The February 6 Kahramanmaraş double-earthquake not only shook Türkiye with terrible loss of life and destruction. It also upset the political balance and increased economic uncertainty ahead of a critical election.
Politically, President Tayyip Erdoğan and his twenty-odd year old AK Party government have been the most affected by this trauma. Erdoğan has a difficult task and a difficult process ahead of him: on the one hand, to heal the humanitarian and economic wounds of the earthquake as soon as possible, and on the other hand, to try to control the negative impact of these wounds on the upcoming elections. At this critical juncture, it is perhaps more important than ever to try to understand Erdoğan’s game plan.
Let us try to analyze it under a few headings.
Decision on election date
Before the earthquake struck Türkiye, Erdoğan, in consultation with his People’s Alliance partner MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, had announced that the June 18 elections would be held early, on May 14.
On the day the one-week official mourning period after the earthquake ended, Bülent Arınç, one of the founding members of the Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), pointed not to May 14, but to June 18, saying “elections cannot be held under earthquake conditions, they must be postponed.”
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was the first to react to this blatant attempt to probe the ground by saying, “Elections cannot be postponed, don’t run away.”
Kılıçdaroğlu also responded that AKP’s attempt to appeal to the Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) will depend on the announcement of an election date first.
Following the AKP’s February 15 meeting, party spokesperson Ömer Çelik did not embrace the “postponement” scenario, saying that Arınç’s opinion “does not bind” the party.
İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener had previously said that the elections might not be held on May 14 due to the earthquake, but could be held on June 18.
This means that Erdoğan’s first critical decision will be whether to insist on May 14 or keep June 18.
Critical vote balance
The frequency of meetings between Erdoğan and Bahçeli has increased. On December 29, just before the President’s meeting with Bahçeli with roses and cake, a court ruling was issued against Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, which could lead to a political ban.
Erdoğan announced his decision to call early elections on May 14 in January. When the two leaders met on February 2, Türkiye’s agenda was dominated by the December 30 assassination of Sinan Ateş, the former head of the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves, which caused aftershocks in the MHP.
The murder was a critical development that worried the AKP in the run-up to the elections, as they saw their own votes recovering and claimed that the MHP was losing votes.
Nevertheless, some time before the earthquake disaster, the voting power of the People’s Alliance and the Table of Six seemed to be close to each other, but it was understood that neither of them would be able to reach the 50+1 percent required for the presidential election in the first round, except for the influence of the HDP.
“The earthquake changed the whole balance,” an influential AK Party figure commented on this situation; “But how much did it change? Will it be permanent? It is difficult to understand this without field research.”
Impact on the economy
In order to understand the economic damage caused by earthquakes, first the search for earthquake victims and then the debris removal efforts need to accelerate. This work will not be limited to the number of destroyed buildings and damaged infrastructure. There is a chain extending from damaged production facilities to the loss of life and evacuations from the region. Although satellite images and aerial photographs from UAVs will speed up this work, it may take time to reach the critical threshold.
On the other hand, as we have seen in countries such as Japan, Indonesia and Mexico, there can be significant increases in growth figures in the year following major earthquakes. This is mainly due to reconstruction efforts; in other words, again to the construction sector. However, it is difficult for this increase to keep up until the elections.
Erdoğan’s ability to make people believe in the good times ahead under his rule, possibly by emphasizing religion/faith, will be critical here.
Another critical factor will be the attitude of the HDP.
In any case, there are difficult days ahead, not only in humanitarian terms, but also in economic and political terms, and a tough election race.