Most have likely seen the heartbreaking news coming out of Turkey and Syria where two massive earthquakes have caused widespread destruction across the region. More than 40,000 people are included in the official death toll, which is likely to climb even higher in the weeks ahead as recovery efforts continue. Nearly 100,000 are injured and millions of survivors are at risk from exposure, disease, and lack of food, water, and medical assistance. With a crucial general election just months away, many are questioning what it will mean for the political future of Turkey’s Russia-friendly President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and how it could play out on the wider global stage. Below is a breakdown of the many moving parts.
Turkey Presidential and Parliamentary Elections:Turkey’s voters are set to head to the polls on May 14 but the massive destruction from the earthquake is expected to prompt a delay in the vote. The Turkish constitution only allows it to be postponed for a month, meaning the election could be pushed to June. There are some fears among Erdogan’s critics, however, that the President will use the earthquake crisis to push it out to next year as he seeks to shield himself from political backlash in the quake’s aftermath. The main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is widely expected to run against him. Before the earthquakes, Erdogan was expected to use a populist platform and exploit tensions with the West, including with fellow NATO members and the EU, to win votes at home. With massive aid now flooding in from the West, that tactic may not go over so well with Turkish voters.
Erdogan Backlash: Erdogan was already in a tough reelection fight before the quake, with the country enduring years of soaring inflating (over +80%) and currency crashes that are blamed on the President’s mismanagement. Now, victims of the quake are angry about the government’s slow response in dispatching rescuers and delivering relief in the first days of the earthquake. In addition, it’s recently come to light that Erdogan’s own policies may be to blame for the bloated death toll. In 2018, Erdogan’s government initiated an amnesty program that legalized the status of thousands of buildings that had been improperly built. The amnesty meant that some builders had to pay a fine but their construction projects could still go forward even if they weren’t up to code. Specifically, it allowed contractors to ignore safety codes put in place to make building more resistant to earthquakes. The stricter building codes were prompted by a devastating earthquake in 1999 that killed upwards of 17,000 people and was similarly blamed on poor construction that left buildings incapable of withstanding earthquakes.
NATO: Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, has its second largest army, and is the host of the Allied Land Command headquarters. Somewhat ironically, Turkey initially sought NATO membership in order to gain security against a potential invasion by the then Soviet Union. Now, Erdogan is threatening to block the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO under the accusation that the countries have lax policies toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other groups that Turkey deems terrorist organizations. All NATO members must approve new ones, so Erdogan’s opposition is effectively a veto. Most experts see this as a political maneuver designed to boost Erdogan’s political chances by stoking grievances with the West. The timing of the two long-time NATO holdouts represents a symbolic win for the West against Russian aggression.
Syria:The region of Syria impacted by the earthquakes is mostly controlled by rebel groups that oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime and have also been instrumental in fighting the ISIS terrorist organization. The semi-autonomous region in Northern Syria known as Rojava is held by the SDF—an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States. It’s been reported that ISIS prisoners in Roja have taken advantage of the quake and escaped, raising worries in Europe about new terrorist uprisings. This in turn could send more refugees toward Europe’s eastern boarders as well as further exacerbate instability in the Middle East. Europe is currently being inundated by Ukrainian and Russian refugees but has also been struggling for years to absorb millions fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Turkey is the most likely landing place for thousands of Syrians that are expected to seek assistance following the quake. To support them, however, it will require millions of dollars that Turkey does not have and will likely seek from Europe. Sweden actually was the first EU country to send rescue teams to to Turkey following quake as well as $3.5 million in emergency assistance. (Sources: Foreign Policy, Geopolitical Futures, Council on Foreign Relations)