The earthquake that devasted Turkey (and Syria) on 6 February 2023 also coincided with an election year where Erdogan is struggling to maintain his grip on power amidst mounting discomfort over his government’s increasing authoritarianism, economic mismanagement, and rampant allegations of corruption at the municipal level. The recent Twitter outage suggests that the Turkish government is not feeling secure at the moment. Could this disaster be the last nail in his coffin or a respite for his dying regime? I’ll answer this question based on existing research on natural disasters’ effects on incumbent survival.
Disaster could be an electoral bane for the incumbents. The US citizens punish incumbents for natural disasters – even when they cannot be held directly culpable for the mishaps (think not only floods and earthquakes but also flu and shark attacks). The logic for this ‘blind retrospection’ is that someone has to be blamed when a collective misfortune strikes  – and that ‘someone’ becomes the government. Other studies on India and Croatia find that incumbents suffer on the ballot in the aftermath of a disaster , , but one on England finds a null effect, i.e., disaster does not affect the political fortunes of the incumbents . Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the fates of many politicians, including Donald Trump .
Disasters could also be an electoral boon for the incumbents. When incumbents manage the relief and rehabilitation efforts well after the disaster, they win the hearts and minds of the people . This happens when the incumbents successfully divert resources to the affected areas to offset the costs of the disaster  and create a clientelist relationship with the constituency . So, the empirical research presents an ambivalent picture with several confounding factors like partisanship, i.e., whether voters punish or reward the incumbent depends on who is in the government ; timing, i.e., when disaster happens closer to the election date, voters back the incumbents amidst the crisis (like rallying around the flag effect) , and political knowledge, i.e., whether voters can identify different jurisdictions and the respective culprits .
Yet, the summary situation is that (1) incumbents often face the wrath of the public when the disaster strikes, and (2) when the public successfully identifies who to blame (municipal, provincial/state, national leaders) for unpreparedness and botched response, but (2) the incumbents can offset these reactions by diverting resources to the disaster area and providing the best relief and rehabilitation services.
Now situation that Erdogan faces is interesting. One of the factors in his ascent to power was the not-so-impressive response of the Bülent Ecevit’s government to the 1999 Gölcük Earthquake that engulfed more than 18,000 lives by an economic downturn. The general popular opinion seems more adverse than ever due to the political and economic hardship created by his government. The corruption perception at the municipal level – that Erdogan’s party once claimed to eradicate – that oversees the construction permits and building plans is increasing (not exclusive to Erdoagn’s party, though). Amidst Turkey’s growing dependence on the real estate and construction sector, the widespread idea is that constructors pay their way through faulty plans and subpar materials, which makes buildings especially prone to earthquakes and other disasters.
Poor building plans and housing quality were blamed for the vast death toll of the 1999 Gölcük Earthquake, which led to the creation of lynch mobs to persecute builders at that time. Similar accusations of collusion between the municipal officials and the builders are airing now. The other concern is that (post-)earthquake assembly areas are being infringed on by the construction sector , leaving fewer areas where people could gather to escape the debris of the burgeoning high rises. These perceptions could compound the growing negative sentiments against Erdogan in the aftermath of this earthquake if his government fails to deliver effective relief and rehabilitation services.
Another layer of complexity to whether the voters will punish Erodgan in the affected area as retribution to the perceived municipal level corruption tied to the construction sector is who controls the local municipalities. Of eight major municipalities hit by the earthquake (Kahramanmaraş, Malatya, Gaziantep, Adıyaman, İskenderun, Şanlıurfa, Adana, Elazığ), seven are held by Erdogan’s AK Party. The problem of the attribution of blame is resolved as the citizens would not need elaborate political knowledge to identify jurisdictions, and the blame could directly be attributed to Erdogan’s party, which might get punished at the ballot lest they excel the expectations of the locals through relentless relief and rehabilitation activities.
The internet blackouts, however, suggest that the government is reading the writing on the wall. The scale of the disaster is too immense for any quick relief activities, and the death toll is expected to increase over the coming days. The magnitude of destruction could also make the rehabilitation of the millions of the affectees a logistical challenge that could turn into a political nightmare in May when the decisive elections are to take place. One way for Erdogan to avert the potential backlash is to postpone the polls by declaring a nationwide state of emergency, which would only exacerbate the situation and could definitely backfire.
His fate at the moment and in the context of this disaster hinges on a miracle that seems impossible. An electoral retribution is more likely due to the perceived local level collusion between the municipalities and the builders. Let’s see what happens.
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