The earthquake might upend more than Turkey’s elections

President Erdogan is trying to control the post-quake narrative, but history suggests Turkey’s trauma might herald a political transformation, writes Yaprak Gürsoy.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Yaprak Gürsoy

Professor of European Politics and Chair of Contemporary Turkish Studies European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science

The impact of the two destructive earthquakes that hit southeast Turkey and northern Syria on February 6 will exceed the number of lives lost – the death toll now stands at more than 50,000 – and the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage caused.

In Turkey, the area affected housed more than 15 million people, roughly 18 per cent of the country’s population – of whom 2.7 million are now homeless. Millions more in Turkey and beyond became witnesses to this tragedy through their relatives and friends. The knowledge that much of the rest of the country lies on earthquake fault lines has led to fear, anger and despair. The natural disaster represents a collective trauma and will clearly have an impact on voters as the country prepares for a general election on May 14.

Trauma as revelation

‘What we call trauma takes place when the very powers that we are convinced will protect us and give us security become our tormentors,’ writes Jenny Edkins in her book Trauma and the Memory of Politics. In that sense, large-scale traumatic events ‘are overwhelming but they are also a revelation’, compelling communities to reconsider the political and social order that gave meaning to their lives.

The political consequences of collective trauma can be felt after decades– as seen in the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War

After the devastation caused by this natural disaster, people affected were let down by institutions supposed to protect them. Thousands of buildings collapsed and buried people. Rescue teams were slow to respond and poorly equipped.

The sense of betrayal was compounded when the focus fell on a 2018 government amnesty that gave legal status to at least 7.4 million sub-standard buildings. New buildings that should have met earthquake regulations turned to dust due to the poor implementation of existing codes.

The political consequences of collective trauma can still be felt decades later – as seen in the recent 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. Although caused by violent terrorist attacks, the assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in September 2001 were nevertheless comparably traumatic for the United States. Within days, the Bush administration labelled its response a ‘War on Terror’.

The focus on security in domestic and foreign policy contributed to the invasion of Iraq, to the re-election of President George W Bush in 2004 and Republican control of Congress until 2007. The attack on the Twin Towers demonstrates how governments can take control and turn people’s reactions into preconceived notions of victims and enemies. In this way, feelings of security can be re-established.

Turkey’s 1999 earthquake led to profound change at home and sweeping changes in foreign policy

By contrast, Turkey’s earthquake of August 1999 eventually led to profound change. That quake, which caused more than 17,000 deaths, provoked a similar sense of betrayal by the political system. Widespread corruption led to buildings crumbling and chaotic rescue efforts. The governing coalition was penalized by the voters and booted out three years later, allowing Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party to rise to power.

There were also sweeping changes in foreign policy. A rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, that had started before the earthquake, was accelerated by Greek relief efforts; these were reciprocated after the Athens quake a month later. Once in power, the AKP government renewed Turkey’s commitment to the European Union agenda following the December 1999 Helsinki Summit which gave Turkey candidate status thanks to Greece lifting its veto.

The May elections

Which way will Turkey vote if the elections on May 14 go ahead as planned?

So far, the Erdogan government is attempting to control the narrative. The earthquake is fate, and the cities will be rebuilt in a year through a reconstruction drive, says the president – a policy inspired by the AKP’s previous model of spurring economic growth. Erdogan has added that anyone who goes against the official account of the state’s response to the devastation is ‘immoral, dishonest and vile’.

While this might galvanize anger among opposition voters, it may garner support from those who believe Erdogan’s stance of strong leadership can restore their lives to pre-quake normality. Even without the government’s encouragement, some voters are falling back on familiar enemies such as the Syrian refugees or foreign powers, for making the situation worse. They stand accused of carving out benefits for themselves in the chaos, or even causing the earthquakes.

Early polls indicate the election will be a close call. Survivors struggling with registration may lower turnout. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition presidential candidate, is just ahead of Erdogan in the polls at the time of writing. His campaign depends on the mutual support of the six parties National Alliance and the backing of others, including the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.

No matter who wins, the new government will face enormous challenges. The World Bank estimates quake damage to be nearly $35 billion – 4 per cent of Turkey’s GDP. It will require at least twice as much to rebuild the cities, it says. Internal displacement, housing crises elsewhere, disruption to education and the closure of local businesses will all affect the economy. This is compounded by high levels of inflation, which peaked at 85.5 per cent in October 2022.

If Erdogan wins the presidential elections with a majority in parliament, the government will face the financial burden of recovery but is likely to continue with its main domestic and foreign policy goals, albeit with concessions.

Thawing relations

International humanitarian missions seem to have thawed frosty relations with Greece, Egypt and others. The European Investment Bank has reversed its lending ban to provide €500 million as part of a €7 billion EU and international package to Turkey and Syria. The United States committed $185 million in February.

It is too soon to say whether these developments will lead to further changes, such as Turkey moving to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO. While Turkey will continue to need international financial help, the West is not the only source, with aid from the Gulf states amounting to $370 million in the first two weeks. A long-term restoration of relations with the West would only occur if Turkey’s relations with Russia and policies in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean changed.

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Should the National Alliance opposition win, it will also have the task of returning the AKP’s presidential system to parliamentarianism. On foreign policy, the National Alliance has been mostly silent – a possible sign that their focus will be on domestic politics. However, the six parties seem to have agreed on renewing EU membership goals and committing to a western orientation while not alienating Russia.

It will take years to know if Turkey will bury the memory of the earthquake or use it to rebuild its politics

A change of government and improved attitudes towards Turkey in foreign capitals make it likely these policy goals will fall into place. The restructuring of internal affairs could lead to a less assertive foreign policy, for example, in the Middle East. After the Arab Spring, the AKP government adopted strong stances even in countries that don’t border Turkey, such as Egypt and Libya.

Turkey faces a huge rebuilding task following the quakes. Given those challenges, the outcome of the elections might only be the prelude to an impending transformation. It will take years to know if Turkey will bury the memory of the earthquake with the rubble or use it to rebuild its politics along with its cities.