Turkey: the tremors of power

(To Gino Lanzara)

According to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith1, “Earthquakes and other natural disasters shake political systems” depending on two factors: the scope/size of the winning coalition, and how long the power has been held by the ruler. According to de Mesquita, democracies run the greatest risks, given that dictatorships do not experience elective responsibilities. It is therefore not excluded that Erdoğan, unlike Assad, will be forced to contend with bitter difficulties given that, in the face of 20 years of government, he will (perhaps) have to face the gauntlet of the spring elections, especially as the earthquake devastated the its electoral heart. As anger rises, the popular desire to see specific responsibilities recognized grows.

The earthquake was indeed incredibly violent, but how much did inefficiencies and lack of controls play into it? Will the emergency powers advocated by Reis be enough, or will they be just the useful means to repress criticism or to act on the opposition by postponing the elections?

For the first time in 20 years, Erdoğan is theoretically at risk both in the race for the presidential seat and in maintaining a parliamentary majority. Ekrim İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul has already suffered judicial barring and the law on fake news is ready to intervene on social media. The economy is feeble, and government policies have been based on the assumption that low interest rates would have contained inflation. Furthermore, the increase in trade relations with Russia and the Gulf countries has caused a disconnection from indispensable Western technology.

It should also be considered that Ankara sees itself dramatically blocked in the run-up to the coveted Mediterranean centrality, which should have represented a renewed entry into the scene of energy relations, given that the only alternative gas pipelines to the Russian ones transit through its territory, destined for central Europe and southern. Blue Stream to the Black Sea; the pipeline linking Ankara to Tehran; the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline which transports gas from Azerbaijan to Italy, in Puglia; the Turkstream. Given the picture, it is understandable why Russia intends to propose to Turkey a non-leading role as an energy hub for Europe, where a hub must be understood as an infrastructural center for distribution and storage in synergy with an energy exchange market thanks to which fuel can be resold to different buyers by setting reference prices.

Behind an apparent balanced policy between the West and Russia, Turkey has in fact distanced itself from NATO and Europe, entrusting its missile defense to the Kremlin's S-400 system which has thus obtained an undisputed strategic advantage. Historically, the Turkish leadership should be reminded how to play the role of the alleged tip the scales have generally brought shame.

As if that weren't enough, the threats to Greece and forms of obstructionism Atlantic against Sweden.

Finally, the duplicity of Turkish policy is completed by the wavering behavior held with regard to Western sanctions against Moscow. The new defensive structure, the contiguity with Russia and the anti-Greek narratives, regardless of the electoral results, will lead to lasting differences with the Western partners who, over time, will find themselves grappling with a country with a highly destabilizing policy, an element that has already been tested by the Ukrainian leadership, which unexpectedly saw the Russian one taking precedence, while continuing to receive supplies of drones for military use.

It remains to be seen whether Turkey's alleged political self-sufficiency, halfway between East and West, will be able to persist after the earthquake, when the international assembly, while working for aid, will adopt a decidedly more pragmatic and prudent line towards a partner that is in any case necessary. Necessary, yes, but linked to strategic techniques of mobilization against external and internal antagonists aimed at guaranteeing the broadest electoral coalition.

At the heart of the cyclical witch hunts, bad economic management persists, which has favored an economic model based on consumption and state intervention that has undermined the most productive sectors to the point of devaluing the lira, the fragmentation of Erdogan's electoral coalition.

For the West, will it be enough to hope for the victory of the opposition in a country intimately fascinated by the Eurasian concept? Difficult. The opposing parties will have to conquer the conservative and nationalist heart, not very condescending towards the USA, safeguarding the foundations of the doctrine of Mavi Vatan, the Blue Homeland.

For the moment, inflation, devaluation, a principle of international isolation, are forcing the government to take contradictory actions, for example by relating simultaneously to Iran and Israel, or by opposing proposals for NATO membership unless supposedly withdraw if the US agrees to the hitherto denied supply of 40 F-16 and 79 upgrade kits2, but not without launching poisonous bets on Washington on the occasion of the latest 2022 attacks in Istanbul. It will not be a signed agreement, but there is no doubt that it is an expectation. Precisely in a dramatic moment like this, it is to be hoped that NATO's capacity for democratic co-optation can break through the Turkish desire not to be forced into political isolation.

