Earthquake aftermath: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in the spotlight


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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated his nation’s politics for a generation. A liberal reformer turned independent nationalist, he is the most transformative and influential figure in the history of the Turkish Republic since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Erdogan is preparing for key presidential and parliamentary elections in May, where voters will decide whether to extend his 20-year rule and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. With inflation rising, the Turkish lira falling in value, much seems to be hanging in the balance and, if you listen to Erdogan’s critics, the future of Turkish democracy itself is hanging by a thread.

Then, on Monday, destruction occurred on an unprecedented scale. Rescuers and aid workers are still searching for debris from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and aftershocks that tore through large swaths of southern Turkey and northwestern Syria. In Turkey alone, more than 5,800 people died and more than 34,800 were injured. Thousands more are feared to be trapped under the debris, either dead or rescue efforts hampered by severe winters.

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

In an unpleasant twist, a visibly angry Erdogan referred to criticism from opponents of apparent difficulties or failures that have surrounded the aid operation as “fake news and distortions” and warned that his government would ultimately end up killing those people. will go after those who try to “spread social disorder”. Later in the day, an Istanbul state prosecutor opened a criminal investigation against two journalists who had criticized the government’s response so far.

But the Turkish president may be ready to respond as the painful recovery begins.. Months away from a general election, the shock of the moment could decide Erdogan’s political fate. There is outrage at how many people are trapped under the rubble, waiting for help. Just two weeks ago, a leading opposition politician in Hatay Province was badly affected. Appeared on televisionLamented Erdogan’s government’s failure to help improve earthquake preparedness in their region.

“Political analysts said Erdogan, who is personally overseeing the response, is facing potential political backlash over allegations of a lack of preparation, corrupt and substandard construction methods, and the use of a dedicated earthquake fund. Trying”. The Wall Street Journal.

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

“There is definitely no professional aid coordination,” Ugor Poyraz, secretary general of the center-right nationalist IYI party, told Reuters. “Civic and local teams are involved in self-rescue operations to rescue people buried under the debris.”

Soner Kagupte, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of several books on the Turkish president, told me on Tuesday that if his government failed to speed up aid efforts and save large numbers of people, Erdogan would be a real political figure. Can get into trouble. Similarly. He said that the next 48 hours will be decisive for Erdogan’s career.

Analysts point to the legacy of Turkey’s last major earthquake. In 1999, an earthquake near Istanbul killed about 17,000 people and injured more than 40,000. The disaster exposed the shoddy, lax construction standards of many of Turkey’s buildings, as well as the gross incompetence of the Turkish state, which had been shaped by secular Kemalist Orthodoxy for decades. That moment paved the way for the rise to power of Erdogan’s more religious-minded movement, fueled by a popular desire for change and effective government.

“The failure of the Turkish government in the wake of the 1999 … earthquake played a key role in softening support for its predecessors, helping to create the political inception that the AKP embarked on in 2002,” Howard Eisenstatt Wrote, Non-resident Fellow. Middle East Institute. “After all, the AKP won its first victories not by promising Islamism and international militancy, but by promising good governance and transparency. They promised competence, not revolution.

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

“But these laws are respected more in their violation than in their observance,” he added. “Erdogan has often described the construction industry as the crown jewel of the economy – encouraging a lack of oversight. Turkey’s big public contracts tend to go to the same government cronies. Make of that what you will.” “

PHOTOS: Aid workers search for survivors after earthquake kills thousands in Syria and Turkey

There are other ways of reading the political moment. The urgency of the crisis and the need to come together can undermine the opposition, which may be forced to show solidarity with the government in times of disaster. Furthermore, Erdogan and his ruling party could benefit from implementing a stronger response as long as the president “is visible on the ground and not just with immediate aid,” argued Eurasia Group analyst Emre. Rather, they maintain momentum until the elections with promises of long-term reconstruction.” figure

Given the surge in international support for Turkey and Syria, the crisis could provide Erdogan with an opportunity to reset globally, easing tensions with various Western countries. Errol Yabuk wrote that the disaster “could provide Turkey with an opportunity to resolve its geostrategic issues on its own, as happened after the 1999 earthquake between Turkish and Greek leaders, who at the time were similarly heated.” were exchanging rhetoric”. of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But at home, Erdogan may fight an uphill battle. “Over the past two decades, Erdogan has created an image of a feared autocrat, who is also effective at governing,” Kagapte said. That image may be crumbling as he faces his own 1999 moment.

After the 1999 earthquake “challenged the ideological position of the 80-year-old Kemalist state established by Atatürk,” Kagapte added, explaining that he lost faith in the state’s ability to solve problems and take care of its citizens. shook the

He said that the way the Kemalist state came down like a house of cards, until we see dramatic relief, Turkish citizens will question whether Erdogan is also a paper lion.

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