This article was initially written in Arabic and published in the Arabic section of The Kurdish Center for Studies.
The recent earthquake that devastated southeast Turkey (Northern Kurdistan) and north Syria (including Rojava) is re-drawing the political situation in the region in new directions. The result appears to be similar to the repercussions of the military coup back in 2016, that cost tens of thousands of lives, and inflicted colossal economic losses – especially for those already on the edge of poverty.
While it is still too early to judge the trend that could shape political life in Turkey, the damage caused could be compared to the disastrous earthquake of 1999, which brought an end to the political elite that dominated politics in the country throughout the 1990s, the last of whom was Bulent Ecevit (Prime Minister of Turkey at the time). Whatever the case, the earthquake that struck Turkey at predawn of February 6, 2023, will bring a change to the Turkish state. This change depends on the dominant narrative regarding the earthquake that has been garnering attention by the various political parties.
For example, the Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may decide to postpone the elections that have been scheduled for May 14. According to well-informed sources it is indicated that the AKP leadership intends to postpone the elections. While other opposition parties have no choice but to cling to the date set for the elections.
The earthquake has already began re-drawing the political landscape in Turkey. This reshaping will certainly entail winners and extreme losers. Based on this, the AKP has been joining parties opposed to holding elections on the date already set. In a statement, the deputy chairman of AKP’s election affairs committee Ali İhsan Yavuz stated that: “We have no time to discuss the elections. We are seeking to spare the civilians who have remain alive. Speaking about the elections at this juncture offends the victims.”
For his part, the former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has remarked that the “Elections cannot be held in May nor in June… Bodies still remain under the rubble, and the elections should be postponed immediately… the constitution is not a sacred text.”
From another perspective, as an example of the prevailing narrative, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu rejected the move to postpone the elections. Kılıçdaroğlu was quoted as saying that the Turkish constitution permits election postponement only in the case of war. There is no war right now. The date for the elections should be set immediately. The damage caused by your (Erdoğan) evasion of the elections would trouble everyone.”
Essentially, calls to postpone or hold elections at an early date is linked to the political position each party undertakes and not associated with the broader political situation. If elections are held on time, the opposition parties ascertain that the Erdoğan Regime would incur a crushing defeat. In fact, Erdoğan’s supporters do not rule out the possibility of such an outcome. For this reason, three days after the earthquake they adopted a new discourse to postpone the elections.
In fact, Erdoğan supporters are in urgent need of a new discourse around the aftermath of the earthquake, that could reduce the consequences of the narrative repeated by the opposition in ascribing the huge number of victims and the colossal damage caused to the faulty infrastructure and lack of preparation. They want to craft a perspective that the mass loss of human life and infrastructural damage caused by the earthquake was more not the result of building defects. Suggesting that the catastrophe could not have been averted, or the losses and damages it caused reduced.
In that regard, Erdoğan stated multiple times that the powerful earthquakes were “as big as atomic bombs.” However, in admitting that building regulations need revising, he argued that “any country would face the issues we did during such a disaster.”
The notion of comparing the earthquake to “atomic bombs” was first uttered by Orhan Tatar, the General Director of Earthquake and the Risk Reduction at Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD). Tatar stated that the first earthquake’s emissions amounted to 500 atomic bombs. This exaggeration and diversion was presented to the public despite the fact that the emissions made by the quake were by no means even one atomic bomb.
In adopting such a discourse, Erdoğan has two aims. The first is to postpone elections for a period of a year, in order to continue to present the catastrophe as an act of God, thereby justify the failure made in sending rescue teams to areas requiring humanitarian aid for up to five days after the quake. It is assumed that within a year, the collective anger would deflate notably among Erdoğan supporters in areas hit by the earthquake. Whatever the case, this approach will not affect those who traditionally vote for the opposition. However, those who favor postponement, believe that a year delay will be sufficient to change the resentment prevailing among Erdoğan’s supporters towards the criminally inadequate response by the government to the quake.
In this relation, state-run media outlets has given inordinate attention to international reports that depicts the earthquake as an exceptional catastrophe. For instance, statement made by Hans Kluge, the Regional Director for Europe in the World Health Organization (WHO) such as “We are witnessing the worst natural disaster in the WHO European Region for a century.”
At the same time, conspiracy theory rumors have widely circulated that a political party automated the earthquake gained wide attention in Turkey, since the Turkish political mood is generally suspiciously paranoid and predisposed to believe conspiracies aimed at destroying the state. In response, seismologists have been forced to refute absurd rumors and misleading claims that the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) induced the quake in Turkey.
Attempts to evade responsibility and avoid a repetition of the 1999 earthquake outcomes by the ruling political elite necessitated new social discourses. For example, there was much exaggeration around the issue of looting and burglary under the rubble to divert attention from the role of the government in their failed responses to the disaster.
Exaggerating looting cases so far has been a very common occurrence in areas hit by the earthquake which were announced by the government. For example, the delayed arrival of rescue teams on site, and lack of aid forced survivors to search for blankets or any items under the rubble that could shield them against the freezing temperatures. Many of these desperate victims were considered as looters and thieves.
Tensions on the Horizon
The perception that distancing elections from the earthquake would be in AKP’s favor is not a guaranteed one. There are a number of socially-driven tensions appearing on the horizon that could lead to a severe political polarization within the community. For example, the media outlets and politicians anticipated a “demographic transition” in areas hit by the earthquake amid mass displacement and destruction.
In this relation, Faruq Aksoy, the Haber Turk correspondent was quoted by BBC Arabic as saying that civilians in Hatay on the border with Syria voiced concerns that they would be forced to depart the city once and for all. This implied mass transition could pave the way for counter migration from other areas. This process could, indeed, introduce an vital demographic change (or what could be described as “ethnic cleansing”).
This implication has an important sectarian dimension for the predominantly Alawite Hatay province, as it had been largely affected by the mass arrival of Syrian refugees since 2011. The same thing applies to Marash, which is home to a large numbers of Alawites, and an area which has been witnessing a historical tension with a pro-government bloc made up principally of Sunni Turks. Gaziantep (Dilok) region has a similar situation.
All in all, the areas hit by the earthquake are a complex and mixed situation in the sectarian and nationalist sense. Besides Alawites and Sunnis, there remains a nationalist division between Turks and Kurds in Marash, Semsûr (Adiyaman), and Dîlok (Gaziantep) where Kurds make up anywhere from 30-60%, in provinces whose political allegiance has shifted between the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
To recap, compared to the 1999 earthquake, the region could undergo rapid and unexpected tensions, specifically if discrimination occurs in compensating the affected people during the year-long delay that the AKP seeks to obtain. In this region of the world, conspiracy theories easily find their way into the collective psyches of communities. As a result, authorities could create a combustible dangerous social polarization in their quest to cling to power.
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