Will Turkey’s Earthquakes Bring Down Erdogan?

February 19, 2023 Topic: Turkey Region: Middle East Tags: TurkeyEarthquakeAKPRecep Tayyip ErdoganErdogan

Will Turkey’s Earthquakes Bring Down Erdogan?

With a Turkish economy in dire straits and an upcoming election, whether Erdogan receives American aid or not will determine his political survival.

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes which have struck southeastern Turkey, a major cover-up operation has been set in motion to save President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reputation. Construction, rather than production, has long been the hallmark of Erdogan’s rule. And like in Jericho, the walls have come tumbling down. With an economy in freefall and a general election scheduled to happen later this year, Erdogans fate may now be in the hands of the United States.

A Fragile Economy

As far back as March 2014, economic analyst Jesse Colombo warned in Forbes that Turkey’s bubble economy, predicated on a combination of foreign “hot money” inflows and ultra-low interest rates, was heading for a bust. A government-driven infrastructure boom led not only to new roads, bridges, high-speed trains, airports, hospitals, and schools, but also to residential buildings, skyscrapers, malls, and hotels.

The Turkish lira has only been kept from collapse by swap deals—with countries like Qatar, China, South Korea, and the Emirates—but also backdoor interventions. At the same time, Turkey’s burgeoning current account deficit has been reduced by unaccountable capital inflows registered as “net errors and omissions.”

The Walls Come Down...

Two days after the earthquakes, the Istanbul stock market was closed after the benchmark index went into freefall. It has now been reopened to make up for the losses. The government has also instructed private pension funds to increase their holdings of Turkish stocks from 10 to 30 percent to prop up the stock market.

On his visit to the earthquake-stricken zone, Erdogan was already on the defensive. While admitting to “shortcomings” in the government’s response, he preempted criticism by stating, “I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.”

The pattern of collapsed buildings in the earthquake zone reveals an underlying instability. This is supported by evidence that, before the 2018 general elections, which elected Erdogan as president, almost 295,000 buildings in the affected provinces were exempted from adherence to construction regulations. In all, this construction amnesty was extended to 3.1 million buildings throughout the country.

Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, noted that the state has granted an amnesty to 317,000 buildings in the megacity, so there are now 90,000 buildings that are at risk of collapsing in the event of a major earthquake. This is likely, as Istanbul is in the North Anatolian Fault Zone as opposed to the East Anatolian Fault Zone, where the recent earthquakes have taken place. 

Earthquake damage is not inevitable, nor must it be as destructive. Four hospitals in the earthquake areas escaped damage because seismic isolation devices were used during construction. These devices, costing around $4,000 each, would have made a significant difference had they been installed in other buildings before the earthquakes.

Taking Responsibility

There are two leading questions that are being asked. First, what has happened to the earthquake taxes, officially estimated at 88 billion lira ($4.6 billion), collected since the last major earthquake in 1999, to prevent the present devastation? Erdogan has proved evasive on this issue. And second, who bears the responsibility for the failure to adhere to building codes?

Here, the buck stops with Erdogan, as a video has surfaced where the president boasts about the construction amnesty granted for buildings in the earthquake’s epicenter, Karahmanmaras. In an attempt to shift the blame, the Earthquake Crimes Investigations Bureaus have been established, which so far have resulted in legal action against 134 suspects, mainly contractors.

As for Erdogan, he has claimed that 98 percent of the buildings that collapsed were built before 1999—i.e., before the previous earthquake, and therefore, the responsibility of the previous government. However, data shows that at least half of the collapsed buildings were built after 2001. Additionally, a video shows that buildings close to the epicenter were built in 2004, two years after the AKP government came to power.

America to the Rescue?

As well as sending two Urban Search and Rescue Teams and a Disaster Assistance Response Team, the United States has also instructed an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, to move toward Turkey in case there is a need for additional assistance. In nationalist circles, this has met with a negative response, which has been echoed by Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit Turkey and will meet with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara. The issue of U.S. aid for the reconstruction of the earthquake zone could well arise, at which point, it will be a question of striking a balance between humanitarian aid and ensuring the survival of Erdogan’s regime.

Robert Ellis is an international advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies in Athens.

Image: Shutterstock.