In the beautifully designed Hamamonu hang-out just a few minutes’ walk from the city centre of Ankara, with its bustling stores known for serving authentic, traditional Turkish breakfasts, the political debate grows louder around a table on a freezing winter morning.
Arslan Turan (42) and his friends are sipping Turkish tea and discussing a recently published opinion poll that suggests a 4.8 per cent drop in the vote for the ruling centre-right Justice and Development Party, officially abbreviated as AK Party, and also the nerve-wracking negotiations between opposition parties to choose a joint candidate to take on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Although the February 6 earthquake, which killed at least 50,000 people and directly affected 15 million, has left all of Türkiye in mourning, it has not prevented vigorous political debate and discussion about the outcome of presidential and parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June. But in order to outmanoeuvre the opposition, which battled hard to find a joint candidate, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced May 14 as date of the election, ahead of schedule.
After days of intense negotiations, the six opposition parties finally chose the main opposition centrist left Republican People’s Party (CHP) President Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their presidential candidate.
Even before the quake, the world had been eagerly awaiting the outcome of these elections, as they are linked to the political fate of Erdogan, who has ruled the country since 2003, first as Prime Minister and then as President. (The AK Party came to power in 2002, but Erdogan became Prime Minister a year later. Although he led the party to victory, he had been disqualified to take any public post. It took a year to resend his disqualification.)
Earlier a key member of the opposition coalition, the leader of Turkiye’s rightwing Good Party (IYI), Meral Aksener had announced to leave the alliance for choosing Kilicdaroglu as its candidate. She had expressed her preference for Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, or the high-profile mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu.
Kilicdaroglu, an unassuming 74-year-old former bureaucrat nicknamed Turkish Gandhi for his slender stature and humble style, was seen as lacking the ability to pose a real challenge to strongman Erdogan. (Aksener returned to the alliance after she was promised that Yavas and Imamoglu would be appointed as vice presidents and her party would be given more seats in parliament.)
Born in the Nazımiye district of Tunceli province in eastern Turkiye, 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a retired civil servant who has led the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010. He was elected to parliament in the 2002 general elections and became the CHP’s parliamentary group leader. He is believed to be of Alevi descent, a breakaway sect from Shiism. Incidentally, Syria’s Bashar Hafez al-Assad also belongs to this sect. A graduate of Gazi University in Ankara, he has also taught at the college, chaired the special commission on the informal economy, and drafted the Eighth Five-Year Development Plan. Citing Turkiye’s economic burden, he has supported the return of Syrian refugees. In 2017, he led a march from Ankara to Istanbul, a distance of 432 km on foot, to fight against what he called the rise of illiberal populism and stand united in defence of democratic values.
Writing in The Guardian, he said: “The new authoritarianism in Turkiye is characterised by a parliament that has limited legislative powers, newspapers that misrepresent the facts and often become government-sponsored megaphones that slander any opposition, courts that merely rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere, and expensive government rallies sponsored by state funds.” He added: “Dictators learn from each other. They conspire together against democracies. They ruin their countries and force their people to seek refuge abroad. How should liberal democrats respond? We need to develop new democratic means and exchange them internationally to challenge the power of illiberal populists and the new generation of dictators.”
Erdogan had recorded a 2.4 per cent increase in the popular vote in the last quarter of 2022 in December after announcing economic relief for the working class, particularly by raising minimum wages. But after the earthquake, the situation looks bleak. His supporters point out that the AK Party is still in the lead with 32.1 per cent of the vote, while the main opposition party, the centrist-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), is far behind, with 27.3 per cent of the vote.
In a bid to salvage his political fortunes, the 69-year-old Erdogan has so far made three whirlwind tours of the 11 affected provinces, promising swift reconstruction and punishment for contractors who skirted regulations.
“After the completion of debris removal, we will start reconstruction and revitalisation of our region,” Erdogan told the media during a visit to Elbistan district in Kahramanmaras province. He promised the construction of 3,09,000 houses, including village houses, and relocation of many localities to hard surfaces without affecting demography and culture in Kahramanmaras, Adana, Adiyaman, Diyarbakir, Elazig, Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, Malatya, Osmaniye, and Sanliurfa provinces. Work on the construction of 2,53,988 buildings began on March 1. All these houses would be built without charging anything from owners and housing loans would be waived, he said.
ALSO READ: ‘It looked like a nuclear bomb had been dropped’
Of the 612 persons suspected of corrupt building practices identified so far, 184 have been arrested, 55 are in police custody, and 214 have been released on bail, according to Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. Among those arrested is Okkes Kavak, the Mayor of Nurdagi, one of the hardest-hit districts in Gaziantep. According to the World Bank, the construction of buildings and infrastructure alone will cost $34 billion, which is 4 per cent of Türkiye’s GDP. While adding economic loss and capital expenditure, the figures would be doubled, said Ajay Chhibber, who served as Country Director of World Bank in Türkiye during the 1999 earthquake and was part of rehabilitation efforts.
