Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
A devastating earthquake in southern Turkey could change the electoral equation for Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hopes an upcoming election will extend his rule well into a third decade.
While the 68-year-old leader faced the strongest opposition yet to his presidency, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake – which also hit northwest Syria and sent aftershocks across the region – could be a gamechanger for his political career, analysts say.
Erdogan has been visiting impacted areas, consoling victims and pledging to rebuild the thousands of flattened homes. On Tuesday, he announced a state of emergency in the ten hardest-hit provinces of the country’s south, many of which have traditionally supported him and his AK Party.
But there is disgruntlement with the government’s response in those areas, where some people complain that scores of bodies are yet to be collected, causing the stench of death to spread.
“There are no organized relief efforts in here,” Sinan Polat, a 28-year-old car dealer in Hatay province, told CNN. “There are so many bodies in front of the hospitals, there’s not even enough shroud to cover them. Cemeteries are full. What are we going to do, throw the bodies of our families into the sea? It’s not what we expected and hoped. Under these conditions, we’re not hopeful about the future.”
Nuran Okur, a 55-year-old resident of the southern city of Iskenderun, told CNN there was no sign of the state in the city. “It’s been four days, and there’s no one here.”
Erdogan’s response to Monday’s earthquake, which has so far killed more than 22,000 people across Turkey and Syria, may determine the results of an election that is scheduled for May 14.
Erdogan is likely aware of that. On Wednesday he acknowledged “shortcomings” in the government’s early response. The next day, he reminded Turks of government efforts in previous disasters, promising to rebuild homes in less than a year and pledging to support victims with 10,000 liras ($531) each.
“For Erdogan, the next 48 hours will be definitive,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy told CNN on Thursday.
Erdogan’s strongholds hit
Whether his efforts will salvage his chance at re-election is unclear. Most of the quake-stricken provinces in Turkey’s south are socially conservative and are strongholds of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM.
“The average AK Party performance in those provinces has been above their national average,” he said, adding that AK Party provinces have generally received more support from the central government, in comparison to opposition-held ones.
The ten provinces that were most affected by the earthquake represent around 15% of Turkey’s population of 85 million and a similar proportion of the 600-seat parliament. During the 2018 vote, Erdogan and the AK Party won the presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively, in all of those provinces but one, Diyarbakir. That region voted for the pro-Kurdish HDP party, and its candidate Selahattin Demirtas, who ran for elections from prison.
One of the strongest to hit the region in more than 100 years, the earthquake has so far killed 19,000 in Turkey alone, where the toll is expected to rise.
Emotions have been running high as many, including those in non-affected provinces, have expressed anger at what they feel was a lack of readiness for the disaster, especially since Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes.
In 1939, an earthquake of the same magnitude as Monday’s killed 30,000 people, and in 1999, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in the country’s northwest killed more than 17,000 people.
For Turkey’s rulers, quakes have been gamechangers in the past. In what later became a defining moment for Erdogan’s ascension to power, the 1999 quake – and the slow relief efforts that followed – only added to the sense of disillusionment many felt toward the nationalist, secularist state in power at the time, analysts say.
After the 1999 earthquake, the state “collapsed like a house of cards,” Cagaptay told CNN. “And that basically destroyed the ideological hold of the state over society.”
The government has particularly been criticized for its lack of preparedness to minimize damage from such disasters, said Ulgen, especially since the state has since the 1999 earthquake been collecting taxes aimed at sheltering the country from potential future disasters.
The Turkish opposition is already speaking out about the government’s perceived shortcomings in dealing with the tragedy.
Following a nationwide restriction on social media after the earthquake, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party said: “This insane palace government cut off social media communication.”
“As a result, crying for help is less heard,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “We know everything you’re trying to hide.”
While there have been no official announcements to postpone the May 14 elections, some analysts expect Erdogan and the opposition to agree on a later date.
It’s unlikely that conditions in the impacted provinces will allow for the vote to be held, said Ulgen.
“It is going to be a very complicated thing to be able to even orchestrate elections in these provinces,” he said.
With additional reporting by Yusuf Gezer in Iskenderun, Turkey.