Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power 20 years ago riding a wave of public outrage toward the previous government’s handling of a deadly earthquake.
Now, three months away from an election, Erdogan’s political future could hinge on how the public perceives his government’s response to a similarly devastating natural disaster.
“It is going to be a big challenge for Erdogan, who has established a brand for himself as an autocratic figure but an efficient one that gets the job done,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute and the author of several books on Erdogan.
The aftermath of a massive earthquake isn’t the only parallel to the election of 2002. Back then, Turkey was in the midst of a financial crisis that was punishing its economy.
Today, Turkey’s economy is being hammered by skyrocketing inflation, and Erdogan has faced widespread criticism for his handling of the problem, which has left millions of poor and middle class people struggling to make ends meet.
Erdogan’s political rivals have already begun criticizing his government’s response to the earthquake, saying that over the course of two decades he failed to prepare the country for the inevitable. Experts point to lax enforcement of building codes as a major reason why this week’s quakes were so deadly. But with less than 100 days before the election, Erdogan’s rivals have yet to put forth a candidate to run against him.
The memory of how Bulent Ecevit, the late prime minister, was undone by his poor handling of financial and natural disasters two decades ago must be on Erdogan’s mind as he tries to contain the twin problems he faces today, analysts say.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck on February 6 was followed nine hours later by another powerful quake, killing more than 24,000 people in both Turkey and Syria.
The devastation spreads across a wide swath of Turkey, affecting 10 provinces in the country’s southeast, and it has strained the ability of domestic and foreign crews to quickly execute rescue efforts. In the first few days after the quake, Turkish television and social media showed people waiting helplessly beside piles of debris in frigid conditions, or using their bare hands to claw through rubble.
“We’ll still have to see the outcome of the relief efforts, whether subzero temperatures continue, casualties increase, whether international assistance which is flowing could make a difference,” said Cagaptay.
Erdogan, who toured the region this week, conceded shortcomings in the initial stages of the response but insisted that everything was now under control.
“If the disaster response is strong, the ruling administration will be rewarded, likely in the polls — if it is poor, the opposite,” Timothy Ash, an analyst at BlueBay Asset Management in London, wrote in an email.
Ecevit blamed the poor response after the 1999 quake that killed some 18,000 people on the vastness of the destruction. Similarly, Erdogan said the response to this week’s quake — which he described as the “strongest in the history of this geography” — has been hampered by winter weather and the destruction of a key airport, making it difficult to quickly reach people trapped in the rubble.
“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Erdogan said, promising that “we will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.”
While the bumpy quake response so far hasn’t been great for Erdogan’s reputation, analysts say there is time for him to turn things around before the election set for May 14.
“He has the levers of state at his command and Turkish politics was hardly a level playing field before the earthquake,” Hamish Kinnear, Middle East and North Africa analyst for risk-intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said in an email.
Right after the quake, Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency, giving him the power to “lavish public spending” in those areas, said Kinnear, who believes an Erdogan victory is still likely.
Erdogan has promised to donate 10,000 Turkish lira ($530) to people affected by the quake and to subsidize their rent. On Friday he said an additional 100 billion lira ($5.3 billion) would be allocated for post-quake efforts.
In the last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Erdogan and his alliance for parliament overwhelmingly won in seven of the 10 provinces devastated by this week’s earthquakes. And in recent years he has pushed through changes that eliminated checks and balances between different branches of government, concentrating more power within the presidency.
In Turkey, freedom of expression is limited and the government largely controls the media, which has meant television stations mostly show scenes of “miracle rescues,” while appearing to censor scenes of hardship.
In the face of crushing inflation, Erdogan has increased the minimum wage, pensions and civil-servant salaries. While these steps may have been popular with voters, others have earned him severe criticism.
For example, he has insisted on fighting inflation by repeatedly lowering interest rates to stimulate growth — a strategy that mainstream economists around the world have said only makes the problem worse.
For now, all eyes are on the earthquake response.
In the hard-hit city of Adiyaman, Ahmet Aydin, a resident who lost six relatives as well as his home, his shop and his car in the earthquake, complained about the slow emergency response. But he said he would never stop supporting Erdogan — highlighting the Turkish leader’s potentially lasting appeal.
“We trust our president,” Aydin said. “He would never leave us alone, he would never leave us hungry or thirsty. May Allah protect him.”
Erdogan’s political rivals tell a different story.
This week, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, blamed the devastation on Erdogan’s two-decade rule.
“Let me be very clear; if there one person responsible for this process, it is Erdogan,” Kilicdaroglu said in a video address. “For 20 years, this government has not prepared the country for an earthquake.”
He also accused the government of misspending taxes imposed in the wake of the 1999 quakes that were intended to prepare the country for future disasters.
As the death toll continues to rise with each passing day, Erdogan says the country’s leaders should strive to be above the political fray.
“This time is one of unity and standing together,” he said on Wednesday. “I cannot tolerate how in a time like this such filthy and negative campaigns are led for the sake of basic, political interests.”