On February 6, 2023, two earthquakes with magnitudes 7.8 and 7.5—the deadliest in Turkey’s history—hit the Syrian-Turkish border. At least 45,000 people died in Turkey. Another 6,000 lives were lost in Syria. The fallout of the catastrophic earthquake came as President Erdogan faces his toughest re-election campaign yet. Despite speculation that Erdogan may postpone the elections, he declared that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the agreed-upon date, May 14th of this year.
Turkey is a central power in the Middle East. After the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, its influence increased in the South Caucasus. Thus, any political shift will have an impact on the political landscape of the region. The Turkish President is known for exploiting crises; how he will be able to manage this current crisis and use it to his advantage is still questionable. This article will analyze the impact of the earthquake on Turkey’s domestic politics amid the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections as Turkey prepares to celebrate the centennial of its foundation as a republic in October 2023.
From Natural to Political Earthquake
An earthquake in 1999 killed nearly 19,000 people in Turkey and exposed the limitations of the social contract between Turkey’s citizens and their paternalistic state. Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of A Sultan in Autumn: Erdogan Faces Turkey’s Uncontainable Forces, writes, “The natural disaster, coupled with an ensuing economic crisis, stoked deep dissatisfaction and spurred the toppling of the secular and often illiberal regimes that had prevailed since the country emerged from the wreck of the Ottoman Empire, in 1922.” Out of the rubble of the earthquake, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AKP took advantage of the failed crisis response of the government and scored victories in the municipal and parliamentary elections. Will the current earthquake have the same effect as that of 1999 and this time oust President Erdogan and his party?
The recent earthquake impacted a poor and conservative population with mixed Sunni, Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds, which may further reduce support for AKP. Thousands of buildings collapsed. The head of the local chamber of architects was even surprised and observed that the buildings were not reinforced with steel.
In 2022, the Turkish President, while commemorating the anniversary of the 1999 earthquake that destroyed parts of the country, hailed his government’s “urban transformation projects” that would shield his people from future earthquakes. “As humans, it is not in our hands to prevent disasters; yet, it is in our hands to take measures against their destructive impacts,” said Erdogan. The Turkish President is now contradicting his own words. Many Turks are complaining that the government was late in sending humanitarian aid to the damaged zones. The Financial Times reports that the AKP loosened tender rules by awarding lucrative public tenders to businessmen close to the party or relatives to senior AKP officials in exchange for media services or funds in social foundations linked to the President’s family. These activities encouraged illegal construction projects and careless building constructions. The public was also angry at the army for failing to mobilize and assist in the search and rescue operations. In response to these criticisms, the Turkish Defense Minister argued that most of the troops are deployed in Syria and Iraq, hence they cannot leave their posts.
Economically speaking, some experts argue that the total cost of the destruction caused by the earthquakes would even reach $84 billion (around 10 percent of the GDP). So far, the Turkish government has allocated a small portion for disaster relief. The government bets that more financial support may arrive from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The question is whether the opposition is able to organize its ranks and take advantage of Erdogan’s vulnerabilities.
The Road to Elections
In 2018, an opposition alliance formed with the goal to oust AKP. The “Nation Alliance” later expanded to include the participation of two AKP breakaway parties. However, its inability to find common ground with the Kurds boosted the “Peoples’ Alliance” formed between AKP and the far-right MHP in the previous elections. On February 28, 2022, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Kemalist Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP) and his long-standing ally Meral Aksener of the center-right Good (Iyi) Party were joined by former AKP and foreign minister Ali Babacan of the DEVA (Democracy and Progress) Party, Ahmet Davutoglu (former AKP Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Future Party) Gultekin Uysal of the Democrat Party and Temel Karamollaoglu of the Saadet Party to sign an interparty agreement. Despite clear ideological divides and differences on issues such as secularism, LGBT rights and the Kurdish issue, the “Table of Six” (as called later) coordinated steps against AKP’s rule and called for the restoration of parliamentary democracy. The country’s third-largest political party, the left-wing and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), due to Iyi’s opposition, was noticeably absent from the joint declaration.
There are key factors that will determine peoples’ voting behavior in Turkey. Citizens of Turkey have a notably different political culture than that of other Middle Eastern countries. For example, some who voted for an X candidate in the presidential elections may not necessarily vote for the same candidate’s party in the parliamentary or municipality elections. Based on the results of the municipality or parliamentary elections, one cannot predict if party candidates have received the same percentage of the votes.
One factor is the frustration of the middle class with Erdogan’s economic mismanagement. A growing number of disgruntled middle-class AKP voters, who were the backbone of the party for the last two decades, may cast their vote for other parties. This middle class originated from the cities Malatya, Ainteb and Marash, known as Anatolian Tigers. Impacted by the earthquakes, these cities have displayed impressive growth records since the 1980s. Their middle-class own a number of key small and medium-sized enterprises in the country.
