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Electoral Implications of Earthquakes in Turkey

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Natural disasters have a unique ability to unite people as a nation. However, if the state is run by a divisive figure, these disasters can tear countries apart. Such may be the reality of Turkey, reeling from the most catastrophic earthquake in its centennial history, right at the precipice of national elections.

Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, has been a contentious player both in domestic and international politics.

At home, he has incrementally tightened his grip on juridical and state institutions, stifled media and civil liberties, and crushed the opposition via unilateral constitutional amendments and extrajudicial arrests of political contenders.

His brand of foreign policy has recently made Turkey a linchpin in global politics. However, Erdogan’s ultra-Islamist views and proximity with authoritarian regimes from the Gulf to Russia have been a constant source of discomfort and outright frustration to the West.

The upcoming poll could either radically change the dynamics in play for the past two decades or reaffirm Erdogan’s legacy of stronghold yet controversial policymaking.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated southern Turkey. Over 160,000 buildingshave been razed while the death toll continues to mount on top of roughly 44,000 confirmed fatalities. Latest United Nations (UN) estimates suggest that around 1.5 million people have been displaced in southern Turkey.

According to the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation, reconstruction costs are expected to converge closer to $84 billion, which include damaged supply chain infrastructure and residential property. The affected area roughly amounts to a tenth of Turkey’s total economic activity.

The United States has been quick to respond with relief efforts. By the end of a brief visit by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, the total US humanitarian aid stacked up to $185 million, according to the State Department.

Yet, Turkey has not deviated from their historical areas of disagreement—at least not ostensibly.

Mr. Erdogan has been a thorn in an otherwise united NATO against Russian aggression in Ukraine. He has refused to sign on the Western sanctions against Russia and has facilitated extensive commerce with the Kremlin despite Western efforts to constrict Putin’s war coffers.

But perhaps the most debilitating is his refusal to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO. According to the NATO Charter, new inductions require the unanimous approval of all 30 member states.

Mr. Erdogan has argued that Sweden and Finland have proved to be a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a nationalistic terrorist organization responsible for staging attacks within Turkey. He has demanded the extradition of PKK activists operating in Finland and Sweden to Turkey to face prosecution. However, US officials believe his posturing is mainly to score support in the general elections, tentatively scheduled for May 14th. Yet, due to Turkey’s strategic importance, the US cannot afford to affront Mr. Erdogan, who carries a peculiar geopolitical sway in these unprecedented times.

Mr. Erdogan enjoys the favor of autocratic leaders from Qatar to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite his earlier row with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) over his alleged involvement in the brutal murder of a dissident Saudi journalist, Mr. Erdogan managed to timely mend ties with the Saudi monarchy to shore up Turkey’s precarious finances. He has also played a pivotal role in the proxy conflict in Syria and therefore enjoys a tripartite relationship with Iran and Russia.

His mediation skills were on full display when he, with the support of the UN, brokered a crucial grain deal between the warring Russia and Ukraine to allow safe routes to Ukrainian food shipments through the blockaded Black Sea to the broader world.

Mr. Erdogan has also proved his mettle in deft diplomacy and wily foreign policy. He has benefited from discounted energy supply from Russia and reaffirmed Turkey’s significance to NATO by refusing membership to Sweden and Finland despite American reservations – all while claiming partnership with the United States.

Unlike his feats in foreign policy, however, Mr. Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies may be a leading threat to his reelection.

Mr. Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, riding the wave of a populist sentiment growing in Turkey. Accordingly, he pursued liberal economic policies to consolidate his political base. By constructing high-rise infrastructure, expediting economic growth, and expanding the Turkish middle class, he fueled a debt bubble to finance investment and sustain economic growth.

Today, Turkey faces roughly $185 billion in external debt payments due in the next 12 months. Foreign investors lost confidence in Turkish companies and have consistently pulled money out of the country since 2018. Consequently, Turkey faces some of the gravest economic indicators.

Annual inflation topped a stratospheric level of 85% in October. The Turkish Lira has lost about 30% of its value against the greenback in the past year, further exacerbating external loan servicing costs, depleting foreign exchange reserves, and aggravating a cost-of-living crisis.

Instead of ensuring stability, however, Mr. Erdogan has compounded uncertainty by insisting on lower interest rates. His counterintuitive approach to sustaining growth and investment has contributed to runaway inflation. And despite inflation cooling down to an annual rate of just under 58% in January, over two-thirds of Turkish households are still struggling to pay for basic necessities.

Mr. Erdogan has fired three central bank governors and slashed the policy rate to 8.5% – a reduction of more than 10% since September 2021. While rate cuts helped sustain GDP growth at 5% last year—after a celebrated post-pandemic rebound at 11% in 2021—hyperinflation has eroded the gains. And according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the devastation induced by the earthquakes could reduce the growth estimate this year by at least a third.

A coalition of six opposition parties is now trying to ride the anti-Erdogan wave by promising conventional economic policies, independence of state institutions, and a reversal of the presidential injunctions by Mr. Erdogan.

Corruption allegations have also been leveled against the Erdogan regime for alleged collusion and illegal provision of construction contracts leading to subpar infrastructure that cratered during the earthquakes. While the investigation and arrests of contractors have picked pace, Mr. Erdogan could potentially face further public distaste heading into elections.

Some US officials are concerned that Mr. Erdogan could even use the tremors as a pretext to postpone elections indefinitely. However, so far, there has been no concrete move in this direction. But according to some anonymous sources from Mr. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, there is a prospect of pushing the elections back to the original June timeline.

Mr. Erdogan could use this time for a rebalancing act. To gain popularity in the guise of unity in face of a calamity. The recent launch of the wage support scheme might be a step in that direction. Ultimately, while public discontent has been on the rise in recent months, his response to the destruction and swift rehabilitation of routine life could prove to be decisive in ensuring his victory as a leader on the ballot.