The earthquakes on February 6th that killed more than 55,000 people in Turkey and Syria and resulted in $105 billion in damage were among the most deadly and costly of this century. And yet Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has acted nonchalant about the gruesome swath of carnage. Days after the tragedy, he told journalists: “We’re more comfortable today; we’ll be even more comfortable tomorrow.” Later, using an infuriating logic, he informed a survivor in Kahramanmaraş that “all this has its place in fate’s plan.” Turkey’s leader, I soon learned, was polishing an opportunistic scheme to tackle the catastrophe, and even benefit from it. Each survivor would receive about $770 for moving expenses, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would work with its cronies to construct new mass-housing projects that would, in a year, be handed over to survivors so that they could continue supporting the president. These projects are bypassing various regulations so that they’ll be built quickly—even though this seems like exactly the reverse of the lesson that should have been learned. This concoction of religious fatalism, disaster capitalism and electioneering has defined Erdoğan’s politics since he rose to power in 2002, so one shouldn’t have been surprised.
Yet after the latest disaster—an earthquake that was also a “statequake,” as the political scientist Alp Kayserilioğlu noted in the New Left Review—I felt something novel: the sense that Erdoğan’s stratagems, like the flimsy buildings that were now piles of rubble, might finally collapse once and for all. The botched rescue efforts by his official rescue agency, AFAD, and the AKP’s attempts to control the narrative in the earthquake’s wake unnerved an already traumatized nation like never before. The Turkish Red Crescent, under the leadership of an AKP apparatchik named Kerem Kınık, profited from the earthquake by selling tents to charities. People grew sick with outrage after the revelations about the absurdity and shamelessness of the authorities and began staging protests over the corruption. Turkey’s leaders offered no apologies for the illegally built houses that collapsed like a house of cards, and not one person in Erdoğan’s administration resigned. Instead, Erdoğan denounced those criticizing his government’s response and threatened that he would “deal with them later.”
The earthquake exposed the gangrene that has been eating away at Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” since he turned it into a presidencialismo-style autocracy in 2018. As the May 14th general election looms, the question on everyone’s minds will soon be answered: Can Erdoğan sell himself as a trustworthy leader again? Though he has managed to tighten his grip on power over the past six years, all indications suggest that he will finally meet defeat. I’m convinced that he will become the victim of his arrogance this time around, and if history is any judge, the author of his own downfall.
At the start of his political career, Erdoğan presented himself as a reformer and a modernizer. The oppression of citizens based on their religious and political identities belonged to “Old Turkey,” he said, and pledged to turn a new page and make Turkey a member of the European Union. But any notion that the “New Turkey,” painstakingly built by the AKP since it rose to power in 2002, when I was 21, had reformed the mismanaged, autocratic Turkish state has finally been discredited. Instead, patterns of that seemingly bygone “Old Turkey” that defined my teenage years are reemerging in my forties.
What was the “Old Turkey,” and why did so many of us despise it? The intensifying oppression of the Kurds defined those years. In the infamous Diyarbakır prison, Turkish soldiers forced Kurds to eat human feces in the early 1980s—just one of the numerous acts of torture that convinced many of us to defend Kurdish rights and support Kurdish parties in elections. (Since coming of age in 1999, I’ve cast my vote for a flurry of pro-Kurdish parties, whose names have changed as the Constitutional Court closed them one after the other.) In 1984, the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) launched a full-scale insurgency against the Turkish government, accusing it of curtailing Kurdish rights and attempting to stamp out their folklore and culture. The Kurdish language was officially banned in the 1980s, and anyone publishing, singing or speaking Kurdish risked imprisonment.
Another feature that defined the “Old Turkey” and left a deep impression on me were the atrocities experienced by Turkey’s Kemalists. Those passionate defenders of the secularist foundations of Turkey raised their voices against Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist regime in Iran, warning that Turkey might soon come to resemble it. They paid a heavy price for their truth-telling: between 1990 and 1993, scores of secularists were assassinated, including editors, liberal theologians and investigative reporters. Like the Kurdish activists, these secularists became my generation’s role models.
The Turkish government of the early 1990s was a corruption racket. As assaults on Kurds and secularists peaked, journalists reported that Prime Minister Tansu Çiller was essentially running a family business staffed by opportunistic lackeys. Like Erdoğan, with whom she is closely aligned today, Çiller tasked vigilante groups to immobilize the Kurdish opposition, arresting their members in scores. Also, like Erdoğan, Çiller had a weakness for unorthodox economic policies. As a deflationary measure, she subjected interest rates to intense pressure, which led Turks to invest their savings in foreign exchanges. The reserves of the Turkish Central Bank, whose directors frequently changed due to political intervention, sunk from seven billion dollars to three billion dollars during her three-year reign. The systematic burnings of Kurdish villages, the extrajudicial killings of political activists, a ruined economy and an infinite, grandiose belief in her political skills defined Çiller’s time in office. When Turkish intellectuals point to parallels between the autocratic tendencies of Erdoğan and his predecessors, it is mostly Çiller and her style of governance they have in mind.
Enter Turkey’s Islamists. Their leader, Necmettin Erbakan, had, since the late 1960s, slowly built a movement with an Islamist-corporatist ideology that offered to restore the rotten Turkish state to health. Erbakan took over the reins of secularist Turkey when his Welfare Party triumphed in the general elections of December 24, 1995, receiving 21 percent of the vote. Yet just fourteen months later, the commander of the Turkish navy announced that Islamism was “more dangerous than the PKK”; a “military memorandum” dissolving Erbakan’s government, widely known as Turkey’s “postmodern coup,” followed soon afterward. By early 1998, a Turkish public prosecutor was calling members of Erbakan’s party “bloodsucking bats” before the Constitutional Court shut it down. These developments led Turkish intellectuals to defend the rights of Islamists, as they identified similarities between their plights at the hands of the Turkish state with those of socialists, secularists and the Kurds.
