Erdogan surprises political pundits by sticking to May 14 election date

Erdogan surprises political pundits by sticking to May 14 election date
Erdogan addresses AKP lawmakers on his decision to press ahead with the chosen election day. / Turkish Presidency
By bne IntelIiNews March 2, 2023

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 1 surprised political pundits when he said he was sticking to May 14 as the chosen date for Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

Erdogan was widely expected to move to postpone the polls given the additional blow to his popularity caused by the widespread perception in Turkey that his administration left the country exposed to the sheer devastation caused by the February 6 earthquakes by enabling construction companies to get away with shoddy home-building practices for two decades. However, in a speech to lawmakers from his Justice and Development party (AKP), Erdogan stated that he planned to hold the elections on the date already announced, the date he was pushing in the weeks leading up to the earthquake disaster in which—according to the latest confirmed death toll count—more than 50,000 people across parts of southern Turkey and northern Syria lost their lives.

As always with Erdogan, a practised and wily political operator, there will be observers who smell a rat. It might be possible for instance that the strongman is putting on a show of false bravado while knowing that the election board will, citing logistical difficulties, move to block the earmarked polling day given the state of emergency and certain degree of chaos still restricting citizens in the earthquake zone.

But for now, if Erdogan is taken at his word, the opposition will have to get a move on in selecting a presidential candidate to take on Turkey’s leader of 20 years. Indeed, the election announcement can also be seen as a way to flush out the identity of that candidate so that Erdogan can better aim his attacks at the challenger.

“This nation will do what is necessary on May 14,” Erdogan told the AKP lawmakes.

Some 1.25mn people remain homeless in the earthquake region, according to the World Bank. Great numbers are living in tents and modified shipping containers.

The anger at how unprepared Turkey was for a disaster that many experts had predicted as inevitable is deep, widespread and palpable across Turkey. At the weekend, fans of two top Istanbul football clubs, Fenerbahce—the club that counts Erdogan as a prominent support—and Besiktas, chanted anti-government slogans in a stinging public rebuke of Erdogan’s administration. In response, the provincial government banned Fenerbahce fans from attending an away game this coming weekend in the central city of Kayseri. Fenerbahce described the decision as “unacceptable”.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)—who, despite regular criticism that he lacks charisma and has suffered a string of election defeats during his political career, is expected by many analysts to get the nomination to challenge Erdogan—has been unsparing in attacking the president as responsible for the immense scale of the earthquake catastrophe.

In addition to the loss of life—with some commentators noting that 50,000 deaths might not really tell the story as no figure has been given for missing persons and some experts have said the eventual death toll could easily exceed 100,000—there was some $34bn in damage to homes, hospitals, schools and public infrastructure. Insufficient compliance with building regulations, which critics say faced little pushback from officials over the Erdogan years due to corruption, laxity and incompetence, almost certainly left tens of thousands of inhabitants of southern Turkey sitting targets in the face of a major quake.

The opposition coalition of half a dozen parties, known as the “table of six”, is due to meet on March 3. A presidential candidate may be chosen at the meeting, but the name may not be announced publicly for some time.

Prior to the earthquake crisis, Erdogan and his party were already struggling in the opinion polls given claims of economic mismanagement that led to rampant inflation and the collapse of the Turkish lira.

Prior to the launch of his unofficial campaigning for re-election, Erdogan delivered a series of pre-election gains for Turks to address the country’s cost of living crisis, including a rise in the minimum wage. But the pay hike has not been enough to overcome the soaring inflation faced by the electorate.