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Will the earthquake shake Erdoğan’s political future?

Turkey was struck by a powerful earthquake on the morning of February 6, 2008. Many people were left homeless or lost their lives in the harsh winter conditions. It is clear that the earthquake was extremely severe. Many agree that the lack professionalism of the AFAD (the government agency charged with responding to disasters) is making matters worse. Search and rescue efforts began only days after the earthquake that struck 10 provinces. The survivors suffered from a lack of shelter, food, and toilets. Cell phones didn’t work. As if all this were not enough, government-controlled media institutions waged a war against non-governmental organizations that wanted to help victims by making up for government inadequacies. Burak Bilgehan Ospek writes that organizational disorder impacted the complicated search and rescue process.

The main topic of discussion in Turkey is the question of administrative capabilities versus state capacity. This debate is now being politicized due to the June elections. The disaster’s effects will not stop at the elections. For many years, it will have a lasting impact on the country’s economic performance, foreign policy paradigm, and sociological structure. It is therefore more pertinent to not only focus on the election’s impact, but also the potential transformation scenarios the country may experience in the medium- and long-term

First, past earthquakes have had a devastating effect on the country’s economy. The Turkish economy suffered a severe blow from the 1999 Golcuk earthquake. While the government tried to resolve the situation, the country was plunged into an economic crisis. The votes of the parties that formed the coalition government plummeted immediately and the AKP, headed by Erdogan, won the majority in parliament necessary to form a government. It was able to take power in 2002. The transformation of Turkey (or lack thereof) was not limited to the change in power.

Turkey became more concerned about the European Union accession processes after the earthquake. EU membership was seen as a way to save the country’s economy from economic collapse. While Turkey didn’t become an EU member right away, it hoped that reforms in the accession process would allow for the capital flow necessary. Thus began an ambitious reform process. These reforms transformed the nature of civil-military relations and helped to expand civil society. These reforms were made before the AKP was formed. After the economic crisis, Kemal Dervis (the famous World Bank economist) was appointed economy minister. Many structural reforms were implemented. Legal regulations were introduced to increase the institutional capacity and autonomy of institutions. Dervis’ reforms were respected and maintained by the AKP government.


Turkey attempted to act rationally in the area of foreign policy. It did not join the war in Iraq, as per the parliament’s decision. Instead, we created a Middle East strategy based on diplomacy and dialogue. After the earthquake, the stability brought by the EU membership process attracted foreign capital. Optimism replaced the political and economic instabilities that followed the earthquake. Turkey has strengthened its role in the Western alliance, improved its relations with Russia and maintained balanced relations with Russia. All of these factors have produced positive economic results. The earthquake caused a series of problems that led to democracy, economic growth, and international cooperation.

With the rise of the authoritarian AKP, this picture was ruined. Erdogan has centralized power in Turkey, limited freedom of expression, political liberty, and brought civil society, media, and universities under his control. Erdogan replaced crony capitalism with a competitive market economy. The economic system was populated by allies, not professionals. The trajectory of foreign policy was anti-Western, conspiratorial and militaristic. Turkey’s departure from the Western alliance led it to establish close relationships with Russia. Turkey added the S-400 missiles to its arsenal, which are incompatible with NATO systems. This was despite the serious objections of NATO, the US, and other NATO countries. Erdogan made a U turn on the Kurdish issue after adopting a militaristic and nationalist language. Erdogan, who tried to make peace with Kurds up until 2015, formed a front with PKK-linked and PKK-linked groups in Syria. He also took a strong stance against the Syrian Democratic Forces (US and EU) which was seen as an important partner in the anti-ISIS coalition.

The economy is now in a serious crisis because of authoritarianism. Inflation has been a problem for the Turkish economy for over a year. The Turkish Lira has seen a significant decline in value against the Dollar and Euro. The country is facing a housing crisis and citizens are becoming more vulnerable. Erdogan has a positive image in the eyes his electorate, particularly those who live in Anatolian conservative cities and are dependent on public resources. He is also appreciated by nationalists who value his position on the Kurdish question. Because of current economic conditions, it is possible to state that Erdogan voters in urban areas and members of the younger generation of conservative families aren’t sure what to do. This gives hope to the opposition. This makes June elections even more important.


We will likely see a similar reaction to 1999 if the opposition wins the elections. Turkey can have the resources it needs through a strong, independent bureaucracy, good relations with the West, rapid reforms, and strong relations with the West. The earthquake’s negative effects on the country could actually be a chance for the future. It is important to think about the possibility that the AKP wins and to discuss potential policy changes.

Although the effects of the earthquake may not be immediately felt by society and the economy, they will likely continue to affect them. Erdogan is currently attempting to rebuild the destroyed buildings and make this a campaign for election. Erdogan organized an aid campaign that was broadcast live on all television channels. He collected about 6 billion dollars from businessmen and government institutions who have prospered under his leadership. This allows for a parallel budget that is not subject to parliamentarian oversight. This will support Erdogan’s rentier economy, which is mainly based on the construction industry. Erdogan and his cronies, in other words, can quickly build houses in the devastated cities. This will reinforce Erdogan’s image as a resourceful leader to the public. They also gain little oversight.

Erdogan is taking advantage of the short time before the elections to his advantage by making extraordinary efforts to preserve the Turkish lira’s value. Erdogan must increase the Turkish debt to foreign countries in order to continue his unconventional economic policy. This policy can only be kept until the next election. Erdogan, if he wins, will have to change this policy and return back to traditional economic policy or the Turkish lira would continue to decline rapidly. This could lead to a halt to growth and an increase in unemployment. Inflation could also be a possibility. The cost of the earthquake-related damage will be much higher than the aid budget. This means that public spending will rise, which will lead to further increases in taxes and inflation. He has so far chosen to increase his debt through international connections. At the moment, his only goal is to win the elections and keep power for another five years before a larger crisis occurs. A crossroads will be inevitable after the elections.

Erdogan will need to make concessions at this stage, even if he wins the elections. Erdogan may have to knock at the IMF’s door to get the resources he requires. He would have to be able to monitor and control the public budget, which would not be ideal. To allow international capital to enter, he must strengthen the institution autonomy and stop insisting on arbitrarily making decisions. This means that a political and legal revolution must begin. Erdogan must also abandon his militarist and security-oriented foreign policy approach and adopt a path that promotes peaceful cooperation. We may see Erdogan win the presidency, but be limited by external constraints. This would result in the collapse of Erdogan’s rent-based coalition, which he had established with many non-state, political and bureaucratic actors over the years. The earthquake has not only shaken the Turkish people, but also the corrupt system Erdogan built.

Burak Bilgehan Ottehan Ozpek is an associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, TOBB University of Economics and Technology.

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