Analysts say the catastrophic 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Kocaeli province in August 1999 was what helped Erdogan politically and took his newly formed AK Party to victory in the 2002 election. That quake, whose epicentre was in Izmit near Istanbul, killed as many as 18,000 people. He fuelled public euphoria by exploiting the mismanagement, clumsy and slow response, and corruption charges against the then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and his army-backed Democratic Left Party.
Earthquake behind victory
“The whole mess made Turks angry with the established parties. In 2002, citizens voted in droves for the AK Party, which won the election and has remained in power ever since,” recalled Mehmet Ozturk, a leading Turkish journalist. When Erdogan came to power, one of his promises was to increase building safety. “Buildings kill, not earthquakes,” he had said in 2003.
An interesting parallel: The 2001 earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat, which killed 20,000 people, also forced Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel to vacate his post for Narendra Modi within months while facing similar charges.
The anthropologist Edward Simpson, in his book The Political Biography of an Earthquake, claims that the disaster offered Modi not only the post of Chief Minister but also the opportunity to strengthen his position in the BJP. In 2014 he took over as the Prime Minister and has never looked back.
Author Stephen Kinzer says Turkish history can be divided into two periods: before the Izmet earthquake and after it. “The earthquake caused millions of Turks to question institutions they had never questioned before and to accept the need for change they had resisted for years,” he writes in his book Crescent and Star: Türkiye Between Two Worlds.
Regardless of whether the earthquake in south-eastern Türkiye seals Erdogan’s fate, analysts agree that his departure will turn many things upside down in the region, given the aura and profile he has built for himself by extending Turkish influence into Central Asia, Africa, and even faraway South America, aside from his direct interference in Syria and his recent role as a mediator between the West and Russia in the Ukraine war. The country became a major provider of humanitarian aid to the world. In 2021, the outgoing humanitarian aid totalled $5.5 billion, second only to the US in real terms, aimed at expanding interests to different regions.
Under the amended constitution, a successful presidential candidate must receive 50 per cent plus one vote. If no candidate reaches the required number of votes, a second round of voting will take place between the two leading candidates. Since neither the AK Party nor the CHP is likely to reach that figure on its own, everything depends on the political combinations they can bring in to broaden the voter base.
Political landscape of Türkiye
While 120 political parties are vying for the 600 seats in parliament, a dozen parties plan to fight for the presidency under the umbrella of two major alliances. They are the ruling four-party alliance Cumhur Ittifaki, or Democratic Alliance (DA), led by the AK Party, and the six-party opposition alliance Millet Ittifaki, or National Alliance (NA), led by the CHP, which is the founder of the republic and has ruled for most of the past 100 years.
Türkiye adopted the parliamentary system when it was declared a republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. But at the height of his popularity following the suppression of the military coup in July 2016, Erdogan switched to the US-style presidential system through a referendum. The opposition has promised to return to the parliamentary system if and when they assume power.
The AK Party emerged from the Islamist Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) of Necmettin Erbakan, who became Prime Minister in 1996. However, he was forced out of office by the Turkish military in 1997. Since the Islamists were not allowed to participate in politics, the AK Party took a centre-right position under Erdogan. Other members of the governing alliance include the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of the right-wing nationalist Devlet Bahceli; the Great Unity Party of the right-wing Islamist Musfata Destici; and the Patriotic Party, or Vatan Partisi (VP) of the left-wing nationalist Dogu Perincek.
The CHP-led opposition alliance includes the centre-right Good Party (IYI), the Democratic Party, the Islamist Saadet Partisi, the Democracy and Entrepreneurship Party (DEVA) of former Finance Minister Ali Babacan, and the centre-right Future Party of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Babacan, who worked under Erdogan in his early years, is credited with drafting and implementing massive economic reforms that led to economic change, growth and prosperity in Türkiye. He also served as Foreign Minister from August 2007 to May 2009.
Islamist Saadet Partisi leader Temel Karamollaoglu played an important role in keeping the opposition united and finally choosing a joint candidate. Saadet Partisi also emerged from Refah Partisi or Erbakan.
According to opinion polls conducted by different agencies after the earthquake, the opposition NA vote tally has reached 46.6 per cent, while the vote share of the ruling DA has shrunk to around 40 per cent. But AK Party still commands the maximum share of votes as an individual party.
Another important party is the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party, abbreviated officially as HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi). It does not belong to any alliance, has 56 members in the current parliament and commands 12 per cent of the popular vote. It has announced that it will run its own candidate in the presidential election as it has problems with both the AK Party and the CHP-led alliances over their stance on the Kurdish issue. If the election goes to the second round, the HDP’s support will be crucial in deciding the winning candidate. Its popular leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in prison since 2016.
Even as the opposition alliance has been struggling over past two years to find a suitable candidate, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a member of the CHP, was seen as the favourite to take on Erdogan. But to clip his wings, a lower court recently sentenced him to two years in prison for allegedly insulting members of the election commission in 2019. However, the higher court suspended the sentence in what analysts said was a brazen attempt to get him off the hook. He was also accused of manipulating a public tender during his tenure in the municipality of Beylikduzu, which he denied.
