After 20 years in power, will 2023 end the reign of Turkey’s ‘sultan’ Erdogan?

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He won every election in his political career, dominated Turkish politics for two decades, and currently enjoys more power than any leader before him in the country’s modern history.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces his most difficult election yet; one that could kill his dream of a third term and end his impressive national political career spanning more than two decades.

If he had his way, he would be a sultan presiding over his very own modern-day Ottoman Empire, shaped in his image, until his last dying breath.

Although the sultan comparison may appear like a simple cliché, analysts and politicians worldwide have repeatedly used it to illustrate Erdogan's authoritarianism and how he eroded the independence of state institutions.

German politician Cem Özdemir once said: “Erdogan wants to be a modern sultan. He wants to rule Turkey for life, and he wants to do it with an iron fist.”

American political analyst focusing on Turkey and the Kurdish regions, Max Hoffman, said: “Erdogan's slide into authoritarianism has led many to call him a ‘sultan’, a moniker that speaks to his increasing control over Turkey's politics, society, and economy.”

Erdogan’s actions since the failed coup in 2016 are viewed by many analysts and Western governments as a consolidation of significant power and a behavior more closely resembling a traditional authoritarian ruler than a democratically elected president. Analysts and politicians use the term “sultan” to imply a concentration of power and a disregard for democratic norms and institutions.

Despite the amount of power he has consolidated over the years, Erdogan faces an uphill battle in the upcoming presidential election. The conditions leading up to this election are unlikely to play in favor of another presidential term for him.

But what obstacles stand between him and a third term as president?

All eyes on earthquake response

Turkey was struck by the worst earthquake in the country’s modern history in February. The massive 7.8 magnitude quake and its aftershocks wrought widespread destruction of infrastructure with more than 160,000 buildings destroyed, more than 100,000 people injured, over a million people left homeless, and a death toll of more than 52,000.

The World Bank estimated the damage caused by the earthquake at more than $34 billion which is equivalent to four percent of Turkey’s entire GDP in 2021. However, the estimate does not include the costs of reconstruction, which could potentially be twice as much. More than half of the total figure calculated by the World Bank was the cost of the direct damage sustained by residential buildings.

Erdogan has faced strong criticism targeted at how his government has handled the disaster, including the slow rescue operations and how the government’s personnel did not collaborate with relief agencies and local authorities.

The six-party opposition alliance’s chosen candidate to challenge Erdogan in the upcoming elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, fanned the fire of the public’s anger. He said: “They failed in this as they failed in every other issue, they don’t know how to manage the state. If there is anyone responsible for this process, it is Erdogan. It is this ruling party that has not prepared the country for an earthquake for 20 years.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan made visits to afflicted areas and acknowledged “shortcomings” in his government’s response. “We are face to face with one of the greatest disasters in our history… It is a reality that search efforts are not as fast as we wanted them to be,” he said.

He made promises to rebuild every damaged home and office and return it to their rightful owner within a year. “We will rebuild these buildings within one year and will hand them back to citizens. While we do that, we will pay the rent of citizens who do not want to stay in tents,” Erdogan assured.

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. (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. (AFP)

However, questions have been raised as to why tens of thousands of buildings collapsed during the earthquake, especially since many of them were newly constructed and supposedly in compliance with the strictest safety regulations.

The questions have renewed scrutiny into the enforcement of construction codes and building safety standards, or lack thereof, in areas likely to be impacted by earthquakes. According to David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning at University College London: “This is a disaster caused by shoddy construction, not by an earthquake,” he told AP. He also told BBC that almost all of the buildings that collapsed did not stand up to any reasonably expected earthquake construction code.

The mountains of rubble point to the all too clear reality which is that the government didn’t enforce the modern construction regulations to meet earthquake safety standards. Safety was sacrificed for a quick killing (figuratively, at the time of construction or licensing; and literally, years later when a natural disaster hit).

A general view of damage following a deadly earthquake, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu take a helicopter tour of earthquake stricken areas of Hatay Province, Turkey February 19, 2023. (Reuters)
A general view of damage following a deadly earthquake, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu take a helicopter tour of earthquake stricken areas of Hatay Province, Turkey February 19, 2023. (Reuters)

Many urban planning and development former and current officials have spoken up, criticizing the mismanagement of licensing structures through the practice of “zoning amnesty”.