It was only the arrival of natural disaster that finally brought “Old Turkey” to its knees. Two years after the 1997 memorandum against Erbakan, a catastrophic magnitude 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck on August 17, 1999. As with this most recent earthquake, the government’s lethally incompetent response to the calamity revealed its true nature as a paper tiger.
But there was one important difference. Unlike Erdoğan and his ministers, leaders of the old regime accepted their shortcomings. After the earthquake killed over seventeen thousand people, one of the coalition leaders admitted that the state’s response to the calamity had been a fiasco: “Our civil defense teams were hindered, our rescue work was insufficient, our building contractors stole from the material, and our zoning scheme proved faulty.” The state had failed to provide enough drinking water for survivors in 1999; the telecommunications networks were overwhelmed, and even mobile calls were not going through. Bodies not yet placed inside shrouds for Islamic burial were stored on ice-skating rinks for days.
Despite the similar outcome of the February 6th earthquakes, nobody in Erdoğan’s administration dared apologize, perhaps fearing his ire. Another factor might be their memories of what happened months after the 1999 disaster: the government was voted out in 2001’s national election. Nearly 24 years later, Erdoğan and anyone associated with his reign now face a similar fate. Their pledges to the electorate were obliterated like the Sheetrock pulverized during the earthquake. They are unlikely to emerge from its ruins.
Erdoğan founded his party, the AKP, on the promise to fight the “three Ys” of the Old Turkey: yolsuzluk (corruption), yoksulluk (poverty) and yasaklar (political restrictions). Nowadays the party has morphed into a metonym of the three Ys: it is corrupt; its economic policies impoverish the nation; and it hosts the most politically repressive administration since the one formed by the generals involved in the country’s 1980 coup.
Erdoğan’s response to the disaster in 2023 is remarkably similar to his responses to previous disasters, and is familiar to those who’ve watched him throughout his career. In 2014, there was a blast in a coal mine in the Anatolian town of Soma, the worst mine disaster in Turkish history. The mine burned for three days, becoming the grave of 301 people and a symbol of how Erdoğan conducted his business. In 2003, his government had passed legislation that allowed private companies to run publicly owned coal mines; many of them increased production but slashed safety standards, leading to a dramatic increase in the deaths of miners: 1,042 died between 2010 and 2020, an increase of 800 percent compared to the years between 2000 and 2008, when 135 miners died, and Turkey became the third worst country for worker deaths in the world.
Erdoğan, in typical fashion, ignored petitions from opposition parties for a parliamentary inquiry into the coal mine explosion. (Turkey’s president is famous for demonizing his political rivals. Rather than listening to opposition parties, he imprisons their leaders. Selahattin Demirtaş, the former head of the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP, has been behind bars since 2016.) When he visited Soma after the disaster, Erdoğan downplayed the scale of the destruction, reminding onlookers how Victorians had dealt with coal-mine accidents. Around 204 had died in 1862 in England. “Let’s please not say that these things never happen in coal mines elsewhere,” Erdoğan demanded: “These are ordinary things. There is a thing called a work-related accident. They are inherent to the fitrah of this work; one can’t expect work accidents not to happen.”
Fitrah, one of Erdoğan’s favorite words, refers to the innate human nature which recognizes God’s oneness. Marriage, divorce, birth, death—they’re all part of God’s unity, and if there is a work-related accident in a coal mine or an earthquake that kills 55,000 people, well, none of that can be avoided, so one need not take political leaders to task for it. After a mine disaster in the Black Sea city of Amasra, Bartın, in October 2022, when he again invoked fitrah, Erdoğan pledged to prosecute those responsible for the explosion in the mine, where 42 workers died. “Some may mock us, but we believe in fate’s plan. Because we believe in fate’s plan, we say these accidents happened in the past and will happen in the future. They’ll always happen, that we should learn.” He later boasted of rescue teams reaching dead bodies over the course of 24 hours. “This has partially soothed us,” he said. “In Soma, reaching bodies took much longer.” Each family received about $69,000 as compensation for the dead.
Such responses have clarified the core of Erdoğanism as a composite of opportunism and fatalism. Erdoğan is happy to play the middleman between his voters and cronies, and he refuses to take responsibility when the former is hurt by the latter’s actions. There is also the pressure of remaining on good terms with Erdoğanists. For over two decades, being loyal to the AKP came with great rewards: protection from the government’s specially appointed prosecutors and online trolls, as well as career opportunities in the state-controlled media. Citizens have to follow Erdoğan’s directives, because he packages them as parallel to Allah’s will: his reign offers a compound of the Leader, the Party and the Almighty.
The AKP hasn’t replaced the enforced secularism of the old Turkish regime but adapted its protocols to a new setting. Erdoğan’s erratic and incompetent response to the earthquake is rooted in the broader miasma of Turkish autocracy; the AKP cadres inherited, internalized and became the embodiment of a repressive legacy. Two decades in power have transformed their movement beyond repair. The upcoming elections will show whether the electorate have finally soured on the AKP and its resurrection of the Old Turkey, which we once assumed we had left behind.
Photo credit: Aksel Anıl, Damaged buildings in Antakya, Turkey (CC/BY)