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Türkiye’s Earthquakes Revealed the Paralysis of Its State

The country’s hyped-up executive presidential system failed the ultimate stress test.

Published on February 15, 2023

The magnitude of the natural disaster that struck Türkiye and Syria earlier this month would have pushed even a robust response mechanism to its limits. In Türkiye, the challenge was aggravated by poor construction standards, a lack of infrastructure resilience, shortcomings in disaster readiness, and an overcentralized response system that balked while people were trapped under rubble. The latter problem squandered the most critical time frame and cost countless lives that may have otherwise been saved.

Public frustrations are rising as the scale of human and material loss becomes more evident. The sheer destruction and bungled initial response are at the core of the matter. To calm these sentiments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uncharacteristically acknowledged the existence of some problems during the initial phases of the response and tried to reassure the masses that they had been resolved. But widespread anger is growing, and it will be a major factor in Türkiye’s June presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) are already struggling in the polls, and analysts point to the earthquakes as a potential political tipping point.

The affected area in Türkiye spans ten provinces inhabited by nearly 14 million people. Initial estimates put the cost of the disaster anywhere between 5.5 to 10 percent of the country’s GDP—roughly $40 billion to $80 billion. This is a tall order for any country, but especially for Türkiye. The fragile state of its economy is fraught with vulnerabilities ranging from rampant inflation to an extensive account deficit and a negative foreign reserve balance.

On the political front, to try to get ahead of events and manage public emotions, Erdoğan departed from his usual divisive rhetoric and quickly stressed the need for unity. A few days later, however, he issued harsh warnings against spreading disinformation and stated that the time to deal with these actors would come. During the height of rescue operations, the government disrupted access to Twitter, but the service was restored after public outroar over the debilitating effect it had on rescue efforts.

The opposition also acted responsibly at the outset and refrained from politicizing the disaster. But this mutually enforced grace period quickly turned into acrimony as Erdoğan and opposition leaders began visiting the disaster zone, and political calculations on both sides kicked into action.

The official narrative focuses on the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the calamity, bringing forward its exceptional nature and calling it “the disaster of a century.” But the real goal behind this framing is to absolve the government of responsibility for its failings by hiding behind the magnitude of the challenge. The opposition counters this narrative with one of its own, criticizing the government’s poor performance and labeling it “the negligence of a century.”

The earthquakes have revealed a stark reality in Türkiye under the AK Party: several governance deficiencies, including corruption and cronyism, exacerbated the disaster. This was common knowledge, yet Turkish society had become numb to it. But this time, the cost was more tangible for all—even those who were spared the direct effects of the earthquake. New residential complexes that symbolized Türkiye’s development, along with new state hospitals and airports, were reduced to rubble, and a disaster relief agency (whose response efforts are led by a theologian) couldn’t stand up to its purpose. As the ruling power in the country for the past twenty-plus years, Erdoğan and his AK Party will have an inherently difficult time deflecting blame.

One major reason for the government’s deficiencies is Türkiye’s transition to a highly centralized executive presidential system after a national referendum in 2017. Advocates of the structure describe it as a smooth, fast, and efficient method of governance. That sounds good but is far from reality—as proven by the earthquakes, where excessive centralization of power hindered a swift and efficient response to local needs.

Türkiye’s executive presidential system has created a form of governance in which institutions are politicized, and almost every decision comes from the top—meaning the presidency. Leadership roles have been distributed to like-minded AK Party confidants, debilitating institutions’ ability to produce apolitical, truly professional policy suggestions. More importantly, ministries and government agencies are unwilling and unable to act without a green light from above.

While campaigning for the executive presidential system, Erdoğan famously said, “Grant this brother of yours these powers, and you’ll see how matters will be handled.” But now, every failure—and success—is directly attributable to Erdoğan. In addition, the longevity of his rule makes it impossible for him to point elsewhere for failures in the system that occurred during his watch—such as the evident lack of enforcement of earthquake-resilient building codes and proper licensing after the 1999 earthquake that claimed nearly 20,000 lives. Election promises he made to pardon unlicensed buildings are now coming back to haunt him, as recordings of such statements—including about construction in some of the cities that have now turned to rubble—have gone viral online.

As a result, the political outlook for Erdoğan and his governing coalition is gloomy. Before the earthquakes, Erdoğan had hinted at a plan to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in May, but that idea is now unrealistic, considering the nearly impossible organizational challenge of holding a vote soon after a massive disaster that has uprooted countless citizens. Despite speculation that the elections may be deferred, the Turkish constitution stipulates otherwise: they can only be delayed during a state of war. Unless the governing coalition and opposition agree to an amendment that allows for a delay, elections will have to take place by June 18.

Erdoğan had hoped to capitalize on fiscal policies like raising the minimum wage and increasing salaries for civil servants and retirees. Initial signs indicated that these policies were working in favor of the AK Party coalition. But their immediate effects cannot be long-lasting under inflationary pressure and will likely be far from voters’ minds in June, as the government now has to contend with the political fallout from the earthquakes.

Erdoğan masterfully built himself an infallible image over the years. His supporters and even skeptics often gave him the benefit of the doubt because of his reputation as a strong and decisive leader who gets the right things done. In good times, his wrongdoings and miscalculations were obscured. Voters, including many of the undecided, gravitated toward him during elections. But the tide may now be turning even stronger than it did in 2019, when the opposition defeated him in municipal elections in Türkiye’s major cities, including in Istanbul. Today, not only are his promises of an economic miracle through unorthodox policies failing, but the construction boom and infrastructure projects he so aggrandized have mostly become a proven fallacy. The same is true for his touted executive presidential system—creating a perfect storm for Erdoğan and his governing coalition.

The disaster that struck Türkiye last week devastated the country, and the effects of the earthquakes and the nature of the government’s response likely will be a central consideration in voters’ minds when they go to the polls in June. Their thinking will be shaped by hard questions about this experience and expectations of accountability and good governance. This puts the onus on the government, which will struggle to find convincing arguments to explain its dramatic failure. Long-lasting political fault lines may also have been broken on February 6.

This commentary is a product of Carnegie’s Türkiye and the World Initiative.