Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), in their weakest-ever period, could lose two decades of power to a mild-mannered opposition leader with the support of the Kurds, international analysts say.
The Table of Six, an alliance of the six diverse opposition parties, designated Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a member of the Alevi minority from the Kurdish majority eastern province of Tunceli (Dersim), as their presidential candidate to face the ‘weaker than ever Erdoğan’ in the election scheduled for 14 May, France24 reported.
In an analysis based on the latest polls, Reuters stated that Kılıçdaroğlu is leading against Erdoğan by more than 10 percentage points ahead of elections.
There are several different factors that caused the Erdoğan government to lose power. The economic crisis in the country and the authorities’ failed response to the 6 February earthquakes are evaluated by the international media as the two most important reasons that led to a decline in voters’ support to Erdoğan.
Failures in earthquake response
The government received nationwide backlash after twin earthquakes last month caused great destruction and killed nearly 48,000 people in ten provinces in the south and southeast of Turkey, where the Kurds and Alevis are densely populated.
While Erdoğan’s zoning amnesties allowed construction projects to proceed without fulfilling the necessary safety requirements, as a result of AKP’s policy of economic growth based on the construction boom, inadequate supervision in the construction sector also caused many new buildings that were supposed to comply with strong construction rules to collapse.
In addition, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writes, some of Erdoğan’s “biggest rivals” filling the gaps in the government’s response have also created a much tougher situation for the president ahead of elections.
“Civil-society groups, political parties and opposition-run municipal governments have become surrogate governments in many of the worst-hit areas, handing out food and clothing, setting up makeshift medical centres, collecting garbage, fighting fires and repairing roads in cities that so far have received little aid from the central government,” the WSJ said.
It is also worth noting that a significant part of the groups that stepped in to help quake-affected people after the collapse of vital state services were oppressed under Erdoğan’s rule that jailed political opponents and civil-society leaders.
While the failures of the government authorities in earthquake response became a vulnerability for Erdoğan, “many residents still in the disaster zone say they are waiting for basic services such as electricity and water, and for supplies like food and sanitation products,” says the WSJ.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, admitted that they were insufficient in the first day’s response to the earthquake because “the scale of the disaster was too much for any government to handle”, but he said that, after the first day, the government mobilised the full extent of its resources. Government officials argue that all services in the disaster area are adequate, yet the country’s interior minister only a day ago called on citizens to donate tea, sugar, and slippers to earthquake victims.
In fact, when many frustrated earthquake survivors in Hatay, one of the provinces that suffered the most and received aid the least, recently announced and protested on social media that there was no clean water in the region, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that the claim was an organised effort of speculation, adding that there was no lack of clean water in Hatay, and the “necessary criminal complaints” were made regarding the social media accounts that produce the claim.
The economic crisis as a result of the government’s low-interest policy
The devastating earthquakes had additional negative effects on the country’s already-slowing economy as well. The total cost of the disaster is $84.1 million, Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation estimate.
“The next government, whoever forms it, must face the worst inflation in decades and a record trade deficit,” says the Spectator. Economists forecast that before any hope of recovery, the Turkish economy will only get worse because of its structural weakness.
“Guided by Erdogan’s unorthodox belief that high-interest rates fuel inflation – although economic textbooks say the opposite is true – Turkey’s central bank has kept interest rates artificially low since 2018,” explains Bloomberg. “The side effects of that policy, which have included soaring inflation, a weak currency and dwindling appeal for lira-denominated instruments, have sent foreigners running,” it added.
However, with the opposition leader’s promise to reverse Erdogan’s policies, investors may see “lots of potential in Turkey’s long-shunned bond market, if only Erdoğan loses an election for the first time in 20 years,” reports Bloomberg, citing a senior official from one of the world’s largest investment companies with 30 million investors.
Meanwhile, analysts also agree that Erdoğan will try to find a way to improve the economic conditions in the country, albeit for a short time, until the election.
