Turkey has been struggling with earthquakes and aftershocks since February 6. The earthquakes have killed more than 40,000 people and destroyed so many buildings that people live in tents, fabric structures, or have moved to other cities. The burden on the Turkish state is enormous since besides dealing with all the repercussions of the earthquakes, the reconstruction of new houses for the victims will require an additional budget.
Meanwhile, general elections had been announced for May 14. It is currently unclear whether the elections will be postponed to their original official date (June 18) or to a later time since the earthquakes will obviously affect Turkey’s political agenda. We should note that all natural and man-made disasters trigger political debates and polarization in every country. In such unwanted and unexpected catastrophes, the responsibility is always on the ruling party as it controls the government. On the other hand, opposition parties mostly use disasters as an opportunity to expose what they see as the government’s weaknesses. Acting together with the government is a very rare occasion.
In Kahramanmaraş, the epicenter of the earthquakes, the rift between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)-led government and six opposition parties increased. The head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s biggest opposition party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, waited only a single day and then he and his party started incessant and severe criticism against the government, primarily targeting the rescue efforts. Since then, the opposition parties, media, NGOs, and electorate have launched a massive anti-government campaign to discredit President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
Their argument is based on the absence of the government and the slow motion of the state agencies which are responsible for rescuing and taking care of victims, namely AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) and Kızılay (Turkish Red Crescent). At the same time, pro-opposition NGOs and platforms acted separately from state agencies to help the people in the affected areas. Their rush to help was appreciated, but there were signals that they also had another agenda: to demonize state agencies.
There were campaigns that called people not to help state agencies, claiming without any evidence that they were corrupt. Some renowned pro-opposition celebrities recorded videos, in which they claimed that only pro-opposition NGOs were working; however, such allegations were not received well by the public as 150,000 emergency personnel were working in the affected areas at the time the accusative videos became viral.
Meanwhile, the government seems to have failed to respond to all the allegations and to propagate its successes. For instance, the fact that not a single building constructed by TOKİ, the state housing agency, collapsed was not mentioned enough in the media. Another detail that was not sufficiently highlighted was that most of the buildings that collapsed were built before the new construction regulations became effective in 1999. What is more, some of the most destroyed districts are administered by opposition mayors yet all blame was diverted to the government.
Turkish government officials, perhaps correctly, accused the opposition of distracting their concentration and motivation on rescue efforts. Particularly, the misleading and false information created chaos in some areas. For instance, when a famous pro-opposition influencer falsely (or deliberately) posted that a dam cracked in Hatay province, rescue operations stopped and people fled the region. Some people were reported to have been killed during the rush.
The AK Party has been ruling the country for the last 20 years and the CHP-led opposition wants to replace it by winning the upcoming elections. The CHP has had some success in mayoral elections through the National Alliance it formed in 2019. Motivated by victory in local elections, the opposition is confident that it can win in the general elections as well, and does not want to miss any wrong governmental policy or disaster to show people that the government is not competent to rule the country.
Previously, during the COVID-19 pandemic and the high inflation period, the opposition was putting pressure on the government. Now, they are putting the earthquake forward as an excuse to push the government into a corner. Actually, before the earthquake, President Erdoğan’s public image had been recovering and polls were showing that he could win the elections. Particularly effective in his comeback had been hiking civil servant and minimum wages to mitigate people’s economic difficulties; freezing the price of basic goods like natural gas, electricity, etc.; and granting early retirement to more than 2 million people.
As expected, opposition parties saw Erdoğan’s moves and panicked. Of course, the opposition is also upset, unsettled by the earthquake, but it is also ready to scrutinize all the government’s actions and efforts, and use them against it. Since the next elections mean the continuation or end of the political life for the majority of the opposition politicians, they are working hard to prevent Erdoğan’s re-election. The problem is that the people following the political parties often become more polarized than the politicians themselves.
The fault lines in the political environment are deliberately broken and widened in order to attract more people to the opposition side. The opposition is keen to utilize the disaster for a clear victory against the People’s Alliance, which consists of the AK Party and the MHP (National Movement Party). To this end, all instruments are used, and all buttons are pressed.
The aftermath of the earthquake
In the aftermath of the earthquakes, nobody has time to fact-check whether the claims and accusations of the opposition against the government are true or not. The Turkish opposition’s apparent goal is to play well in front of a nervous public and convince it that the government must go in the next elections. In the absence of facts, fiction, lies, and baseless allegations take root and can change people’s perceptions.
The Turkish opposition is aware that people are already devastated, and that the damage is incalculable and beyond the capacity of the government. The post-earthquake reality in the affected regions is so bad that even if there were no opposition, there would still be a lot of criticism of the government.
Since the political debates are ongoing and visible, the earthquakes and problems arising from them will undoubtedly affect the general election results in Turkey. Whether it will enable the opposition to take over power and cause the ruling party to lose power is still not clear. However, it is certain that the upcoming election result will have seismic repercussions for the political careers of politicians on either side.
Source: Politics Today