Earthquake Repercussions Could Cost Erdogan


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan | Image by Siarhei Liudkevich, Shutterstock

Amid staggering damage-related costs in the tens of billions and a formidable opponent announcing his presidential bid, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces significant hurdles to stay in power.

On February 6, southern Turkey and northern Syria were struck by two catastrophic earthquakes measuring 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, The Dallas Express reported. These were followed by over 7,500 aftershocks and two additional earthquakes, leaving a death toll of approximately 50,000 people, millions homeless, and 214,000 buildings collapsed or about to do so, per the Deutsche Welle.

In Turkey, the World Bank has assessed the immediate damage caused by the quakes at $34.2 billion, or roughly 4% of the country’s GDP. However, its report released in late February notes that the actual costs might very well double and the GDP is expected to drop in light of the disruptions to the economy caused by the national disaster.

For their part, the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation (TEBC) has estimated costs at $84.1 billion, with the majority of the expense being allocated towards housing, accounting for $70.8 billion. Moreover, the lost national income is estimated at $10.4 billion, and the cost of lost working days is $2.91 billion.

Casting further dark clouds on the situation, Turkey’s economy was already experiencing a slowdown, high inflation, and a currency crisis before the earthquakes struck.

The government’s 2023 budget had projected an increase in spending, resulting in a deficit of 659.6 billion Turkish Liras (approximately $34.9 billion), per TEBC. Considering the estimated costs and economic disruptions, the TEBC expects the budget deficit to exceed at least 1 trillion TL (approximately $52.7 billion) and the ratio of budget deficit to national income to be above 5.4%.

At the same time, analysts report, per CNN, that Turkey’s fiscal position is good, and Erdogan has implemented around a 55% increase in the national minimum wage and cheaper housing loans.

Nonetheless, these economic challenges are expected to play a crucial role in shaping the outcomes of the upcoming Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections this May.

It is worth noting that the provinces that were most severely impacted by the earthquake had previously voted for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party — conservative and rooted in Islamism — in the 2018 elections. These provinces, which represent some of the poorest areas in the country, are a significant concern for Erdogan, as they may play a critical role in shaping the country’s political landscape in the coming months.

Before the earthquake, President Erdogan’s approval rating was already low, as a survey conducted by the Turkish research firm MetroPOLL showed. Over 50% of respondents in December disapproved of the president’s job performance. A separate poll conducted a month earlier also revealed that a slim majority of people would not support Erdogan if an election were held that day.

On March 6, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from Turkey’s secular and center-left Republican People’s Party announced that he would be running for president, per CNN.

Experts are split on whether Kilicdaroglu can effectively challenge Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for two decades.

The opposition — a coalition of multiple parties with differing ideologies — has already been criticized for taking so long to choose a candidate to run against Erdogan. Some might hesitate to vote for Kilicdaroglu if they doubt how well the coalition would actually function in government.

As Ozer Sencar, chairman of MetroPOLL, told CNN, the polls seem to lean in favor of Erdogan.

“After the earthquake, Erdogan’s popularity decreased by only 1 point, while Kilicdaroglu’s popularity decreased by 5 points.”

Whatever the result, the race is expected to be tight as Turkish voters choose between two candidates representing two very different ideologies.

“It will be a referendum between democracy and autocracy, not an election between two candidates,” Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul, told CNN.

“Erdogan is the shopkeeper, Kilicdaroglu is the bureaucrat,” Somer summarized.

“[The election in May] will be an epic story,” Somer concluded.

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