From earthquakes to elections: Türkiye’s unforgettable anniversary

2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic was meant to be an annus mirabilis, or wonderful year

By: /
5 May, 2023
Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Ankara, Türkiye Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Ankara, Türkiye
Chris Kilford
By: Chris Kilford
Fellow with the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy

The two earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude that devastated southern Türkiye and northwestern Syria on 6 February 2023, followed by some 19,000 aftershocks, killed more than 50,000 people in Türkiye according to official figures and injured twice that number. Reporting on the widespread destruction, Turkish officials noted in late March that just over 300,000 thousand buildings in the earthquake zone had been severely damaged and many would need to be torn down. Meanwhile, some 2 million people were sheltering in tents.

As events in Türkiye unfolded that day, I was watching from afar in Canada, shocked at the devastation and tremendous loss of lives. Having served in Türkiye, as Canada’s defence attaché from 2011-2014, I knew the streets of Antakya and Gaziantep very well. But I could barely recognize what was left of the building where I met Lütfü Savaş, the Mayor of Antakya back then.  Mr. Savaş is still the Mayor, and soon after the earthquakes announced that 80 percent of the city now lay in ruins. I also recognized what was left of the historic Liwan hotel in downtown Antakya. It was my favourite place to stay when visiting the region.

While a Canadian Disaster Assessment Team composed of Canadian Armed Forces and Global Affairs Canada officials arrived in Türkiye soon after the earthquakes, it was decided in the end not to send Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, disappointing many in Canada and Türkiye. However, a 10-person team from Burnaby Urban Search & Rescue did go and in the Turkish city of Adiyaman they rescued many trapped underneath the rubble. Canada also provided $50 million CAD in humanitarian support and introduced new immigration measures allowing Turkish and Syrian temporary residents in Canada to extend their stay.

For many in Türkiye, the collapse of so many buildings was not a surprise. Since 1948, Turkish governments have passed, for generous fees, numerous zoning amnesty laws allowing illegally constructed buildings to remain standing, even in locations where earthquakes were and still are very common. In Izmir, for example, over 100 people lost their lives and 800 buildings, including many poorly constructed apartments, collapsed during an earthquake in November 2020. Nevertheless, the Turkish government was planning to issue yet another construction amnesty just before the upcoming elections, probably with an eye on the state coffers and certainly the ballot box.

Besides the recent earthquakes, Türkiye was already facing numerous other hardships including a serious economic crisis with the official inflation rate hovering at just over 85 percent late last year. Some economists suggested the real rate of inflation was much higher, even double the official rate. Inflation has since fallen but still sits at around 55 percent while the Turkish Lira (TL) continues to weaken against most major currencies.  Last summer, I experienced first hand the decline of the Lira’s fall when visiting Ankara for a few days. My Canadian dollar equalled almost 14 TL, whereas in September 2019, on another visit to Türkiye, it was 4 TL.

Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine has also placed strains on Türkiye’s economy and its relations with the West, especially when Ankara dallied on granting its approval for Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and before that purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system.  The latter also resulted in Ankara’s removal from the prestigious F-35 fighter-jet program. And while Türkiye has since given the nod to Finland joining NATO, it refuses to budge on Sweden.  Indeed, Türkiye claims that the Swedish government has done little to address its concerns about the presence of Turkish-Kurdish PKK sympathizers and followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Türkiye blames for orchestrating a failed military coup attempt in 2016. 

It is safe to say that for Türkiye, 2023 is not turning out to be the annus mirabilis, or wonderful year, that it was supposed to be. In particular, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic and back in 2010, the government had high hopes that by now Türkiye would be one of the top ten economies in the world, with a GDP of $2 trillion USD and an influential member of the European Union.  However, the impact of the Arab Spring, which resulted in millions of Syrian refugees finding refuge in Türkiye, a failed military coup in 2016, the global pandemic, and a disastrous domestic interest rate policy, conspired to thwart many of Türkiye’s ambitions. The country’s GDP now stands at less than $1 trillion USD and Türkiye’s economy has slipped to 19th place globally.  On the other hand, the country’s tourism goals are back on track, bolstered by just over 5 million Russian tourists who visited Türkiye last year. 

The issues of unhindered Russian tourism, oligarchs seeking refuge in Türkiye and Ankara’s growing economic ties with Moscow have been more than enough for some commentators to recommend tossing Türkiye out of NATO.  Indeed, The New York Times reported in October 2022 that “at least 32 yachts tied to oligarchs and sanctioned entities” were anchored in Turkish waters. While Türkiye’s relations with Moscow remain close and often frustrate Washington and Brussels, Ankara did host peace talks not long after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, helped facilitate the grain export deal between Moscow and Kyiv last summer and more recently prisoner exchanges.  Türkiye has also continued to supply arms to Ukraine and reliably supported the country at the United Nations. Nonetheless, Russia must be quite satisfied by Türkiye’s fence-sitting while the Turkish government is no doubt quietly pleased to see their historical adversary bogged-down in Ukraine.

