Erdogan’s Election Hopes Could Hinge on Earthquake Response

The devastating earthquake in Turkey poses a significant test of governance for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is fighting for his political future just months before an election in May that could reshape the country.

Mr. Erdogan swept into power after a bungled government response to a 1999 earthquake that left more than 17,000 people dead and a financial crisis two years later. He has dominated Turkish politics for the two decades since — but his support has been weakened recently by sky-high inflation that dented his reputation as a capable, if controversial, administrator.

The earthquake “could really destroy the image of Erdogan as a powerful, autocratic, yet efficient leader,” said Soner Cagaptay, who heads Turkey research at the Washington Institute, a policy research organization. “We have to wait to see — it could play out depending on the disaster response.”

Mr. Erdogan, 68, faces a staggering task in the aftermath of Monday’s earthquake, which was one of the deadliest and most destructive natural disasters this century. Damage could top $1 billion, according to an estimate by the United States Geological Survey. Thousands are dead and the toll is rising.

He also faces a political challenge: Recent polls suggest that no one would win outright in the first round of presidential voting, and that either of two potential opposition candidates could beat Mr. Erdogan in a runoff, with survey margins ranging from single digits to more than 20 percentage points.

Turkish opponents and Western officials have accused Mr. Erdogan of pushing the country toward autocracy, largely because of sweeping powers he granted himself since a narrow majority of voters passed a referendum in 2017 that expanded the president’s role.

On Tuesday, he declared a three-month state of emergency in 10 provinces affected by the earthquake, allowing for limitations on freedoms that could include curfews, travel bans and compulsory assignment for civil servants.

The move raised immediate concerns, given the steps Mr. Erdogan took in 2016 after a failed coup attempt against him. A nationwide state of emergency was initially supposed to last three months but was extended for a total of two years. During that time, more than 100,000 people were detained and 150,000 public employees were purged from their jobs.

But analysts called Tuesday’s announcement an understandable step in light of the scale of the quake’s devastation. The three-month period would end shortly before the May 14 vote.

So far, the opposition has refrained from criticizing the response to the earthquake, with all the political parties on Tuesday issuing a rare joint statement of unity in the face of the temblor.

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