“It looks like a repeat of what happened to Erdogan when he was Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. After being impeached and imprisoned then, he received sympathy and public support. This not only raised his profile but also paved the way for him to become one of the country’s most powerful politicians after Ataturk,” Ozturk said. In 2019, AK Party lost local elections in 11 major cities, including Istanbul, where Ekrem Imamoglu emerged victorious.
Besides Imamoglu, other names debated by the opposition included the CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, CHP’s Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Iyi (Good) Party leader Meral Aksener.
Economic problems and the rise of the dollar against the Turkish lira were already weighing heavily against Erdogan. The earthquake has cast another shadow over his political fortunes. Recently, he tried to reach out to the middle class by raising the minimum wage to 8,506 liras, roughly $445. After the earthquake, he banned companies from announcing layoffs.
Almost everyone in Türkiye attributes Erdogan’s sustained run of success since 2003, first as Prime Minister and twice as President, to economic progress that increased per capita income and brought the entire population into the social safety net, not to his ideological agenda. A dollar would cost a million lira in the pre-Erdogan era. Through sustained economic reforms, he brought it down to four liras until 2019. After the pandemic, it has grown to 19 liras. Using a socialist-capitalist combination model, Erdogan introduced the social safety net, in which hospitals have to to provide free services and employers have to provide one meal a day to their employees. Elderly people are offered free bread and transportation, and younger people are offered free education and unemployment benefits for a year and a half after graduation.
Türkiye steadily increased healthcare spending to 4.3 per cent of GDP over the past seven years, resulting in a network of hospitals, back-end industries, and family clinics in every locality.
Between 2003 and 2013, per capita income increased from $4,739 to $12,582. Although the economy slowed thereafter, manufacturing, exports, defence, and tourism continued to generate money. The country became a major player in defence exports, especially military drones and corvettes.
ALSO READ:International community ignores quake-hit Syria
Negotiations to join the European Union, which have since stalled, also led to various reforms such as the devolution of powers to local authorities and the development of a world-class transport system besides other infrastructure.
According to Ozturk, the challenge before Erdogan is to retain control of Anadolu (Anatolia), the so-called Asia Minor region of Türkiye, which formed his electoral backbone. During his tenure, this region, considered impoverished, received his greatest attention. Other regions of Türkiye include Karadeniz on the Black Sea coast, Akadeniz on the Mediterranean, and Trakya, or Thrace, which is part of Europe. The CHP has a strong base in Akadeniz and Trakya, stretching from Istanbul to Antalya.
Another feature that contributed to Erdogan’s profile was the ending of military interference in politics. In the past six decades, Türkiye experienced seven major military interventions.
According to author Saim Kurubas, Erdogan placed the military chain of command under the Defence Ministry. In addition, two seats reserved for military judges on the 17-member constitutional court were abolished. The constitution was amended to scrap martial law, which the military elite had abused to challenge civilian rule four times since the founding of the republic.
Notwithstanding these achievements, analysts believe that Erdogan’s tenure has been accompanied by a concentration of power that has led to an unaccountable system. His crackdown on the opposition at home and in the neighbourhood further stoked tensions. After a failed coup attempt in 2016, thousands of state employees were dismissed or imprisoned.
“Some of the biggest problems with Erdogan’s personalisation of power relate to the economy. His decision to abruptly dismiss three Central bank Governors in the last two and a half years has spooked investors, who are worried about his firm control over monetary policy,” said Seren Selvin, executive director of the Istanbul Political Research Institute (IstanPol)
Young Turks on the street, while acknowledging their country’s progress and transformation over the past two decades, say there is not much left now in Erdogan’s coffers.
Ironically, it was the economy and the Kocaeli earthquake that made Erdogan Türkiye’s longest-serving and most powerful ruler after Ataturk, and now it is again the economy and an earthquake that are contributing to his decline. However, many believe that Erdogan has the ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute to surprise his opponents and that he will secure another term if there is no serious opponent.
Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.
- The February 6 earthquake killed at least 50,000 people and directly affected 15 million in Türkiye.
- President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made three whirlwind tours of the 11 affected provinces.
- May 14 has been announced as the date of the election. Opposition parties have chosen Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their presidential candidate.
- Erdogan recorded 2.4 per cent increase in the popular vote in December 2022.
- 612 persons are suspected of corrupt building practices and 184 have been arrested so far, including Okkes Kavak, Mayor of Nurdagi.
- Reconstruction will cost $34 billion, or 4 per cent of Türkiye’s GDP.
- Opinion polls showed opposition NA vote tally has reached 46.6 per cent, while vote share of ruling DA has shrunk to around 40 per cent.
- Economic problems are already weighing heavily against Erdogan. Türkiye steadily increased healthcare spending to 4.3 per cent of GDP over the past seven years.
- Between 2003 and 2013, Türkiye’s per capita income increased from $4,739 to $12,582.
- Many believe Erdogan has the ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute.