The series of earthquakes that shook Türkiye and snuffed out lives has forced President and Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Tayyip Erdoğan to change his electoral tactics. Both the impression from the ruling circles in Ankara and Erdoğan’s recent moves and outbursts suggest that the president is preparing to turn the state’s earthquake repair and reconstruction efforts into an election campaign for the AKP.
This tactic is based almost entirely on communication and propaganda methods that aim to counter the backlash against the problems caused by the earthquake disaster with slogans such as “I will fix it, I will fix it in a year”—slogans that desperate people want to believe.
Reasons for changing tactics
This change of tactics is based on a series of observations in the ruling circles. They can be summarized as follows:
1- Türkiye’s agenda is now the earthquake: Unless there will be some other extreme developments, Türkiye’s political agenda until the elections is now the earthquake; there is no escape from it.
2- Disorganization in earthquake response: AKP was held responsible for AFAD’s unpreparedness and disorganization in the first days of the earthquake and the delayed involvement of the military in search and rescue efforts, despite being ready.
3- “The foreign powers” narrative collapsed: During the earthquake, aid from countries such as Greece, Armenia and Israel, even those to which AKP and MHP voters react, eliminated the possibility of relying on foreign policy animosity.
4- Damage to the AKP organization: The AKP’s provincial and district administrations in the earthquake zone are disorganized. MPs are hesitant to go out in public because of the possible backlash.
5- Deficit in the election budget: Before the earthquake, the wage increases or promises for early retirement, for example, would have been an election investment. But now there is a budget that should be allocated for earthquake repair and reconstruction. It seems that the idea of using this budget as an election propaganda budget is being considered.
Election budget from earthquake repair
On the second day of the earthquake, Erdoğan announced that 100 billion liras from the budget would be used to heal the earthquake wounds. There are problems of governance in the use of the funds allocated from the budget. However, the donation budget does not have these problems. It makes more sense why 86 billion liras, three-quarters of the 115 billion donations made in the One Heart donation campaign, came from the state coffers. This also allows them to circumvent the limitations imposed by the Parliament-approved budget. The total is 215 billion liras.
It is the state’s duty to build housing for earthquake victims. However, in his recent speech, Erdoğan presented this as a project that could only be completed in one year if he was in charge:
“You will allow us one year. Within 1 year, God willing, we will build these permanent houses and settle our citizens. (…) We aim to revive our villages within a year, just like our city centers,” he said in earthquake-stricken Osmaniye.
I won’t even mention here that removing an estimated 230 million tonnes of debris and building permanent housing for hundreds of thousands of citizens within a year is an ambitious promise; I wish it could be done. But Erdoğan implies that the state can only do this if he remains in power, and not otherwise.
The AKP has no other trump card left
Therefore, as soon as tomorrow, Erdoğan will hold groundbreaking ceremonies for permanent housing, inaugurate concrete plants and prefabricated housing facilities in the region, outsource these to companies close to him, if necessary without tender, use public resources, but try to write them off on the AKP’s account.
He will present this to the earthquake zone and the rest of Türkiye as “If anyone can do it, it is me”. This is the new tactic in a nutshell. The slogan “Enough! People will have the word from now on” may have gone out of circulation with the earthquake.
Before the earthquake, the AKP had no story to tell and no trump card to use other than Erdoğan, and Erdoğan had no story to tell other than his past successes. Now the AKP still has no story other than Erdoğan, but Erdoğan has hope to draw from a disaster, and he is preparing to make it come true from the public budget, not the party budget.
Why one year?
Erdoğan’s tactics to emphasis on one year may not be in vain.
First of all, against the six opposition parties’ alliance promise to turn the country around in five years, Erdoğan is setting a short-term target that people will want to believe – even if it is not clear whether he can do it or not. If he can’t do it, there will always be something to blame, another blockage by foreign powers, etc.
Secondly, if, God forbid, the geologists are right and there is another series of earthquakes in the next few months, Erdoğan and his partner, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli may try to postpone the elections acting against the Constitution, arguing that “this is too much.” Just as we should not rule out the possibility that Erdoğan and the AKP’s Bülent Arınç may be playing good cop/bad cop… This could also be a tactic, write it down.
Who is “the rascal, the depraved”?
In the same speech, in Osmaniye, Erdoğan, without naming names, insulted “someone” who, he said, alleged that there were no Red Crescent’s activities in the earthquake zone.
“You, the rascal, the depraved, the reptile” Erdoğan said to this person.
All the media immediately picked up on main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s statement, “We used to see tents of the Red Crescent everywhere, we used to see thousands of tents right after the earthquake. They ruined the Red Crescent, they ruined AFAD“.
AKP’s social media trolls have been frothing at the mouth on social media, targeting Kılıçdaroğlu as if to say, “He got his comeuppance.” However, perhaps realising they had overreached, pro-government websites began to report late at night that the target was Ümit Özdağ, leader of the Victory Party (Zafer Partisi), who had made similar Red Crescent criticisms.
Erdoğan’s earthquake-induced change of tactics in the run-up to the elections is a high-risk endeavor. It is not that he cannot win, but if it backfires after so much disorganization and incompetence, he could lose heavily.
Pressure to media
This risky and assertive strategy, along with the insults and threats of bookkeeping that come with it, is likely to lead to more political pressure on the media.
Okan Konuralp, a member of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), announced that at the February 22 meeting of the council, the AKP-MHP majority was preparing to fine channels and internet broadcasts, particularly Fox TV, HaberTürk, Halk TV, and Tele-1, for showing the shortcomings in the post-earthquake relief efforts and questioning the quality of the buildings.
Yesterday evening, Ekşi Sözlük, a Turkish social media network, was suspended from publishing. Developments point to increasing pressure.