This year was also meant to be President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s year. In power as either the prime minister or president since 2003, he no doubt imagined his Justice and Development Party (AKP) easily holding on to power for another five years.  Confidently, and before the earthquakes struck, he decided to hold early national elections on 14 May 2023, to coincide with the day in May 1950 when Adnan Menderes took power, ending the one-party rule of Ismet İnönü.  Now, matters are less certain for him.

An inkling of what might lie ahead for the AKP took place during the 2019 mayoral elections in Türkiye when the party lost control of most major cities including Istanbul with what is thought to be the tacit support of voters aligned with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP).  However, it is not a foregone conclusion that the AKP will continue losing ground. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has emerged as Erdoğan’s main challenger, has consistently failed to inspire Turkish voters in the past, losing four general elections and suffering two referendum defeats. However, this time around his CHP and the Good Party (İyi Parti) have joined with four smaller right-wing parties in an electoral Nation Alliance, which is determined to restore fundamental democratic rights and Türkiye’s former parliamentary system, whereby the presidency would return to its previous representational role.

The decision by the HDP to not field their own presidential candidate could also give Kılıçdaroğlu a much-needed lift. Indeed, Turkish-Kurdish voters make up 15-20 percent of the country’s population, although not all of them support the HDP. In addition, the Labor and Freedom Alliance, which is the second largest opposition coalition and includes the HDP, declared in late April that they would support Kılıçdaroğlu. But there is no escaping the fact that simple anti-Erdoğanism provides much of the glue keeping a very ideologically diverse opposition united.

In a few days, more than 60 million voters will have an opportunity to decide who will be Türkiye’s next president. This will be done using a two-round system, meaning that if no candidate, of the four running, secures 50 percent or more of the vote on 14 May, there will be a run-off election between the top two candidates on 28 May. Simultaneously, parliamentary elections will also take place to elect 600 Members of Parliament to the Grand National Assembly. As for President Erdoğan, who will be seeking five more years, his success relies a good deal on the continued support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and two small Islamist parties that form the People’s Alliance. But with a faltering economy and Türkiye’s growing democratic deficit one does wonder why anyone would vote for more of the same? 

For example, Human Rights Watch noted in 2022 that President Erdoğan’s polarizing and exclusionary policies had created deep societal fissures.  Freedom House still lists the country as “not free” adding that Türkiye is one of “the most challenging places in the European region to exercise one’s right to free speech and expression.” According to Reporters Without Borders almost 90% of Türkiye’s national media is under government control and its 2022 Press Freedom Index listed Türkiye 149th out of 180 countries, characterizing overall press freedom as “bad.” Corruption has also overtaken the country on an immense scale.  On the Global Corruption Index Türkiye sits in 123rd place out of 196 countries, just slightly better than Russia in 126th spot. 

Türkiye’s surprising withdrawal in July 2021 from the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, often referred to as the Istanbul Convention, may also impact the AKP’s electoral chances. The Turkish government was the first to sign the Convention in 2011, with strong support from women’s human rights groups.  But 10 years on, in what was surely a concession to its political partner, the Islamist New Welfare Party, Ankara justified its departure from the Convention on the grounds that it was being used to “normalize homosexuality,” which was “incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” However, as Nazlan Ertan recently pointed out in Al-Monitor, the AKP’s decision to leave the Convention could result in it “losing its electoral advantage [even] among conservative women.”

For this election at least 5 million new voters could also have a decisive say. All of them have grown up with President Erdoğan, who has held power since they were born. Will they be looking for change or keeping with what they know?

Coming back to my most recent visit to Türkiye, I often asked my friends why the Turkish people had not taken to the streets to protest the high cost of living? In England, where I also spent time last summer, thousands had come out to protest the difficult economic conditions with inflation hovering around the 10% mark, far less than Türkiye’s official inflation rate. The general answer was that Turks were afraid to protest and the ballot box had become the last resort to express their frustration with the government. 

At least my friends now know that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has miraculously managed to rally a very diverse opposition, is leading the charge to unseat President Erdoğan. And if the election is free, he has a very good chance of winning, although recent polling data suggests the outcome could be very tight. Indeed, voting is already underway for some three million Turkish citizens abroad who have until 9 May to cast their vote. By all accounts, they have been turning out in record numbers, no doubt recognizing that this election is one of the most pivotal in Türkiye’s history.

But while my friends may be eager for change, they also know that Turkish coalition governments have never had the best track records when it comes to governing. As author Soner Çağaptay noted recently, in Türkiye “no coalition government has ever finished its full term. Moreover, all thirteen coalition governments since the early 1970s have ended in both political and economic crisis.”  Suffice to say that if President Erdoğan is voted out of office on 14 May, Türkiye’s problems will not magically disappear because President Kılıçdaroğlu is now in office. Moreover, a new President at the helm will be a giant step into the unfamiliar for Turkey’s people. That is why this election will, as we say in Canada, come down to the wire.

Image by Mücahit Duman/Pixabay

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