Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: The Turkish President is facing a catastrophe

Last year, as Turkey marked the anniversary of an earthquake that devastated parts of the country in 1999, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hailed the government’s “urban redevelopment projects” that would protect people from future disasters. “As human beings, it is not in our hands to prevent disasters; However, it is up to us to take action against its destructive effects,” he said.

Now the Turkish president is being accused of not having done just that – and is facing the enormous challenge of a huge humanitarian crisis. The country’s worst natural disaster in almost a century has already claimed the lives of more than 19,000 people on its side of the border with Syria.

Erdoğan is now struggling with criticism that his government has been too slow to bring aid to the affected areas and that Turkey is ill-prepared. It comes at a time when the president, who came to power just after the turn of the millennium, is waging his toughest re-election campaign yet.

“That will be the big issue in the election campaign. . .[it]is terrible news for Erdoğan,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Sabancı University in Istanbul.

Born into a working-class family in Istanbul, Erdoğan, now 68, began campaigning for conservative politics as a teenager. In his early 20s, the die-hard football fan led the youth organization of an Islamic party. He later rose to fame when he was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. In 2001 he founded the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and chose an acronym meaning “pure” to distinguish himself from the corrupt, chaotic coalition governments.

The AKP, which had its roots in Turkey’s Islamist movement but posed as pro-European and pro-business, won in 2002 by a landslide victory as voters criticized the incumbent’s economic mismanagement and handling of the İzmit earthquake. “The 1999 earthquake was one of the reasons why the ruling parties were not only lost, but wiped off the map,” said Atilla Yeşilada, analyst at GlobalSource Partners.

Erdoğan, known for his powerful rhetoric and knack for getting things done, became prime minister in 2003. While much of his political energy was sapped in battles with the army and other institutions, he also embarked on a vast transformation of the national infrastructure. This accelerated after the global financial crisis when a wave of cheap money swept in. Turkish prosperity increased while new hospitals, bridges, highways and airports were built.

Line chart of GDP per capita in current $, showing Turkey's prosperity in the early Erdoğan years

But the AKP also relaxed bidding rules and built a web of business and political ties that awarded lucrative public tenders to friends in exchange for turning media into propaganda organs — or pouring funds into foundations linked to the Erdoğan family stand. Repeated amnesties for illegal construction projects encouraged shoddy construction practices.

A turning point came in 2013, when protests against the construction of a shopping center in Istanbul’s Gezi Park became a broader movement. Erdoğan launched a violent crackdown and began restricting civil liberties and restricting press freedom. “Gezi really opened his eyes and showed what this man is made of,” says Yeşilada.

An attempted coup in 2016 reinforced his shift towards more authoritarian rule. Since then, Erdoğan has tightened his grip on almost every government institution. Waves of public sector purges and a preference for loyalty over ability have further undermined the country’s institutions, political analysts say.

The consequences became visible as the country endured one of the worst natural disasters of all time. “This earthquake is the destruction of 20 years of window dressing. The consequences of the earthquake are the consequences of the erosion of Turkey’s institutions – disrespect and disregard for expertise,” says Soli Özel, a lecturer at Kadir Has University.

Erdoğan has attacked political opponents and the media, who have criticized the response as slow and disorganized. Just a day after the quake, he said his government was counting “those who intend to pit our people against each other with false news,” and warned “that prosecutors are identifying.” [and] Taking the necessary action against those trying to create social chaos.”

The Turkish president has often capitalized on past crises and used them to his advantage. But some political observers say this could prove out of his control.

With elections scheduled for May 14, the earthquake will “represent the greatest political crisis on record [Erdoğan] faces,” says Esen. Add to that a painful cost-of-living crisis sparked by his unconventional economic policies, economists say, and have weighed heavily on his popularity.

The quake, which has hit a number of poor, conservative provinces, could reduce support from its normally reliable base, Özel says. “It’s very difficult for me to decipher the codes of conservative Turkey or pro-Erdoğan Turkey, but I really can’t see how he can remain unscathed after this disaster.”

Even some AKP officials are fuming about the horrific death toll – and his government’s failure to protect Turkey. “Why not [other earthquake-prone] Countries like Japan, Chile have tragedies like ours?” said a Party member from one of the devastated provinces who had lost several loved ones. “People are asking these questions now. And they’re getting louder.”, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: The Turkish President is facing a catastrophe

Adam Bradshaw

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