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Electoral Aftershocks

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On February 6, 2023, a deadly series of earthquakes struck southern Türkiye and northern Syria, killing at least 50,000 people and leaving millions homeless. The earthquake has, unsurprisingly, dominated the politics of the two nations in recent weeks, due to its massive humanitarian and economic ramifications. However, for Türkiye, the earthquake also has important political implications. It struck at a precarious time for the current Turkish administration, with presidential elections scheduled to be held in May. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has held power for over 20 years, has faced criticism in recent weeks for his administration’s poor handling of the disaster. Additionally, the scandal arising from the earthquake has been exacerbated by Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and economic issues facing the nation. As Erdoğan faces a strong, organized challenge to his presidency, the earthquake hurts his chances of remaining in power. For this reason, the effects of the February earthquake are not limited to the destruction it wrought; it may also have immense implications for Türkiye’s political future.

To understand the effect of the earthquake, one must first understand the political state of Türkiye in the Erdoğan years. Erdoğan rose to power quickly, from his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 to his rise to prime minister in 2003. Along the way, he faced controversy for his Islamist philosophy in a dogmatically secular Türkiye. At one point, he was arrested for “inciting religious hatred” while serving as mayor of Istanbul for reading a poem that included the lines, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets.” After his arrest, Erdoğan formed his own party, the conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and took power in 2003. Since this moment, he has never relinquished his authority, even conveniently supporting a now-passed constitutional amendment to shift power from the prime minister to the president while serving in his term-limited role as prime minister. But the clearest display of Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies emerged in 2016. In the wake of a failed coup attempt, Erdoğan instituted a two-year long state of emergency and arrested tens of thousands in a so-called “purge,” using the threat of the coup to consolidate power. The aftermath of the coup marked a new era of authoritarianism in Türkiye, with media outlets shuttered, political opponents jailed, and dissent heavily discouraged. This was the tense political situation leading up to the 2023 election.

Ahead of the election, Erdoğan seemed to be gearing up for a victory. After weathering a bout of severe inflation, his party was projected to narrowly beat out the opposition in the upcoming election. Erdoğan had also begun to roll out a series of popular economic reforms, such as raising the minimum wage and lowering the retirement age, in order to win him more support. And, of course, his ability to control the media—AKP allies own many media outlets in Türkiye and new laws criminalizing “disinformation” are defined as broadly as possible in order to help the AKP—appeared to bolster his re-election prospects. However, Erdoğan’s favorable outlook was shattered by the events of February 6, which have possibly calamitous implications for his election prospects. 

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, critics began to claim that funds appropriated for disaster relief had been spent on other projects. After a deadly 1999 earthquake in the country, Türkiye instituted a permanent “earthquake tax” designed to amass money for future disasters. Yet these funds were nowhere to be found right after the 2023 earthquake, with rescue agencies responding slowly and ineffectively. People have also attacked the poor quality of new construction developments in Türkiye, many of which collapsed and killed dozens following the earthquake. Some of these buildings only exist because of lenient laws supported by Erdoğan in order to speed up the pace of construction. The earthquake has also tossed Türkiye’s already unsteady economy into turmoil. After struggling with high inflation in recent months, the federal government now faces a reconstruction task that will cost about $50 billion. Despite these mistakes, Erdoğan continues to claim that he handled the situation as best he could, saying, “It’s not possible to be ready for a disaster like this.” Unfortunately for him, the damage from the aftermath of the earthquake may have already been done.

For the May election, six opposition parties, including the major center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the center-right Good Party (IYI), have formed a big-tent coalition known as the “Table of Six.” The coalition was formed with the sole purpose of defeating Erdoğan, forming an organized threat to his rule that has not been seen since the coup attempt. With the election quickly approaching, recent polling shows that the new coalition boasts a healthy lead over Erdoğan’s party. The opposition has picked its candidate, CHP leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, nicknamed the “Turkish Gandhi.” Kiliçdaroğlu is positioning himself as a transition candidate away from Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies. In a period where Erdoğan’s autocratic practices are under fire, Kiliçdaroğlu’s contrasting image may be enough to win him the election.

The “Table of Six” still has a daunting task ahead to defeat the AKP. For one, the “Table of Six” coalition runs the risk of fragmenting due to its ideologically diverse parties. For example, in early March, the coalition nearly fell apart when the right-wing IYI strongly contested the alliance’s choice of center-left Kiliçdaroğlu as its candidate. In the weeks before the election, Kiliçdaroğlu faces a difficult challenge as he attempts to convince all types of anti-Erdoğan voters that he deserves their votes. Additionally, Erdoğan benefits from the unique media environment he has built for himself over the past two decades. While he cannot run an outwardly rigged election due to fear of massive protests or backlash from Türkiye’s NATO allies, the playing field will certainly be uneven. As a strong president, Erdoğan has the power to use public resources as he sees fit in the upcoming election period. Between his role as a de-facto editor of most Turkish media outlets––determining what stories are reported and when––and his control of the Turkish military, which allows him to intimidate the opposition, it is clear that the fight to unseat him will be difficult.

All in all, however, the “Table of Six” is well positioned to overcome the obstacles ahead of them. The coalition has united around fixing Türkiye’s broken political system, focusing on moving power back to the parliament, and agreeing on other shared political goals. Moreover, Kurds, who live predominantly in the areas most affected by the earthquake and who constitute 15 percent of the Turkish population, now have additional motivation to turn out against Erdoğan. In the past, the Turkish government has antagonized the Kurdish minority and jailed many of its political leaders, which left the door open for the opposition coalition to win their crucial support. The Kurds are an especially significant voting bloc because the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will not be running a candidate in the election, allowing Kiliçdaroğlu to grab many of their voters. 

Predicting the outcome of any election is a tall order, especially one in a country where the media is muzzled and dissent is often criminalized. However, it is much easier to recognize uncertainty or moments of weakness for quasi-authoritarian leaders than completely totalitarian ones. Only time will tell what lies ahead, but one thing is certain: Erdoğan is in a much weaker position now than he was before the earthquake. And in an election which may be determined by a small margin, one event of this magnitude may make all the difference.