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Turkey: Erdogan faces difficult elections amid earthquake and inflation


ANKARA, Türkiye — Early in his political career, a devastating earthquake and economic turmoil helped propel Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power in Turkey. Two decades later, similar circumstances put his leadership in jeopardy.

The highly controversial and populist Erdogan is seeking a third consecutive term as president on May 14, after three terms as prime minister, which would extend his rule for a third decade. He is already Turkey’s longest-serving leader.

The presidential and parliamentary elections could be the toughest yet for Erdogan, 69. Most opinion polls point to a slight lead for his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who leads the centre-left secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP. The outcome of the presidential race may well be determined in a runoff on May 28.

Erdogan faces a tough test in this election due to public outrage over rising inflation and his handling of the February 6 earthquake in southern Turkey that killed more than 50 000 people, razed cities and left millions homeless. His political opponents say the government has been slow to respond and that its failure to enforce building codes is to blame for the high death toll.

Some even point to government malfeasance after a 1999 earthquake in northwestern Turkey near the city of Izmit that killed an estimated 18,000 people, claiming that taxes imposed as a result of that disaster were ill-spent and compounded the effects of this year’s earthquake.

The political party founded by Erdogan in 2001 came to power amid an economic crisis and the Izmit earthquake. His Justice and Development Party, or AKP, capitalized on public anger over the government’s mishandling of the disaster, and Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and never gave up leading the country.

Yet even with resentment of Erdogan over his handling of the February earthquake and the economy, analysts warn against his understatement, pointing to his enduring appeal among working-class and middle-class religious voters. middle class who had long felt alienated from Turkey’s secular and Western former government. -leaning elites.

Erdogan’s nationalist policies, his often confrontational stance against the West, and moves that have raised the profile of Islam in the country continue to resonate with conservative supporters. They point to an economic boom in the first half of his reign that lifted many people out of poverty, adding that his past successes are proof of his ability to make a difference.

“There is an economic crisis in Turkey, we cannot deny it. And yes, this economic crisis has had a huge impact on us,” said Sabit Celik, a 38-year-old shopkeeper selling cleaning products in Istanbul. “But still, I don’t think anyone else (apart from Erdogan) can come and fix this.”

“I think our salvation again lies with the (ruling party),” he said.

Many also mention the major infrastructure projects launched during his tenure – highways, bridges, airports, hospitals and low-income housing.

Erdogan himself acknowledged there were shortcomings in the early days of the February earthquake, but insisted the situation was quickly brought under control.

Since then, he has focused his re-election campaign on rebuilding disaster areas, promising to build 319,000 homes within the year. Rally after rally, he touted past projects as proof that only his government can restore the region.

Erdogan announced a series of spending measures to provide temporary relief to those hardest hit by inflation, including raising the minimum wage and pensions, adopting measures to allow some people to take early retirement and by providing assistance to consumers of electricity and natural gas.

It has also focused on the defense sector, increasing production of drones and fighter jets and building an amphibious landing ship that the government describes as “the world’s first drone carrier”.

“When we were a country that couldn’t even produce pins, an unmanned aerial plane flew over our skies the other day,” said Mustafa Agaoglu, another Erdogan supporter in Istanbul. “We now have our warships, our aircraft carriers, our roads, our bridges, our city hospitals.”

Erdogan timed a host of overtures to coincide with the election campaign. Last month, he presided over a ceremony marking the delivery of natural gas from newly discovered Black Sea reserves, offering free gas to households for a month. This week, he announced the discovery of a new oil reserve in the southeast of the country, with a capacity of 100,000 barrels per day.

Suffering from a brief intestinal illness that kept him away for a few days, he took part via video in an event marking the delivery of fuel to Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.

Then on Sunday he said Turkish intelligence teams had killed the leader of the Islamic State group during a special operation in northern Syria – an announcement that seemed intended to bolster his image as a strong leader.

In the upcoming elections, six parties united behind his main opponent, Kilicdaroglu, despite their disparate political views. The coalition, known as the National Alliance, has pledged to reverse democratic backsliding and the crackdown on free speech and dissent under Erdogan, seeking to remove the powerful presidential system he introduced and who concentrates vast authority in his hands.

As in previous years, Erdogan waged a bitter campaign, lashing out at Kilicdaroglu and other opponents. He accused them of colluding with what he calls terrorists. This year, he has also attempted to smear the opposition by claiming they support “deviant” LGBTQ+ rights which he says threaten Turkey’s “sacred family structure”.

On Monday, he described the election as a “choice between two futures”.

“Either we will elect those who take care of the family institution, which is the main pillar of society, or those who have the support of deviant spirits hostile to the family,” Erdogan said.

He has widened his alliance with two nationalist parties to include two smaller Islamist parties demanding amendments to a law protecting women from violence, arguing that it encourages divorce.

Opposition parties are again complaining of an uneven playing field during the campaign, accusing Erdogan of using state resources as well as his government’s overwhelming control over the media.

Some also wonder if Erdogan would agree to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. In 2019, Erdogan contested the results of a local election in Istanbul after his ruling party lost the mayoral seat there, only to suffer an even more embarrassing defeat in a run-off.


Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul contributed.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.