Over the faultline: Political consequences of the “Disaster of the Century” in Turkey
Starting on February 6th, Turkey experienced a series of devastating earthquakes: Gaziantep (7.8 Mw), Kahramanmaraş (7.7 Mw), and Defne (6.4 Mw). As of March 1st., 45,089 deaths and more than 108,000 injuries have been reported across the ten most affected provinces, though the real numbers are speculated to be much higher. The earthquakes affected at least 13.5 million people and 4 million buildings. According to a statement by the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change, over 200,000 buildings were either destroyed, severely damaged, or slated for demolition. As many of the affected provinces were unable to provide safe shelter to their residents, hundreds of thousands of survivors sought refuge in neighboring provinces. The adjacent Mersin province alone, for instance, attracted more than 400,000 new residents; it is unknown yet if/when this migration flow will be reversed.
The series of earthquakes, dubbed as the “Disaster of the Century”, have had an enormous adverse effect on the country's fragile economy. Before the earthquakes, Turkey was already experiencing economic difficulties, mainly due to the government's policy preferences. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s insistence to push interest rates lower in the hope of stimulating economic growth first fueled the devaluation of the Turkish lira (TL) vis-à-vis foreign currencies. Then it triggered inflation that reached 85% in October 2022. However, Erdoğan’s decision did not meet its intended targets; economic growth remained at 3.8% and unemployment declined from 11.2% to 10.2%, producing only 1.5 million extra jobs.
Although the government's unorthodox economic policies successfully suppressed exchange fluctuations, this was mainly due to President Erdoğan’s “realpolitik” and balancing game, as he successfully attracted financial support from Russia and the Gulf countries, receiving tens of billions of dollars in the last six months. This flow of funds allowed the government to pursue populist politics to compensate for the financial losses of millions of underprivileged people. Economic experts were not optimistic about the sustainability of this strategy, which targets economic growth ahead of the general elections in 2023. Estimates of international institutions for economic growth in 2023 are in the region of 3%, with an inflation rate of around 43%. Although it is difficult to measure precisely the impact of the earthquakes on Turkey’s fragile economy, damages are estimated to be between US$50–84 billion, while reconstruction efforts are expected to cost between US$10–50 billion, a financial resource that Turkey does not possess.
The “Disaster of the Century” also struck at a critical time in Turkish politics: the 2023 general elections. Since the country transitioned to a presidential system in 2017, presidential and parliamentary elections are held together. The constitutional amendments of 2017 gave the president absolute executive power, significantly curtailing the power of the legislative branch. Advocates of this new system had underlined the need for less bureaucracy and more agility in the government to counter the large spectrum of security threats that ranged from terrorism to financial instability. Moreover, they argued that the need to swiftly respond to multiple crises, such as climate change, pandemics, immigration, and political instability, justified the concentration of power in the hands of an executive president and his cabinet instead of a complex bureaucracy involving multiple parties. As the president has such a crucial role in the country’s governance, the presidential elections are critical for those who desire radical change in the society.
The government fatigue resulting from twenty years of AKP rule and the negative outcomes of economic instability created hope for change among the opposition parties. Polls showed that the popularity of the president and the government declined, and the difference in votes between the People’s Alliance (the AKP and MHP) and the Table of Six Alliance (the alliance of six political parties excluding HDP, the Kurdish-dominant Party) were statistically not significant in the first half of 2022, to the advantage of the latter. The leaders of the opposition bloc were optimistic about their victory and assumed that they could win in the second round of the presidential elections by attracting the Kurdish votes, if not in the first round. Thus, they postponed naming their candidate and focused on their plans to re-institutionalize the parliamentary regime. Nevertheless, the same polls also showed that the president’s popularity increased during the last three months of 2022 due to populist economic policies, as indicated by increasing consumer confidence. Subsequently, the confidence of the opposition was undermined and its leaders shifted their focus to finding the best candidate to win the elections. However, İYİ Party, one of the major opposition parties in the Table of Six, left the alliance on March 3rd over objections to CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s presidential candidacy, further raising doubts about the opposition’s ability to challenge the incumbent People’s Alliance.
