an inflation rate driven to over 50% by his thoughtless monetary policies. Voters will note his reaction to the earthquake, and ask why Erdogan’s government did not do more to prepare for such a disaster after the tremor of 1999.

There is an element of the irony of history in this situation. Erdogan came to power after an election in 2002. His then new party, Justice and Development (AK), toppled an establishment that was governing Turkey incompetently. The then government’s weak response to the earthquake of 1999, followed by its mishandling of a financial crash in 2001, contributed to a sense that a new beginning was needed, and AK ended up with two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

Now Erdogan faces a similar set of circumstances: an economic crisis and a humanitarian one. Voters will judge him on his record in handling both.

Turkey sits on one of the world’s most active fault lines and the collapse of so many buildings will have to be scrutinised. It seems that the advice of earthquake experts and building codes were ignored, while corrupt or incompetent supervisors looked the other way. One aspect of the economic boom that made Mr Erdogan popular for his first decade in power was a surge in construction. He had two decades to prepare for a big earthquake and the perception is that he did nothing about it.

This does not mean that the May election necessarily signals the end of Erdogan. The Opposition is fractured and there is still no significant unifying leader who can really challenge Erdogan.

Yet the possibility of the majority of voters deciding to vote Erdogan out of power has never been so high.

PN’s woes

The latest MaltaToday survey, published last Sunday, simply confirmed what everybody in Malta realises: approval of government has its ups and downs – although in the long run the downs will be more than the ups; while approval of the PN in Opposition only has downs and its support keeps diminishing as more time passes.

There are various reasons why this is still happening in spite of Robert Abela’s mediocre performance in government.

To say the least, the PN seems unable to inspire the voters with a better future under a PN administration. This was very difficult when Joseph Muscat – warts and all – was the Labour leader; I thought it should not be so difficult with Robert Abela leading the PL.

The problem is with the PN’s attitude and with its obvious attempts at trying to salvage its old way of doing things, which the electorate has refused over and over again; rather than opting for a new strategy with an attractive message.

The latest move of appointing again in the shadow cabinet, the same people whom it had foolishly discarded, only serves to show the PN’s lack of cohesive long-term strategy. It makes moves inspired by the perceptions of the few and then retracts them when these moves do not lead to any positive outcome.

Politics is not a game suitable for people who do not know what they want – except to obtain power. Voters can hardly be inspired by such shenanigans.