How many problems are gripping Ankara? Many, perhaps too many, starting with an economy in anoxism, which cannot see how it will be able to remedy the disaster that has struck. But how to persuade a Reis that his economic fundamentals do not reconcile doctrine and common sense? Lowering the discount rate despite the rise in inflation has been shown to not help the economy, even if it does not raise political and electoral ratings with real yields pushed into negative territory, unless unexpected adjustments arrive and exotically mysterious; to regularize the matches a trick was adopted, so thanks to the voice clear errors and omissions the capital flows whose origin is have been accounted for unknown but whose proportions are consistent3. What is certain is that the consistency of these capital flows from unknown sources has increased since 2018, the year in which Erdoğan assumed the presidential office strengthened by constitutional variations. With an internal debt of approx 3,2 trillion lire, a sum equal to 45% of GDP, the Reis government is preparing to pass a huge burden to the next executive; interest expense, payment of interest rates to depositors in lira, revenues, are always restricting the government's room for maneuver by implementing the prospect of financial default.

What is certain is that uncertain government action made the earthquake more lethal, despite the fact that the AKP built its political fortunes on another earthquake in 1999. Bueno de Mesquita would now say that a single government action should have made prevention and relief more politically effective, but having emptied the institutions of content has done nothing but amplify the drama that is still unfolding.

That the earthquake was naturally devastating is beyond any reasonable doubt, but that an uncontrolled building boom has facilitated the low resistance of the buildings is equally true. In Hatay, particularly affected by the earthquake, everything collapsed, including the local office of the Presidency for Disaster and Emergency Management.

In 2022 a snow storm heavily damaged Isparta4; in 2018, a train accident caused by poor maintenance in Corlu killed 25 people; in 2014, 301 miners died in Soma from an explosion5; in 2021, fires ravaged southern Turkey, killing at least nine people and forcing thousands more to flee. The government later admitted that it did not have a fleet of firefighting aircraft.

Even last Monday, the government's response was ineffective. Depriving the institutions of their independence in order to centralize power was in fact imprudent. It is known that Turkey is a country at risk of natural events, it is less understandable that the AFAD, the equivalent of the Italian Civil Protection, can enjoy a smaller budget than that allocated to Presidency for Religious Affairs.

While rescue efforts are still underway, several experts say that most of the buildings were built with poor quality materials and without respecting anti-seismic protocols. In any case, nature has acted with a tragic and impartial level, placing everything and every person on the same dramatic level.

If for Erdoğan the real estate industry was a flagship, Turkey should ask itself whether, from an urban point of view, it was not appropriate to question everything; the natural disaster, inevitable, is accompanied by an economic growth which is instead highly avoidable e doped by the effects of inflation and the poor control of construction standards.

It is inevitable that the earthquake will produce geopolitical consequences, linked to Erdoğan's permanence in power, never so captivated by the efficiency of an apparatus that has shown itself to be slow. The electoral alternatives to Reis are scarce, especially since the only valid and possible opponent, the mayor of Istanbul İmamoğlu, has been sentenced to more than 2 years in prison. Finally, the often mentioned economic and financial crisis would contribute to the defeat; the judicial action brought against the builders now appears as the classic one mass distraction at a particularly critical political moment.

In such devastation a small miracle; Israel has sent rescue teams and vehicles to Syria thanks to requests received through diplomatic channels: the 2 countries, in fact, have no official relations.

1The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

2 What would the USA do if, after having sold the fighter jets, they were faced with an increasingly authoritarian slide, perhaps with the indefinite postponement of the elections?

3 In the past months, $5,5 billion was recorded, bringing the amount of capital flows to $24,4 billion. This figure was enough to cover part of the current account deficit, estimated at $36,7 billion for the first nine months of 2022. Part of these mysterious capital flows can be explained by the completely legal repatriation of foreign currency held by the private sector abroad.

4 The city's utilities had been privatized by the AKP and sold to companies owned by subsidiaries of close associates of Reis. 

5 Miners and opposition parties said no safety precautions had been taken. Only 20 days before the accident, the AKP had opposed carrying out checks on the condition of the mine.