Türkiye’s Zeitenwende

March 7, 2023

On February 6, 2023, two major earthquakes struck southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria. The international media correctly referred to them as the “Turkey-Syria earthquakes”. But for those familiar with the downturn relations between the two countries as a result of the Turkish government’s misguided leadership role in the regime change project in Syria, the title also had a political message: cooperation between neighboring countries is the dictate of reason no matter what. Twelve years ago, Ankara and Damascus were the closest friends, but then they became enemies. And the earthquakes united them in misery. The delays in getting international aid to quake-stricken regions of Syria were most unfortunate.

According to geologists, the earthquakes which hit Türkiye moved the tectonic plate it sits on by up to three meters.

Just as significantly perhaps, in the eyes of the world, this tectonic shift moved Türkiye more toward the core Middle East. Because the pictures of the devastation and the loss of life only reflected an endemic lack of respect for building standards, a lack of preparedness, a lack of expertise, a lack of coordination, and consequently a dismal response to the tragedy by Türkiye’s extremely centralized, personalized one-party state where everything, even the details of crisis management require instructions from the very top.

Following the earthquakes, President Erdogan visited the region where he said, “What’s happening is part of fate’s plan.” But later in Diyarbakir, he declared “We will leave behind these trying days. I would like to once again extend my get-well wishes to our brothers and sisters in Diyarbakir. With Allah’s permission, we will rebuild all the collapsed buildings in a year.”

Toward the end of the week following the earthquakes the first indications of the AKP government’s post-disaster gambit started to emerge. First was the arrest of contractors who had built some of the buildings shattered to the ground. And the second was the doubling down on Mr. Erdogan’s promise to build new homes in a year.

Has the government’s handling of the disaster given people any confidence? No. Like a badly mishandled patient, Türkiye is suffering all the ills of more than a decade-long political, economic, and cultural misgovernance. 

The lack of confidence in the AKP government’s handling of the earthquake reminds me of the 1917 February Revolution in Russia and the phrase “government of public confidence”. At the time Petrograd was in chaos with massive demonstrations and violent clashes between the protestors and the security forces. The Romanov dynasty was about to come to an end. On February 26, President of the Duma Mikhail Rodzianko, in a desperate attempt unlikely change the course of events, advised Tsar Nicholas II to form a “government of public confidence”. The Tsar had other ideas. Yet a few days later he had to abdicate. From then on it was a power game between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet until the October Revolution.

Probably, a century later, “a government of public confidence” still represents the aspiration of millions in the broad Middle East as in Türkiye.

Türkiye, needless to say, is not going to experience a revolution like the February Revolution in Russia. But Türkiye is also at an inflection point.

Chancellor Scholz’s must-read Foreign Affairs article, “The Global Zeitenwende” started with this: “The world is facing a Zeitenwende: an epochal tectonic shift.”

And it ended with the following: “In today’s densely interconnected world, the goal of advancing peace, prosperity, and human freedom calls for a different mindset and different tools. Developing that mindset and those tools is ultimately what the Zeitenwende is all about.”

His words perfectly describe where Türkiye finds itself at the moment. We have presidential and parliamentary elections at the latest on June 18, 2023. The choice would be between “more of the same” and democracy, the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, transparency, and accountability, between going back to the democratic path and becoming just any other authoritarian Middle East country.

Unfortunately, on March 3, Türkiye witnessed a political earthquake within the coalition of six opposition parties that had joined hands to take the country back to the democratic path. For three days, Türkiye held its breath. And yesterday, they chose unity and rallied behind Mr. Kılıçdaroglu. Nonetheless, their avoiding aftershocks, closing ranks, standing solidly together, and gaining the support of the other opposition parties remain a challenge.

Türkiye is experiencing a long dry season with lots of sunshine. But the political weather is extremely foggy with reduced visibility.


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