It is still too early to determine what impact the recent earthquakes will have on the elections this summer. However, there are discussions about postponing them, even though the constitution does not allow such an arbitrary rearrangement except in the unlikely case of war. Nonetheless, there are some clues that allow for some degree of speculation based on experience. Disasters of the kind that recently struck Turkey trigger two different types of popular reaction. The first one is the “rally around the flag” effect, a notion that urges the country's citizens to unite and support the government during times of crisis or war. During these periods, people often put aside their political differences and rally behind their leaders, flag, and country. Support for governments during and after the world wars in the West, 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic are well-known examples. Political leaders employ this “rally around the flag” campaign to keep morale high and achieve shared goals during a crisis. It is also useful in suppressing dissent and criticism toward the government. This effect is short-term, however, and may be hindered rapidly by another crisis. The second reaction is decline of confidence in institutions. The government's failure to intervene effectively in crises, such as assisting victims or providing sufficient information to society, may erode the trust of citizens. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2011 earthquake in Japan, and the 1999 Marmara Earthquake in Turkey are examples of how natural disasters led to declining confidence in the government.
The winner of these two opposing effects is determined by several factors, such as the disaster's size and geographical coverage, the government's performance during and after, and the country's culture. In any case, the outcome is highly politicized. Citizens’ political preferences, a priori evaluations of the government, and level of confidence in institutions directly affect their decisions. Media coverage of disasters also plays a key role as many citizens form their opinions based on media representation. At this point, the polarized politics in Turkey will be definitive in citizens’ evaluations and the outcome of the ballot box. Turkey is one of the most politically polarized countries where party identities are transformed into tribal memberships and political disagreements take the form of personal animosities. Several studies have shown that the supporters of different party alliances do not like or tolerate each other, which leads to the superimposition of partisan lenses on political developments. These studies have also indicated that Turkish voters live in “echo-chambers” where individuals are exposed only to biased information, ideas, and opinions, which only serve to reinforce their existing beliefs and perspectives. Consequently, political tribes in Turkey do not view the world in the same way and their interpretations depend on their perceptions.
The Turkish information ecosystem is also polarized. Different media outlets are aligned along political cleavages and tend to be tailored toward biased expectations of their political camps. We have already observed how the “Disaster of the Century” has been presented differently in mainstream and opposition media outlets. As citizens’ evaluations are an outcome of the polarized politics in Turkey, the political consequences of these disasters will be related to the existing polarized environment. The “rally around the flag” effect requires a minimum consensus on the pain created by the disaster and then the reasons for it. However, polarized media not only prevents the formation of this consensus but also triggers existing cleavages. Rising disagreements on the reasons and consequences prevent the formation of “we-ness” among the citizens. Meanwhile, the a priori political beliefs of citizens and level of confidence in institutions shape how they update their perceptions about them. Supporters of the government generally seek to appreciate the efforts of the government and its leaders. In contrast, the opposition camp’s negative perceptions are fostered by the failure of the government to deal with the crisis.
This calculus shows that the direct effect of earthquakes on public perceptions will be limited due to the polarized political environment of the country. Meanwhile, some exogenous factors cannot be ignored, such as the impact of the economy. The sensitivity of voters to economic conditions is almost a universal fact. The economic voting theory foresees a negative correlation between worsening economic conditions – such as unemployment, inflation, negative growth, and devaluation – and support for the incumbent government, as has been observed in recent years. Hence, the economic consequences of the disaster will have a direct effect on voting behavior. A decline in economic growth, increase in unemployment, and rise in inflation rate may harm the governing bloc in the short term. Still, there is always a possibility that the government will hold external factors accountable for the disaster to avert punishment from the masses.
