Earthquake Undermines Erdoğan’s Reelection Strategy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits quake-hit Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on February 20, 2023. (Photo by Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Two weeks have passed since the deadliest series of earthquakes in Turkish history destroyed 10 provinces in the country’s southeast. The death toll could surpass 100,000, and many survivors have lost not just their homes but their livelihoods. Yet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has appeared more concerned about the disaster’s political fallout than aiding its victims.

His politics-first approach ahead of national elections in May has backfired. Now voters are demanding accountability for haphazard rescue and relief operations—as well as the corruption that gave rise to substandard buildings that collapsed in seconds.

Erdoğan’s reelection chances were already uncertain amid a floundering economy. Before the earthquakes hit, he had launched an economic plan to win over skeptical voters: He increased minimum wage and pensions and loosened monetary supply, flooding money markets with low interest loans for businesses and individuals. On the foreign policy side, he demonized Turkey’s Western partners and accused them, among other things, of being behind a violent 2016 coup attempt. Such tactics gained traction, and Erdoğan’s poll numbers ticked up in the last quarter of 2022. Erdoğan was also buoyed by a visibly incompetent political opposition consisting of six parties under the umbrella of the “Nation Alliance,” which has no clear message and has not been able to nominate a candidate to stand against Erdoğan. The impact of the quakes have likely nullified the utility of this playbook. Now, estimates suggest that post-quake reconstruction could cost $84 billion and the loss of economic activity could shave 2 percentage points off Turkey’s projected gross domestic product growth in 2023. This hampers the government’s ability to curb inflation

His struggle to hold onto power is now more difficult. The quakes prompted widespread public anger with Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP): Why were the rescue and relief efforts so slow and so badly coordinated? Why did the government hesitate to deploy the military? Why were building and occupancy permits given out by local officials for substandard dwellings that collapsed easily? What happened to the funds collected under the so-called “earthquake tax” imposed after the 1999 earthquake to prepare for future disasters? 

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