While foreign policy may not be a crucial factor, the Syrian crisis and the Kurdish issue may determine the votes of the Alevis and the Kurds in the country. The CHP usually enjoys the support of the secular Alevis; its party leader happens to be an Alevi. The CHP started its electoral campaign by vowing to send young Syrian refugees in Turkey back to their homeland. The party also calls for the restoration of diplomatic relations with the government of Bashar al-Assad. While some Turks have concerns about Turkey’s foreign policy orientation and its alienation from the West, others do support the country’s central role in balancing between the West and Russia.
Finally, there’s the issue of nationalism and religion. According to some observers, Turkey is witnessing a significant rise in nationalism, and religion continues to play a crucial role in shaping the public sphere. Even though the younger generation is becoming more secular, the bulk of the country in central Anatolia still is conservative, which is why nationalist parties also adhere to cultural nationalism, thus giving space for religious conservatives to support their political agenda.
From a Fractured to a Unified Opposition
On March 3, cracks emerged in the Turkish opposition when the six opposition parties met to discuss their joint presidential candidate. All except Iyi endorsed Kemal Kilincdaroglu, the leader of the largest opposition party (CHP). However, Aksener the leader of the Iyi Party rejected the endorsement and said that she proposed the names of the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, but none received enough support from the remaining five parties. In a meeting with her party delegates, she argued, “The Table of Six has lost its ability to reflect the will of the nation and its decision.” She said that her party “will not bow to this… and not be a bystander of a scavenger of an outdated policy produced for personal profit.” She accused the head of the CHP of putting his personal ambitions over Turkey and later broke ranks with the opposition.
Kilincdaroglu condemned Aksener’s remarks and said that “there is no room on their table for such language similar to Erdogan’s.” He mentioned that the opposition is seeking to “enlarge” and include other parties, hinting at the possibility of extending a hand to HDP and other leftist parties. Kilincdaroglu and the other opposition parties are well aware that without the Kurdish and the votes of the liberals, they will not have a chance to withstand Erdogan in the presidential elections. A common language should be found with the Kurds and the Kemalists to provide certain concessions and bring HDP to the table without alienating the other opposition parties.
This would be a golden opportunity for President Erdogan. However, on the evening of March 6, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara made a sudden visit to the Iyi Party’s leader and convinced her to come back. A few hours later, she attended the official ceremony of announcing the candidacy of the CHP leader. This was a positive development for those eager to put an end to Erdogan’s rule.
Possible Scenarios as Outcome of Elections
Predicting the outcome of the elections is difficult, given the volatile political situation in Turkey, the political behavior of the people and the regional challenges that may shape or impact the opinion of a segment of the society.
AKP’s alliance with MHP will not guarantee Erdogan a win, given MHP’s weakness; hence, Erdogan may engage in flexibility to attract new votes. In this case, AKP has two choices: ally with Iyi or the HDP. Iyi has announced that it will support the opposition candidate. If AKP approaches the HDP, it will be risky as it will alienate the votes of the nationalists. In return, however, it will win over the votes of the Kurds. Of course, this can be a temporary electoral arrangement as any government in Turkey is not ready to provide concessions to the Kurdish demands. It is also unlikely to form a future coalition government with HDP, given the ideological and foreign policy orientation differences of both parties. However, politics can make the “impossible” possible. Last year, when two HDP MPs visited Beirut, one of the MPs confirmed that HDP is ready for dialogue with the government for purposes beyond elections, arguing that the opposition is also “nationalistic and authoritarian.”
Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu, who has vowed to end corruption and authoritarianism, is eager to win over the swing votes of the Iyi Party, which is now crucial for both the parliamentary and presidential elections. If Kilicdaroglu and CHP create an electoral alliance with HDP, Kurds would become the king-makers. But how would other parties in the opposition react? How would hardline Kemalists in the CHP and Iyi nationalists react? Will Kilicdaroglu provide any political concessions to the Kurds? Or will this be just a tactical move for electoral purposes? There are also risks that President Erdogan will extend the state of emergency in earthquake-hit states. Under such conditions, elections would be neither fair nor free in these states, handing Erdogan a competitive advantage at the polls. Though some would argue that the HDP will cast its votes for the CHP leader over Erdogan, Kilicdarogu must engage in a balancing act so as not to marginalize the Kemalists and nationalists in his alliance.
Millet İttifakının Sayın Genel Başkanlarına, duydukları güven için teşekkür ederim. Şimdi el ele, omuz omuza yürüyeceğimiz uzun bir yolumuz var. Cumhuriyetimizi demokrasiyle taçlandıracağız.
Başlıyoruz!@T_Karamollaoglu @meral_aksener @alibabacan @Ahmet_Davutoglu @DpGultekinUysal pic.twitter.com/ZFN7DMOi0m
— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (@kilicdarogluk) March 6, 2023
Although Turkey’s parliamentary system is not a shining star for democracy, it nevertheless has established a system of checks and balances for years, which Erdogan’s presidential system dismantled. Today, the opposition has a chance to restore the parliamentary system. To do that, it must unify its ranks and show tolerance toward the minorities, mainly the Kurds. Leaders of AKP and CHP will make their moves, but the kingmakers will be the Iyi and HDP. Their swing votes may not only have an impact on the outcome of the elections, but may also shape the future government’s foreign policy orientation toward the West, Russia, South Caucasus and the Middle East.