Criticism of government after earthquake, what consequences does that have for Erdogan?

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President Erdogan (r.) visits the disaster area
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Soon after the devastating earthquake, Turkish President Erdogan was criticized for the sheer number of collapsed buildings and the slow pace of relief efforts. What consequences does this have for Erdogan, with the presidential and parliamentary elections in sight?

“Everyone is looking over his shoulders, at what he is doing and how he is dealing with this disaster,” says Nienke van Heukelingen, Turkey expert at the Clingendael Institute. “Not just residents of the disaster area, people all over Turkey.”

Criticism is particularly prevalent on social media. On Wednesday, the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter, possibly to silence those noises. “Pro-government television channels mainly emphasize national unity. You don’t see or hear criticism from areas where aid came too late,” says Joost Lagendijk, a Turkey expert living in Istanbul.

Erdogan immediately traveled to the disaster area. He admitted that the relief effort was not getting underway quickly enough. According to him, this was because “so many buildings were damaged”. He promised to build hundreds of thousands of new houses, for which “concrete steps will be taken in the coming weeks”.

Construction amnesty

In 1999, more than 17,000 people died in an earthquake in Turkey. Erdogan then said that if he came to power, he would build safe houses. Despite the tightening of building regulations, many new buildings also collapsed last week.

That raises the question of how this could have happened. In recent years, the government has often proved willing to spare contractors if projects do not meet the requirements. The government several times came up with a ‘building amnesty’, whereby contractors only pay a small fine. It brought in a lot of money for the government, but at the expense of the quality of the buildings.

“Videos are now emerging, including from 2019, showing that Erdogan proudly defended that amnesty,” says Van Heukelingen. “With today’s knowledge, he has shot himself in the foot with this. It now appears that it was not a solution at all, but that people are exposed to danger.”

“In a Western European country this would mean the end of the government, you can’t get away with that,” says Lagendijk. “But this is Turkey. Here it is different. At the moment it is very difficult to predict how this will turn out for Erdogan.”

Just before the earthquakes, Erdogan’s AK party was in relatively good shape, after a lesser period. “The opposition did quite well for a while. The ‘Table of Six’, the united opposition parties, did everything they could to put the government and Erdogan aside,” says Van Heukelingen. “But in recent months we have seen the opposition lose that momentum. They have internal problems, such as nominating a presidential candidate.”

According to Lagendijk, it is mainly a matter of waiting to see what the people do who do not yet know who they will vote for. “Whether and how will they be influenced by the critical voices and by what the government says? Those voices will be decisive. It is completely unclear which way it will go. It is too early to say that now.”

Van Heukelingen agrees. “This could turn everything upside down for Erdogan, but if we are very honest: we don’t know that yet. The fact is: his position is wavering more than before the earthquake.”

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