Earthquake Presents Serious Challenges To President Erdogan As Election Looms
NEW DELHI: Turkey is expected to hold elections for a new president on June 18th, going back on a decision taken last month to hold it in May. Reports that the government may even postpone the June date given logistical difficulties in 10 earthquake-hit provinces, have also been refuted by official sources. The government had even mulled over the idea of getting the polls postponed through a vote in the Grand National Assembly. According to Turkish analyst Nazli Ertan, in the assembly of 600 members, Erdogan’s ruling AKP and its ally, the Nationalist Movement control 335 seats. The president needs 360 votes from the members of the parliament to change the election date.
“This means that Erdoğan would have to find 25 votes among the opposition, which may be difficult as most parties would not support him. Or, more likely, he would dissolve the parliament, call for elections and still present himself, which is a constitutionally dubious move,” Ertan argued. Result June 18th looks certain although a formal word from the government is awaited.
Erdogan faces a tough battle. He was struggling to win over an electorate disgruntled over consumer prices rising to 85 percent last October, making it the highest inflation rate in 25 years. Then the earthquake hit, raising serious questions about his ability to lead and inspire through the crisis.
Former secretary Kanwal Sibal says a major criticism of Erdogan is that he did not immediately deploy the Turkish army in the quake hit areas.
“Erdogan has acknowledged the criticism about the delay in providing relief as soon as the earthquake struck but explained the suddenness and the intensity of the crisis, the large area involved, the difficulty to gain access to the stricken areas because of the damage to roads and airports as reasons,” Sibal, who served in Turkey as ambassador points out. “All this may have some merit, but the suffering people look for immediate help by the authorities, not explanations from the government.”
Erdogan also hesitated in reaching out to the victims, a political failure that the Opposition leaders have seized upon. Images of Opposition leaders comforting victims on Turkish media was a political blow that he is now trying to fix by promising one year’s rent payment for people who lost their homes and free flights on the country’s flagship carrier. Such promises however do not fix the larger issue of how he intends to use the three-month state of emergency declared in the earthquake-hit provinces to normalise the situation.
As Sibal points out “ten provinces have been affected and exceptional efforts have to be made to provide relief and prevent looting and unrest. If the declaration of emergency is politically misused as the country moves towards elections that would be a problem for Erdogan.”
The Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation said over $70 billion is required to rebuild devastated homes and other infrastructure, homes money which the government does not have. Many of the 8,000 buildings destroyed in the quake were reportedly built at Erdogan’s insistence often over-riding safety checks. Worse still, many of the people in the quake-hit provinces are believed to be supporters of Erdogan’s AKP party and number approximately eight million registered voters or 14% of the electorate. The potential loss of the voters is a big challenge for the president.
“Erdogan is a crisis because to date he had focussed on his strongman image which involved being tough with Europe and the US,” says former diplomat Talmiz Ahmad. “His emphasis on Turkey’s independent policy of strategic autonomy by buying missile air-defence systems from Russia and working with Russia in Syria upset the West but assuaged his core nationalist constituency. His focus on the Kurds as an external enemy and the constant assertion of Turkey as a protector of Islam has also played well with the constituency. The earthquake will force him to focus on domestic issues which may not be to his advantage.”
The silver lining for Erdogan is Opposition disunity resulting in no common presidential candidate so far. While Ekrem Imamoglu, the current mayor of Istanbul, is seen as the favourite to challenge the president a court case allegedly prompted by Erdogan may put him out of the running. He’s been charged with insulting senior public officials after he described cancelling the first mayoral election as an act of “foolishness”. The trial is ongoing but if convicted the charge carries a maximum prison sentence of four years which will put him out of the running. The trial, Erdogan’s temporary ban on Twitter from February 8-9, and the increase in civil service and pensioners’ wages by 25% ensure that the president will pull out everything to win over his core electorate.
Erdogan’s focus on his domestic agenda suggests that his foreign policy aspirations will need to take a back seat. This has implications for many issues whether it is Ukraine, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, or Libya. Others say this may not be the case.
“Erdogan has a neo-Ottoman vision in his foreign policy where he is seeking to craft an active Turkish role in territories that were initially connected with the Ottoman empire,” argues Talmiz Ahmad. “After being rebuffed by the EU for membership Erdogan has held firm to an independent policy of strategic autonomy which he believes suits his country. These are articles of faith for him which he is not likely to give up.”
How the would-be Ottoman Caliph squares the circle will be interesting to watch.