Turkey after the quake

Turkey after the quake

One very experienced analyst of Turkish affairs commented just after the dramatic earthquake on February 6 that “if the casualties are in the low thousands and the damage is limited, [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan will be able to rally the people around him and play the role of leader/father. If, however, it is much, much worse, he will be sorely tested. There’s a risk that the rage will spiral out of control as we’ll be talking about a situation where even a super-state would be unable to cope. The developments may be very dramatic.” We all now know just how devastating the earthquake actually was; it defies imagination. 

Sure, Erdogan is a political animal who has already demonstrated his ability to show enormous resilience in the face of adversity. But he is also not the Erdogan he was in 2000 and he certainly does not have his finger on the pulse of Turkish society or resonate as much with the average Turk. There’s a definite “imperial” quality to the way that he communicates with the people and interprets the public mood. Given where he spends most of his time and how few regular people he comes into contact with since the 2016 coup attempt and the start of the coronavirus pandemic, this is hardly surprising.

It is still too soon to say whether the earthquake will radically shake up the Turkish political scene as well. Before February 6, however, most level-headed analysts – and even those who wanted nothing more than his political extinction – believed that Erdogan would win the upcoming elections. Why? Because of the complete absence of a convincing and charismatic opponent. The situation has changed now. Everyone agrees that Erdogan will do everything he can to cling to power. He will postpone the elections, find a way for the Kurds and the young not to vote, and make it hard for people in areas hit by the earthquake to cast their ballot. Nothing can be ruled out and everything should be expected.

The opposition and Turkish citizens yearning for change know all this but are unsure about how to react. Their desperation is similar to that of people who learn to live in countries with ostensibly democratic regimes that entrench their power deeper and deeper every year and make an electoral upset as hard as possible. Pessimism and overrating the president’s grip becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the time being, there are many who believe that only a completely devastating earthquake that costs thousands of lives is capable of ousting Erdogan – and what a tragedy that is.

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