Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has hit out at critics while making a rare admission of shortcomings as he responded to rising disquiet over his government’s response to this week’s devastating earthquake.
Erdoğan also used the visit on Wednesday to the shattered city of Kahramanmaraş, near the epicentre of Monday’s quake, to berate those he accused of taking advantage of the disaster to push their own causes. Such rhetoric laid bare his challenge of maintaining public support during one of the country’s worst natural disasters, just three months before elections that were already set to be his toughest in two decades in power.
“I don’t want you to give the provocateurs an opportunity,” Erdoğan said as he toured the region ravaged by two major tremors, which killed more than 15,000 people in Turkey and neighbouring Syria. “The media [should] not give them an opportunity . . . Now’s the time for unity, for solidarity.”
Erdoğan oversaw a period of economic prosperity in the early part of his presidency, but he has tilted towards a more authoritarian stance since mass protests in 2013 and a coup attempt three years later. In recent years, journalists have been jailed and civil liberties have been curbed as the Turkish president has tightened his grip on state institutions.
May’s presidential and parliamentary elections are one of the few opportunities that his opponents — who for the first time have formed an alliance to take him on — have to change the balance.
In a sign of the tensions, Twitter, a popular medium to vent anti-government frustrations, was disrupted for seven hours on the day of Erdoğan’s visit to the quake-hit region, according to internet monitor Netblocks.
The president’s popularity was sagging before disaster struck, as the country faced a severe cost of living crisis, which economists said had been inflamed by unconventional economic policies pursued by his government and the central bank.
What happens next depends on how the 68-year-old leader’s response to the deepening crisis is perceived by the voting public. Analysts offered mixed views on whether the tumultuous events would hurt or improve Erdoğan’s election prospects.
“Given the magnitude of the disaster, the response has been swift and fairly robust,” said Emre Peker, Europe director at the Eurasia Group think-tank. “If this level of intensity in the response can be maintained, then Erdoğan stands to benefit in the lead-up to the elections.”
But Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based think-tank Tepav, countered that “people are miserable and they tend to vote for change when they’re miserable”, citing both the quake and scorching inflation. He thought the government would try to postpone the election, in part because of the logistical challenges of collecting votes in heavily damaged regions.
Turkish opposition parties have already latched on to the quake and its response, seeking an opportunity to criticise the president. “If someone is chiefly responsible for this it’s Erdoğan,” said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the biggest opposition Republican People’s party (CHP). “Over 20 years, this government has not prepared the country for an earthquake.”
The disaster will probably curtail election campaigning as the focus switches to finding and looking after survivors, clearing rubble and rebuilding infrastructure. Already, the alliance of opposition parties led by the CHP has postponed its meeting next week when it was expected to announce its challenger to Erdoğan.
A three-month state of emergency declared by Erdoğan in the affected regions — which gives the government sweeping powers and which he previously deployed following the 2016 coup attempt — could also play into the president’s hands.
Peker said it gave him “an expanded platform to showcase his strength and burnish his image as Turkey’s ultimate, inevitable leader.”
“We will not recognise emergency rule if its powers are abused,” said Gökçe Gökçen, CHP deputy chair. Erdoğan initially snubbed mayors of opposition-run cities inside the quake zone, and the central government blocked an aid convoy from the CHP-run Istanbul municipality because all assistance was to be co-ordinated by the state disaster-relief agency, Gökçen said.
“Had they said, ‘You can help, send your personnel,’ then aid could have reached Hatay seven or eight hours sooner,” she said, referring to one of worst-hit provinces.
Wolfango Piccoli, political analyst at Teneo, said Erdogan’s initial decision not to call opposition mayors was a mistake, adding that “trying to score political points after people died does not play well”. A tweet from the president’s office about nine hours after the quake hit said he had spoken with the CHP mayor of Hatay’s biggest city.
Koru said there was a “whole perception war playing out” in the media over the quake, highlighting the deep divide over the government’s response.
Analysts agreed that Erdoğan would be judged by comparisons to the response to the 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000 people. A coalition that governed then was widely criticised for rejecting international help and giving opaque updates.
In contrast, Erdoğan has showed “strong, visible and relatively transparent leadership, and quick mobilisation of all available resources and did not make this an issue of pride and immediately accepted and facilitated international aid”, Peker said. He said the government’s move to launch a TL100bn ($5.3bn) support package shows “better co-ordination” than in 1999.
Yet in a reminder of how important Erdoğan’s response is ahead of the vote, Piccoli also cautioned that any “mistakes would be costly”.