What do you do when your country is struck by a tragedy that affects millions of people and costs 4% of GDP just months before already difficult elections? That’s the million-dollar question to which everyone, including Türkiye’s President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), is trying to find answers to.
On May 14, Türkiye will vote in Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. Ahead of a truly momentous vote for the country and Europe, these next weeks will enter campaigning and election handbooks for both good and bad reasons.
Over his 20-year-long rule, Erdoğan has managed to build a seamless brand. It focused on two main aspects: authority and efficiency. As Soner Cagaptay, the Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy perfectly described it, he was “a father-like figure, an autocratic politician, who will take care of you”. The disastrous earthquake has tested both elements of his brand.
On the one hand, hours after the quake, Erdoğan seemed visibly angry, frustrated and even out of control in his public speeches. Within the first few days after the earthquake, instead of focusing on managing the crisis, he attacked government critics, calling them “dishonourable”. Erdoğan and his allies blamed the media for fabricating news and conducting “negative campaigns” for “political interests”. He detained and launched criminal investigations against some journalists. There were reports about Türkiye blocking Twitter in response to growing criticism and despite the dire need for social networks to locate loved ones.
And on the other hand, by inertia, Erdoğan tried to completely take the responsibility off the government’s and state institutions’ shoulders, calling the earthquake a “fate’s plan” that no government could have prepared for. But this time, even his voters wouldn’t buy this argument seeing the weak government resilience and failed response, which included rescue delays and failures to deliver aid and donations to affected communities. His crumbling public image and brand left everyone with one question: would his voters be attracted to his authority and power without him getting things done?
What did the AKP campaign look like before the earthquake?
Let’s rewind. Bartu Özden, Senior Politics Editor of Istanbul-based Aposto, shared his insights with me. “Before the earthquake, AKP’s campaign focused on two main elements — identity politics and successes in foreign policy. He also targeted and tried to divide the opposition alliances. Later he realised that he couldn’t keep sliding under the rug the grave economic crisis and inflation, as even his voter base was angry”. Hence, he embarked on a dangerous election economy journey — expanding public spending by promising wage increases for civil servants and retired people, cancelling student debt interest rates and announcing the most significant social housing project. “He grasped that the crisis was so big that he couldn’t circumvent it, so he changed the narrative to “we saved the country once 20 years ago, and we will do it again”.
Both the governing AKP and the opposition had to live with the uncertainty regarding the time of the election, even before the earthquake. The campaign could start at any time. And here, Erdoğan had two choices. By delaying elections, he could buy himself and the party the much-needed time to rebuild the ruins, mobilise international support, and use government-controlled media to restore voters’ trust in his brand. However, the delay would also mean that the prevalent grief and mourning could turn into anger, in addition to him being forced to tackle the unavoidable economic fallout. And even if he managed to persuade the Parliament and the Supreme Election Council to delay the elections, it would make him look weaker and lacking control. Hence, Erdoğan went for the risky choice, announced an early election date and completely switched his campaign priorities. It’s only a matter of time before we see whether this decision was a wise one for him and his party.
Is a clean slate really possible?
In the days following the earthquake, President Erdoğan announced that his campaign would henceforth focus on recovery and reconstruction and would not use music. All AKP parliamentary candidates must make significant donations to the earthquake fund. Right before announcing the May 14 election date, he got the Parliament’s carte blanche to enable early retirement for more than 2.2 million people. While focusing on hasty reconstruction and social welfare, the main narrative will be “no one but Erdoğan could do it this quickly”, accompanied by showcases and media reports from the affected areas.
In addition, unable to exploit the argument that the opposition party is so divided it is unable to choose a leader, he is expanding it to the next level. Erdoğan is claiming that the coalition is so broad and unstable that as soon as they take control of the government, they will fail, and it would lead to a much bigger crisis. While the Achilles’ heel of his brand is the lack of compassion, he is choosing to appear on TV and in other media touring the earthquake-hit zones, hugging and consoling people instead of talking much about the elections.
A wise person learns from the mistakes of others
It may be a wicked coincidence that President Erdoğan and his party came to power after the 1999 earthquake when people were equally disappointed in their government and the indecisive response of the former PM Bülent Ecevit. Back then, the Minister of Tourism Erkan Mumçu said, “All ideological arguments were flattened by the earthquake. Lying under the ruins is the Turkish political and administrative system.”
History tends to repeat itself. Despite this, Erdoğan and the governing AKP learnt very little from a disaster which kickstarted their political success. Crises can shake people’s faith in their government or political party in a way no one expects. Especially when that same political party has established itself as all-powerful with a globally acknowledged strongman leading it.
Crisis communication is of utmost importance for any political party, whether a ruling one or an opposition. It refers to more than just a quick and efficient disaster response but also to how a party and its leaders respond to criticism, communicate with citizens, and show empathy. If their crisis communication was done timely and efficiently, AKP and Erdoğan had considerable potential to unite the national sense of solidarity, thus strengthening their position. In the case of the Turkish President, he indeed asked for forgiveness for the government’s response, but in some way, it was too little too late and hence poorly received.
Another important takeaway is that no political party should take their voters for granted. Overpromising and underdelivering can work — until it doesn’t. Even the most die-hard supporters of a party can suffer such losses during a disaster that their love can turn into hatred in the worst case and to a deep disappointment in the best. There might even come a moment when people start viewing the candidate and the party in a totally different light. Citizens might avoid blaming their beloved, charismatic candidates (authoritarian or democratic) or forgive them eventually, but they will never forgive “the system”, the party and their policies. Hence, they will be more determined to punish them through elections.