Geopolitics may form the second set of exogenous factors that will determine the government's fate in the forthcoming elections. Although leaders of the Western bloc (US/EU) have expressed their concerns about the hardening political regime and political freedoms in Turkey, they have never actively intervened in Turkish politics. Turkey’s intermediary and balanced role during the war in Ukraine, for example, has softened the West’s stance on the AKP government despite its defects. Besides, mobilizing international action against Erdoğan’s government is challenging, especially after such a disaster. Thus, the government can use its role as mediator to support its image as the middle power in the region.
The final set of exogenous variables is related to the climate of elections. Although there are rumors of postponing elections, this move would not be possible under the current constitution. However, the damage caused by the “Disaster of the Century” in the region raises questions about the feasibility of conducting proper and fair elections. The region's registry of voters has been devastated due to losses and migration, which poses a huge logistical challenge. Hence, whatever the solution is, the elections will be disfigured. Moreover, there will not be a suitable campaign environment essential for freedom of expression, something for which Turkey has always been criticized.
The "Disaster of the Century" will undoubtedly have many economic and political repercussions for Turkey, some of which will be immediately apparent. The most crucial turning point will be the general elections in the summer of 2023, since the victor will determine the nation's course. However, given the presence of so many other variables, predicting how the earthquake disaster will affect the elections is difficult at this stage.
It is likely that the recent earthquakes will alter the course of the nation, not only because of their potential impact on the outcome of the elections, but also because of their ability to alter the state-society relationship in the country. Recent Turkish history has witnessed tensions due to the formulation of a new social contract between citizens and the state, as well as between citizens themselves. The Republic's original “Westernizing/Modernizing” social contract has been extensively criticized for its exclusionary and top-down nature, but the society has not yet given birth to a new social contract. Persistent societal insecurity caused by Turkey's myriad problems, such as terrorism, political and economic instability, and global crises, has compelled a greater emphasis on the state's survival than on reevaluating its foundational ideals.
The "Disaster of the Century" may not usher in a period of abundant resources or a fertile climate conducive to imagining a new social contract in the near future. However, it may persuade a large segment of the public to urgently consider a new social contract that is more participatory, supportive, inclusive, and effective, to prevent a repetition of history as a farce.
 United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), “Türkıye-Syrıa Earthquakes 2023,” February 14, 2023, http://bitly.ws/B9U4.
 Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change, “’582 Bin Bağımsız Bölüm ve 202 Bin Binanın Acil Yıkılacak, Ağır Hasarlı veya Yıkık Olduğu Tespitini Yaptık’” [We Have Determined 582 Thousand Independent Sections and 202,000 Buildings to be Severely Damaged, Destroyed or in Need of Urgent Demolition] February 28, 2023, http://bitly.ws/B9TH.
 “Mersin'e 'Deprem' Göçü: Nüfus İki Haftada Yüzde 40 Arttı” ['Earthquake' Migration to Mersin: Population Increases by 40 percent in Two Weeks] CNN Turk, February 22, 2023, http://bitly.ws/Ba3v; Didem Danış, “Deprem Sonrası Büyük Göç: Çözüm Mü, Yeni Sorunlar Mı?” [Massive Post-earthquake Migration: Solution or New Problems?] Birgün, February 19, 2023, http://bitly.ws/B3EQ.
 Tuba Sahin, “Türkiye's Consumer Sentiment at Nearly 2-year High,” Anadolu Agency, February 20, 2023, http://bitly.ws/B3L6.
 Amien Bol, Marco Giani, André Blais et al., “The Effect of COVID-19 Lockdowns on Political Support: Some Good News for Democracy?” European Journal of Political Research 60, no. 2 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.12401.
 Eric Uslaner and Eiji Yamamura, "Disaster and Political Trust: The Japan Tsunami and Earthquake of 2011," MPRA Paper 70527, University Library of Munich (2016), http://bitly.ws/B3ML.