In 2018, Turkey passed a controversial zoning amnesty law, which allowed buildings constructed illegally or without proper permits to be legalized. This law was criticized by urban planning officials and experts, who argued that it would encourage further illegal construction and worsen the risk of earthquakes.

This was ahead of the presidential election and was seen by many as a political move by Erdogan and his government to gain favor with voters and developers.

Urban planning officials warned the practice could lead to environmental and public safety problems. Tayfun Kahraman, President of the Chamber of City Planners, warned in 2018: “Zoning amnesty will lead to unplanned and uncontrolled urbanization, which will create serious problems for urban transformation and earthquake resistance in our country.”

Other officials and academics in the field of urban planning raised many concerns about the practice, and warned that it will increase the risk of earthquakes and it was a dangerous policy that posed a threat to the lives of citizens in the event of an earthquake.

Esra İnal, President of the Ankara Chamber of City Planners, said in 2021: “Zoning amnesty will only serve the interests of developers and lead to more environmental degradation and urban sprawl, which will make our cities more vulnerable to earthquakes.”

And when disaster did strike, its impact was magnified as the experts warned five years ago. Yet, Erdogan’s government pointed the finger of blame at the contractors and builders, and arrested dozens of developers to be brought up against criminal charges. But that might just be too little, too late.

Especially given that infrastructure and development were the hallmark of Erdogan’s election campaigns throughout the past 20 years. He pledged early on in his career to rebuild the country, and he did. But it appears that the construction was carried out by cutting corners and prioritizing the quick delivery of the promised real estate and infrastructure boom to satisfy constituents before elections, without enforcing building safety codes, resulting in structures that did not meet basic requirements for safety.

Erdogan was already under pressure before the deadly earthquake thanks to the country’s cost of living crisis. Now, he has to also contend with the public outcry against the government’s mismanagement of the crisis and the years of – at the very least – gross negligence that compounded the lethalness of the earthquake.

Soaring inflation and sinking lira

Even before the earthquake struck, the public grappled with a cost-of-living crisis that many, rightly so, saw as a construct of the government’s creation. Erdogan’s administration interfered in monetary policy and implemented questionable economic policies that went against the grain of sound economic approaches. The end result was: people across the country were experiencing financial hardship.

Turkey’s weakened economy has only managed to limp along so far thanks to wealthy allies that helped it stay afloat. But the public still struggled with soaring inflation and a downward spiraling of the lira’s value.

Turkey’s official data states that the country’s annual inflation rate had slowed to 58 percent, significantly lower than the two-decade ultimate high of 85 percent last year.

However, independent economists at the private Turkish inflation research group (ENAG), whose model to calculate inflation in Turkey was developed by a group of academics and researchers, said the inflation rate was much higher than official stats standing at 121.6 percent in January and down from 137.5 percent in December.

Meanwhile, in 2021, the currency lost 44 percent versus the US dollar due to multiple rounds of rate cuts. Then it lost 30 percent more in 2022, becoming the worst-performing emerging market currency. Turkey’s lira has weakened approximately 1 percent in the first six weeks of 2023. However, economists expect the lira to fall approximately 12 percent within the next six months.

Erdogan has been involved in changing the country’s monetary policy since 2016, usually cutting interest rates or replacing government finance officials. His controversial and unorthodox actions typically yielded the opposite of the intended effect, increasing inflation and further weakening the lira. Economists and financial analysts heavily criticized Erdogan’s policies and his interference in the financial system of the country, which many said needed to be independent of any political policy.

High prices and a record low lira translate into reduced purchasing power for Turkey’s public. People who are suddenly unable to afford necessities because of decisions made at the macro level are going to blame the government for their financial woes. A major reason the public is angry with Erdogan.

Public sentiment and the ballot box

The public’s anger is a force to be reckoned with, especially when loved ones are dead or dying or buried alive, and when tens of thousands are forced to clear out of their homes, but are then left out in the cold, literally and figuratively, without food or water or shelter or heating.

For a presidential candidate who must be thinking about rallying support and raising his/her approval numbers, being the target of the public’s anger during a national crisis can be the kiss of death.

“A crisis is a test of leadership, and if the public doesn't believe that the president is up to the task, it can have a significant impact on their re-election prospects. And that could be a fatal blow to any president who is seeking another term,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told CNBC.

As people head to the voting booths come May 14, Erdogan’s political future might largely hinge on the public’s sentiment towards how his government handled the crisis and who they ultimately hold accountable for this natural disaster being much deadlier than it should have been.

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