Raging Wildfires Provide Bleak Backdrop for Embattled Erdogan
(Bloomberg) -- Wildfires ravaging Turkey’s picturesque coasts and a flailing government response are adding to the list of political woes for an increasingly unpopular President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Protests on social media peaked over the weekend with Twitter and Facebook awash with videos of decimated forests along Turkey’s southern coast, victims in despair, holidaymakers being rescued by boat and calls for international help. A #helpturkey campaign spurred millions of postings within hours and trended from Turkey to the U.K.
But it also unleashed an angry response from the presidency. Erdogan’s communications chief, Fahrettin Altun, said the social-media outpouring was part of a foreign plot to portray Turkey as a weak state and originated from a “single center overseas.”
Turkey has what it takes to overcome the disaster and pay for all the losses, he said, setting off a competing #StrongTürkiye hashtag.
“Moments of crisis show the extent of institutional erosion within the government,” said Burak Bilgehan Ozpek, a professor of political science at TOBB University in Ankara. “The government is trying to silence civil society to conceal its failure.”
Statements from ministers that firefighting aircraft were poorly maintained and unfit for service triggered much of the backlash. Turkey sought help from Russia, Iran and the European Union, which has member states also battling blazes as much of the Mediterranean region bakes under near-record temperatures.
The aviation agency in charge of the planes, known as THK, is run by Cenap Asci, a court-appointed trustee who was Erdogan’s minister of trade and customs in 2015. Asci quickly rejected responsibility for the poor condition of the aircraft, and later said he was at a wedding while fires spread along the Mediterranean coast.
Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said on Monday that 16 planes and 51 helicopters were fighting the flames. Ministers were sent to affected areas to coordinate efforts with local mayors, most from opposition parties.
Combating wildfires in rugged terrain is a challenge for any government. But the popular perception that officials are failing this week’s victims is reminiscent of two massive earthquakes that shook Turkey’s commercial heartland around Istanbul in 1999.
The inability of the then-ruling center-left coalition to prevent Turkey’s largest cities from sinking into chaos paved the way for back-to-back economic crises. The surge in popular discontent that followed wiped out the ruling establishment and allowed Erdogan’s AK Party to start its two-decade reign.
Support for the party is already at record lows amid high rates of economic inequality and unemployment, as well as allegations of widespread corruption among officials. The AK Party lost control of the country’s biggest cities in elections in 2019.
The fires also highlight Erdogan’s personal bind: three years after assuming additional executive powers that he said were needed to deliver better governance, his administration is struggling to confront a predictable, if extreme, natural disaster.
Human-caused climate change has led to global average temperatures increasing about 1.1 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times, which studies show is leading to more extreme heatwaves.
By Monday, firefighters had extinguished or controlled more than 120 fires reported across the country over the past week.
But those still raging were in tourist hot spots such as Marmaris and Manavgat, posing a risk to an industry still attempting to recover from last year’s pandemic slump in travel. In Milas, a major power-generating complex was in danger if the wind change direction.
“The fire is raging just seven kilometers away from a thermal power plant,” Muhammet Tokat, the local mayor who’s from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said by phone after a meeting with government officials. “Three villages and tourist facilities were completely burned down. We’re now ordered to evacuate two more villages.”
The central government isn’t doing enough, the mayor said.
“We’re too late. The government just said the planes are making sorties but we did not see a single one as of 11 a.m. The last helicopter came in at 6:45 a.m., and it was useless,” Tokat said.
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