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In wake of earthquakes, Erdogan forced to change focus of campaign

The earthquake has overturned Erdogan's previous political election agenda.

In wake of earthquakes, Erdogan forced to change focus of campaign
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

NICOSIA [Cyprus]: The devastating earthquake in southern Turkey on February 6, with more than 44,200 people killed, tens of thousands wounded, more than 164,000 buildings destroyed and damage exceeding USD 80 billion, is surely Turkey's worst humanitarian disaster in modern history.

It has also forced President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change the focus of his election campaign. These elections may turn out to be the most symbolic, dramatic and important in Turkey's modern history, as they will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey, will decide the course the country will take in the coming decades, and will also determine if Erdogan's 22-year domination of Turkey's pollical life will come to an end or not.

The earthquake has overturned Erdogan's previous political election agenda. Before February 6, his aim was to contain the growing discontent with the rampant inflation, the falling price of the Turkish Lira and the sharp increases in the prices of foodstuffs and energy, by giving salary and pension increases, as well as promises about early retirement.

Now he will try to convince the people of Turkey that he is the only one who can rebuild the destroyed houses and cities in a year (and not in five years as the opposition parties promise) and ensure tolerable living conditions for the tens of thousands who were rendered homeless.

Speaking to the inhabitants of the earthquake-stricken city of Osmaniye, Erdogan said: "You will allow us one year. Within one year, god willing, we will build these permanent houses and settle our citizens. (...) We aim to revive our villages within a year, just like our city centers."

Undoubtedly, Erdogan realizes that it will be extremely difficult -if not impossible- to rebuild 270,000 housing units as he promised and remove the estimated 230 million tons of debris from the destroyed towns and villages, but he wants the people to believe that he is the only politician who can make this happen.

He bets on the fact that the desperate people who lost their homes and loved ones would like to believe that they will return to their normal lives very soon and thus they will vote for him and not for the opposition parties which say that this will be done in a longer but more realistic time frame.

Although the Turkish government wants to shift blame for the collapse of so many buildings to contractors for using shoddy materials and violating the building codes, videos on social media show President Erdogan bragging in the past that "his amnesty policy removed building standards-related headaches for hundreds of thousands of citizens".

Last Wednesday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that 564 persons have been identified in a criminal probe into individuals responsible for the collapse of buildings in the earthquake area. "One hundred sixty of them have been arrested, 18 are in police custody and 175 have been released on bail," he added.

So, in the coming days, we will see Erdogan inaugurating prefabricated housing facilities and container cities to house those rendered homeless and holding ground-breaking ceremonies for the construction of blocks of flats, probably to be awarded without public tenders to contractors who are supporters of his AKP Party.

Furthermore, he will use the media he controls to make people forget the slow and ineffective initial response of the state rescue services and the Armed Forces to the earthquake.

AKP is being held responsible for the fact that the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) were unprepared and disorganized to face the disaster and did not move quickly enough to save thousands of people who had been alive many hours after the two major tremors.

Furthermore, the Turkish Army, which in the previous earthquake in Golcuk in August 1999 deployed some 65,000 men within 48 hours to conduct search and rescue, evacuation and shelter operations and distribute food and clothing to survivors, this time after a long delay mobilized about only 7500 soldiers.

As the Turkish people expressed their anger that the state failed to move quickly to save the lives of people buried under the rubble and prevent them from dying from hypothermia, the government tried to stop "provocative media posts about the earthquake" by arresting dozens of citizens for committing the crime of "spreading disinformation", punishable with imprisonment up to three years.

So far, 183 people were detained for committing the relevant "crime", while criminal proceedings were instituted against another 559 citizens. The government in its attempt to block the voice of those accusing it of incompetence in the face of the disaster, initially blocked the Twitter, but after some hours reversed its decision when it realized that the Twitter and other social media were used to find survivors under the rubble.

President Erdogan has declared a State of Emergency in ten districts affected by the earthquake. This means curtailment of the freedom of expression and assembly of 15 per cent of Turkey's 85 million population. It will also allow him to control the election campaign and even the ballot box in the whole region.

So, people fear that Erdogan may be tempted to expand the state of emergency in the whole country. Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points out: "In addition to the nationwide restrictions on liberty that his government had already instituted before the disaster, a State of Emergency (SOE) would render the campaign distinctly unfree and unfair in those ten provinces, giving him an advantage at the ballot box.

In previous weeks, polls were showing the "Table of Six" opposition bloc running neck and neck with Erdogan's alliance, so he may be sorely tempted to tilt the balance with an SOE. And if unrest or protests break out nationally, he might even expand the SOE to cover the entire country."

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