As Death Toll Soars, can President Erdogan Survive Turkey’s Earthquake Politically?

Monday’s massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake in south-central Turkey, in which at least 20,000 have died — and probably tens of thousands more — has shocked that country and the world. It inescapably has political implications, with Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for mid-May.

President Tayyip Recep Erdogan is facing widespread criticism for the slowness and inadequacy of the government response. Stung by the criticism, he briefly cut off Twitter in the country to prevent the spread of what he called “misinformation.” That move, however, backfired, because many aid workers and victims were using Twitter to help locate and rescue people. They let the government have it with both barrels, and Erdogan’s people backed down.

Older residents of cities such as Gaziantep, write Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Isil Sariyuce, Zeena Saifi and Reyhan Baysan for CNN, are resentful over having paid an earthquake tax since the last big one in 1999. They complain that nothing was done with all that money to shore up buildings in preparation for the next large seismic event. They imply that the money was spent for other purposes by Erdogan and his government.

The government also stands accused of not ensuring that the improved building standards after the 1999 earthquake were actually implemented by builders.

Turkey has, moreover, faced high inflation in the past year, as have most societies on earth– though Turkey’s rate is higher than most. In Turkey inflation was 57% this fall, devastating the purchasing power of workers’ salaries, as Selin Girit of the BBC reports.The rate fell slightly to 53.5% in January. Wages are not keeping up with that rate of inflation, even though government workers were given a nice pay raise, of 30%. Even under the more favorable inflation outlook for 2023, in which it likely will stay elevated at over 40% a year, people expect to have difficulty coping. Many are losing their condos and homes because they cannot afford the constantly elevated prices.

The earthquake and the rebuilding process will likely accelerate inflation beyond what it would otherwise have been. The government may spend 5.5% of its gross domestic product on relief, food aid, and rebuilding, according to Bloomberg Arabic.

Erdogan is promising each affected family about $500 each.

six-party alliance is mounting a strong challenge to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in advance of the elections. They pledge to return to a parliamentary system, to cut the president’s powers, and to end the practice of the president essentially legislating through decree.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on February 10, 2023, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.

Image Credit: CNBC

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