Turkey’s horrific earthquakes are a human tragedy. It would be even more tragic if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used them as an excuse to postpone the country’s scheduled June elections. President Biden and other Western leaders should use their influence to prevent that from happening.
Erdogan has ruled the country since 2003 as head of the Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP, the initials of its Turkish name. He has done so in an increasingly autocratic manner, arresting journalists and political opponents, though the country’s election mechanism remains largely fair and free.
In Turkey’s most recent elections, the opposition captured the mayoralties of its two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara. Polls taken before the earthquakes showed Erdogan and his party behind because of the country’s record-high inflation. Erdogan and the AKP had been gaining on the heels of his attempts to mediate the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but the opposition was still slightly favored to prevail.
The earthquakes could significantly harm Erdogan’s chances of retaining power. Observers generally acknowledge that the government botched its initial response, perhaps adding to the death toll. The fact that Erdogan reorganized the nation’s disaster preparedness agency and placed AKP cronies in charge makes him even more politically vulnerable. He has tried to shift blame by arresting developers and others alleged to have constructed flimsy buildings in the afflicted region in violation of the law. That might not be enough to stem public anger.
Political geography also bodes poorly for Erdogan. The earthquakes largely occurred in regions where Erdogan won between 63 and 74 percent of the vote in the 2018 election. He and the AKP need a large, pro-Erdogan turnout there to stem the opposition’s tide. The difficulty in staging an election in these areas, combined with the possibility of a fierce, anti-Erdogan backlash, will make that much harder.
This wouldn’t be the first time an earthquake shook up Turkish politics. A 1999 quake also mishandled by the Turkish government helped fuel Erdogan’s 2003 ascent to power. He will surely loathe to risk a similar reaction today.
That’s why it’s worrisome that some of Erdogan’s allies are calling for the election to be postponed. Erdogan himself has not endorsed these suggestions, but neither has he denounced or rejected them. They could be trial balloons to test whether domestic and international opinion would countenance a delay.
Biden and other Western leaders should decisively denounce such a move. Turkey’s democracy is already in decline. Postponing elections that the opposition could have won would increase tensions in Turkey dramatically. It is not in the West’s interest to see the country, a vital NATO ally, slip further into internal division or the authoritarian camp.
Biden has some cards to play to entice Erdogan to go along. No one should halt or curtail disaster aid for a political purpose, and Biden should not even hint that humanitarian assistance would be at risk if elections were postponed. But he could state that further economic aid from the United States and multilateral organizations would be at risk if elections don’t occur on time. Turkey also wants the United States to refund $1.4 billion that Turkey paid to acquire F-35 jets that it will no longer receive because it purchased Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles. Biden could agree to refund that money provided that elections take place in June.
Biden could also offer substantial election assistance to help Turkey stage the vote in the earthquake zone. He could offer the Supreme Election Council what it needs to hold a free and fair vote in a disaster area. This could range from offering technical advice to providing the necessary machines and trained personnel. The United States was able to hold the 2012 presidential vote on time in areas devastated just a week before by Hurricane Sandy; it should be able to help Turkey do the same four months from now.
The Turkish people need humanitarian help from the United States. They also deserve assistance in preserving their fragile democracy. Biden should make sure they receive all of it.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Thomas W. Smith distinguished scholar in residence at Arizona State University for the winter/spring 2023 semester.