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Erdoğan's Precarious Position: How the Earthquake Could Unseat the President

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Snapshot Article

By Toby Gill

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has come under fire following a tragic series of earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. Over 33,000 people have died, with over 29,000 of these casualties on the Turkish side. Erdoğan has been criticised for a flawed response to the disaster and with so much anger in the country, people are demanding answers. The Turkish President is facing his toughest re-election campaign ever, but could last week’s tragic disaster be the nail in the coffin for Erdoğan’s electoral goals?

The tragic events unfolded on Monday 6th February, when two earthquakes struck near the towns of Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border. The incident occurred in the early hours of the morning when families were inside and sleeping. The impact has been devastating. Tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The international response has, though, been tremendous. The British Disasters Emergency Committee’s Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal has already raised over £60 million in donations. Similarly, the World Bank has announced that $1.78 billion in assistance will be provided to Turkey to boost recovery efforts.

But the response from the governments of Turkey and Syria respectively have come under intense scrutiny in recent days. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has tried to shift blame and has accused US sanctions on his country as hindering the relief efforts. The US did, however, ease sanctions last week and the sanctions have exempted humanitarian aid. Ultimately, the earthquakes hit a region of Syria that is already prone to destruction. Syria’s brutal civil war has decimated parts of the country, and Assad has given Russia the greenlight to bomb hospitals in the past as part of his military efforts to consolidate control. With the need for hospitals and clinics in the region higher than ever, coupled with Assad’s reluctance to allow international aid to pass through rebel-held territories to reach areas affected by the earthquake, it’s difficult not to point fingers at the dictator.

Erdoğan has not escaped criticism either. The initial absence of government leadership and organised rescue plans in the first days when families were stuck under the rubble has undoubtedly aggravated the crisis. Traditionally, as with the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, the military spearheads relief operations, but Erdoğan has pushed to curb their power in society, and thus the duty fell on Turkey’s AFAD disaster authority. The civil disaster authority has a staff of almost 15,000, making it one of the largest teams in the world, but they couldn’t act decisively. With the military being excluded from the relief operations, AFAD had to wait for government approval before starting their rescue efforts.

President Erdoğan accepted that the search efforts were initially delayed but has been quick to dodge blame. He had been heard telling survivors that the earthquake was “fate’s design”, or part of “fate’s plan”, a similar line he employed after a coal mine explosion last year. Critics of the president don’t accept this. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has argued that after 20 years in government, Erdoğan has not “prepared the country for earthquakes”. Following the 1999 earthquake that helped to eventually propel Erdoğan to power, various earthquake ‘solidarity taxes’ were imposed with the goal of investing the revenue in infrastructure to make buildings resistant to future earthquakes. One such tax levied on mobile phone operators and TV outlets has raised over $4.6 billion in the past decades, but the question of where this money has been spent is less clear.

Last year, President Erdoğan even hailed the “urban transformation projects” that his government has been unveiling, with the promise that they would shield from future disasters. For years, however, experts have warned that dodgy contracts and endemic corruption have plagued the effort of these projects. One big critique of Erdoğan was his willingness to grant amnesties to contractors who swerved building regulations, in a bid to encourage a construction boom. These dubious contracting practices were prevalent in the regions hit by Monday’s earthquake too.

The question is, will the Turkish President be able to save face and reconsolidate support before elections this summer? Erdoğan has already started to shift the blame, with over 113 arrest warrants issued at the weekend in connection with the construction of buildings that collapsed. But it seems unlikely that the President will be able to divert all criticisms. This could result in a more authoritarian approach to secure his position. Erdoğan has already lashed out at political opponents for ‘politicising’ the earthquake, and just a day after the earthquake he issued the ominous warning that: “prosecutors are identifying [and] taking the necessary actions against those who attempt to create social chaos” through ‘disinformation’.

Erdoğan has struggled to consolidate his position for the past two decades, but could this be the nail in the coffin for his Presidency?


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