Analysis

Collapsed buildings shake Erdogan’s chances in May elections, if they take place

Turkish president already faced political headwinds amid economic woes; the deadly earthquake scrambles the race, as he seeks to overcome accusations of corruption

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tours the site of destroyed buildings during his visit to the city of Kahramanmaras in southeast Turkey, two days after the severe earthquake that hit the region, on February 8, 2023. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tours the site of destroyed buildings during his visit to the city of Kahramanmaras in southeast Turkey, two days after the severe earthquake that hit the region, on February 8, 2023. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)

In January, Recep Tayyip Erdogan had reason to worry. After two decades in power, Turkey’s president saw the foundations of his political support cracking.

Runaway inflation, alongside a lira that has been in an accelerating downward spiral for years, has left the majority of Turks struggling to cover food, electricity, and housing costs.

“The election outlook before the earthquake was neck and neck,” said Yusuf Erim, Turkey analyst at TRT World. “It was shaping up to be one of the tightest presidential races in Turkish history.”

Erdogan, an experienced and shrewd political operator, wasn’t sitting passively in the face of the electoral headwinds.

“He initiated the election economy,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Erdogan allowed millions of workers below retirement age to begin collecting pensions, doubled the minimum wage, advanced a debt relief bill, and even announced that 10,000 suspended driver’s licenses would be returned.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, salutes supporters as he visits the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, in the background, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, July 19, 2020, days after he formally reconverted Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship, after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had made the religious landmark a museum. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

“He did everything possible to attract the attention of the masses,” said Cohen, “to give the impression that the state is providing welfare to the people.”

Erdogan’s massive spending program began to pay off. In early February, polls showed support for him reaching a two-year high.

Then the ground shuddered beneath him.

Accusations of mismanagement

“This earthquake shook all his programs, all of his plans,” said Cohen.

“The earthquake has become the only agenda in Turkey and will probably dominate the domestic discussion for the foreseeable future,” said Erim.

Residents support a woman in front of a destroyed building in Duzce, the epicenter of the 12 November 1999 earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the open-ended Richter scale, that shook northwestern Turkey, killing at least 452 people and injuring another 2,300. (Manoocher Deghati/AFP)

Erdogan, who came to power in the wake of widespread criticism of the government reaction to a catastrophic earthquake in 1999, is being blamed by many for the extent of the damage and for the slow reaction of rescue forces.

Turkey enjoyed a construction boom under Erdogan. But he is also accused of giving lucrative contracts to friends, allowing them to ignore building codes.

In 2019, Erdogan boasted ahead of elections in regions that were struck by the recent earthquakes that he had solved housing shortages by granting amnesty to builders who had ignored safety codes.

Turkey introduced a tax in 1999 to raise funds for earthquake preparedness. In the wake of an earthquake in 2020 in Izmir, the opposition alleged that the government had misused billions of dollars meant to protect the country against massive tremors like the one it would go on to experience earlier this month.

And by drastically limiting the activities of Turkish civil society organizations, Erdogan knocked out a key pillar of the 1999 response.

“What we have experienced, seen and witnessed shows that not only individual buildings but also the columns of a whole country have been cut,” wrote Ibrahim Varli in the opposition BirGün newspaper. “We are confronted with a ‘ruined’ state apparatus that has rotted from top to bottom and where no institution or organization is still operable.”

Cranes remove debris next to destroyed buildings in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Feb. 10, 2023 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

“The naked reality that the state has been transformed into a tool protecting the reign of thieves has been understood once again,” he said.

Nation in shock

But the extent to which anger at Erdogan is undermining his chances at reelection is unclear.

“For now the criticism comes from the same quarters that already opposed Erdogan,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“The nation is in shock still, so it’s hard to know where it will develop.”

All politicians “will be judged on what they do over the next three months,” said Erim.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu delivers a speech for his supporters during a protest in front of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in Istanbul on December 15, 2022, after a Turkish court sentenced him to more than two years jail and banned him from politics ahead of next year’s presidential election. (Yasin AKGUL / AFP)

Erdogan might even have an advantage over opposition rivals, because if he handles reconstruction competently, he’ll be able to point at tangible results.

He has promised to build homes for the millions left without roofs over their heads within a year. In the meantime, Turkish university students are back to learning remotely as their dorms have been allotted by Erdogan to the earthquake victims.

Turkish authorities have also issued over 100 arrest warrants over building violations.

Erdogan benefits from the fact that the opposition has yet to agree on a candidate, and pushed off their deadline to come to an agreement because of the quake.

Uncertainty

As Erdogan scrambles to shape the narrative after the tragedy, it’s not even certain when the vote will take place.

“I cannot tell you for sure that the Turkish people will go to the ballots on May 14,” said Cohen. “And if I can say that sentence, we already have a problem.“

Elections were initially moved to May from June to get voters to the ballot box while the benefits of his spending program were at the height of their impact and before inflation worsened.

A woman casts her vote in Turkey’s elections at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, June 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

It wouldn’t be a problem to move them back to their traditional June date, said Lindenstrauss.

But they might get pushed back much further.

“We also need to consider a scenario where elections could be postponed for a prolonged period as registering the more than million displaced and homeless, deciding where they will vote, disenfranchising the dead, and deciding on the status of missing people are challenges that will require a domestic discussion,” said Erim.

But according to Article 78 of Turkey constitution, elections can only be pushed off during war. Erdogan could seek a constitutional amendment, but would need opposition support to get the requisite two-thirds.

Still, Erdogan has shown a willingness to take drastic measures in states of emergency, which the country is currently in. During the long state of emergency after the failed 2016 military coup, Erdogan oversaw a constitutional referendum that approved replacing the parliamentary system with a powerful presidency.

A Turkish police officer embraces a man on a tank after the military position was taken over in Istanbul on July 16, 2016, following a failed army coup. (AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC)

Though the results of the election, whenever it happens, will have far-reaching implications for Turkey’s future, its newly restored ties with Israel are unlikely to be placed in any peril.

The Palestinian issue will continue to create occasional waves regardless of who prevails, but “both sides should be able to manage those tensions,” said Erim.

And Israel’s speedy aid to the country is sure to shore that relationship up even further, Cohen maintained.

“We provided evidence to the Turkish people that our friendship is beyond governments,” he said.

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