Turkey: Fires expose how Erdogan's regime is descending into farce and caricature
In the last two weeks, wildfires have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forest in Turkey's Mediterranean and Aegean provinces, killed eight people and forced thousands of people including tourists to flee. As of 9 August, fires were continuing to burn in the Mugla districts of Milas and Koycegiz, with nearly 240 blazes brought under control in the last 13 days.
The government’s mismanagement of the fires that swept southwest Turkey have reinforced the impression that the regime of President Tayyip Erdogan is in decay. It has also shown how dysfunctional his much vaunted executive presidential system has become, reinforcing the sense that the country is approaching the end of Erdogan’s era.
The economic toll of the fires has yet to be assessed, but it is likely to be severe. As several of the affected areas are among Turkey’s most important destinations for the tourism industry, there will be repercussions for a sector that has already suffered two tough years due to the pandemic. With the number of Covid-19 cases increasing again (the seven-day rolling average of daily infections is now close to 24,000), the prospects of a late summer boost are quickly fading.
The disaster caught the government badly unprepared, forcing officials to admit that Ankara lacks a functioning fleet of firefighting planes (while Erdogan has eight VIP planes reserved for his exclusive use). Despite its claim of having a strong state apparatus, the unprecedented fires have laid bare that Turkey was forced to lease foreign ones as its existing firefighting aircraft lie idle, grounded by lack of maintenance. The government has also come under criticism for failing to coordinate the response with the local administrations of affected regions, which are governed mostly by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and for its initial refusal to accept some foreign offers of help, particularly from the EU, in a bid to preserve an image of strength and prowess.
As seen in past crises, the government’s default course of action has been to politicize the disaster to provide a smokescreen against its own inadequacy. The recourse to lies and conspiracy theories (e.g., the fires were started by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/foreign enemies/domestic opposition forces etc.) to try to disguise Ankara’s incompetence is a sign of desperation, an increasing dependence on delusions to try to justify the regime’s continued retention of power. To smother the outcry, Turkey’s media regulator threatened to fine TV channels that continued airing live footage of the fires or running stories “that provoke fear and worries in the public.”
At present, it is difficult to assess exactly what impact the government’s mismanagement of the fires (and the damage to its image resulting from the highlighting of how corrupt and self-indulgent he has become) will have on Erdogan’s political support. There is no doubt that it is damaging. The only question is how much.
Opinion polls leave no doubt that Erdogan’s popular support is in long-term – and seemingly irreversible – decline. Yet much of the decline represents a loss of support for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), but it has yet to become firmly attached to another party (hence the large number of “don’t know” when people are asked who they will vote for). Overall, the fires and the public reaction to them have reinforced doubts about whether Erdogan can win a free and fair election, and have intensified the concerns about whether he will be prepared to risk allowing one to be held.
The widespread – and growing – sense that Turkey is edging closer to the end of Erdogan’s era also has an impact on AKP supporters. Some AKP voters (and politicians) are in denial about what is happening. As a result, they convince themselves that the regime’s insane conspiracy theories are true and that Turkey really is on its way to becoming a global power under Erdogan’s leadership.
At the same time, this constituency fears that, when regime change finally arrives, the new government will persecute the AKP and its supporters in the same way that the AKP has persecuted its critics and opponents. The lack of a credible heir apparent only exacerbates fears about what will happen post-Erdogan. There are probably several million voters who are heavily invested in the regime – whether financially (via jobs, contracts etc.) and/or ideologically. These will stick the AKP and its leader, although they are far too few to give Erdogan an election victory. However, it is still unclear whether the declining support for Erdogan – accelerated by the fires – will translate into support for other parties and/or presidential candidates.
For some time, the Erdogan regime has been making an increasing number of mistakes and miscalculations. The decision to have Erdogan tour the areas affected by the fires, throwing packets of tea at bystanders from his moving bus, was just the latest in a series of miscalculations. A few weeks ago, the Presidential Communications Directorate released Erdogan’s pre-recorded message for the religious holidays of Eid al-Adha without realizing that it included a segment in which he fell asleep.
Noise about a cabinet reshuffle is on the rise. This would be a desperate attempt to put the blame on some ministers but a reshuffle will hardly lead to policy change.
In addition to all the devastation caused by the fires, the government’s mishandling of the disaster has also reinforced already very serious concerns about what the regime will do next. And covering the regime’s mismanagement and ineptitude, as seen in the current crisis, is becoming increasingly difficult even for Erdogan.
*Wolfango Piccoli is co-president of Teneo Intelligence. He also serves as director of research and covers political risk in Europe, with a special focus on Italy, Greece and Turkey.
You can follow Wolfango on Twitter: @wolfpiccoli