The financial aid sent to Turkey by the Gulf countries, especially by Saudi Arabia, was used to reduce the impact of Erdoğan’s low-interest policy, rather than being spent on the earthquake zone, Borzou Daragahi claims in his Monday article for the Independent.
Stating that some autocratic regimes, including Russia, clustered around Erdoğan trying to influence the election results, Daragahi urged Western countries to step up. “While it could be risky to use their economic and diplomatic power to benefit the opposition, they can and should act to prevent other nations from meddling,” he writes.
The 1999 İzmit earthquake and Erdoğan’s rise to power
The 1999 İzmit earthquake, one of the biggest disasters in the modern history of Turkey, had an impact on Erdoğan’s power-building process that would enable him to come to power in the 2002 elections.
After the earthquake that affected seven provinces in Turkey’s northwestern Marmara region, with over 18,000 deaths and nearly 6,000 missing people according to the official figures, the government of the time was heavily criticised for its failed response and the officials of the time accepted the inability of the state.
“Many people felt abandoned by a paternalistic government. Turkish intellectuals and activists formed and bolstered their own civil society organisations aimed at helping one another through all manner of difficulties,” explains the New York Times.
After his rise to power in 2002, which was paralleled by a surge in civic activity among the people who were frustrated by the government’s incompetence and destructive policies, Erdoğan would gradually insulate himself from the political competition, according to the New York Times:
“Bit by bit, destroy the independence of institutions, civil society, the media. Drain the legislature of its oversight power. Bend the judiciary to your will. Use the law to remove popular competitors from the playing field of politics. Slowly, then all at once, you are the only person who can win an election.”
Erdoğan’s Islamist-based AKP, which aimed to centralise power during its two decades, moved Turkey away from its secular line and replaced the parliamentary system of the government that has existed since the establishment of Turkey with a presidential system, which many describe as a “one-man rule”, which actually created its own vulnerability. “If the president controls all the levers of power, who else can he blame when the response to a disaster goes awry” said Lydia Polgreen in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
In the meantime, Kılıçdaroğlu of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), who has reformed his own party into “more closely aligned with European social democrat values” over the years according to EURACTIV, represents the polar opposite of Erdoğan with his promise of returning the country to its parliamentary system and decentralising power.
“Erdoğan came to power on the back of the 1999 earthquake and ensuing economic crisis. The 6 February quake was at least twice as deadly and the current economic crisis is worse than that of the early 2000s,” the Spectator writes. “The same factors that helped Erdoğan win the elections 21 years ago, could bring him crashing down in May.”
Kurds play a kingmaker role
However, Erdoğan’s political fate still remains uncertain, and although the situation does not look very bright for him in recent polls, there are also some analysts pointing to Erdoğan’s ability to regain his popularity in the two months leading up to the election.
According to the New York Times, AKP’s foreign policy and Erdoğan’s friends on the global stage can also be a protector for him. “Turkey is a NATO member that nevertheless has warming ties with Russia, making it a crucial and sometimes frustrating player in the Ukraine crisis,” the newspaper says.
The Spectator, noting that both sides needed the support of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, who constitute more than 15 percent of the votes, to win the election, pointed out the importance of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is currently the third-largest party in the parliament, supported by the vast majority of Kurds.
“Their support for Erdoğan is highly unlikely: the party has faced constant persecution, with dozens of their mayors removed from office and hundreds of party members imprisoned,” the Spectator says.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Constitutional Court is yet to decide on an ongoing case against HDP where prosecutors demand the closure of the party and the banning of almost 500 members.
However, HDP’s decision on whether to field their own presidential candidate or support the CHP leader will be made after the party’s meeting with the main opposition leader.
After Kılıçdaroğlu announced his candidacy, HDP’s co-chair Mithat Sancar said that his party was ready to support a joint presidential candidate, if an agreement on a roadmap for Turkey’s democratic transformation could be achieved. On Monday, Kılıçdaroğlu confirmed his plans to meet with senior officials of the country’s pro-Kurdish party.
“The elections in May, assuming they are allowed to proceed freely and fairly, could offer another rare chance for the Turkish people to try again,” writes the New York Times.