Beset by crises, Erdogan has time on his side

Recent earthquake and its mishandling along side Kurdish unrest affect Turkish president's popularity, but elections are far away.

Erdogan in office 521 (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
Erdogan in office 521
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who enjoyed a huge election victory last June, has had little but trouble since he embarked on his third term in office. The economy has begun to unravel, fighting with the Kurds has surged and this week an earthquake caught the government unprepared.
But time is on the side the prime minster and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and he has time to rough it out before they face the voters, analysts said. Local elections aren’t scheduled until 2013 and the presidential election – in which Erdogan is widely expected to offer himself as a candidate – aren’t due until 2014.
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“By then, the earthquake and its impact will be forgotten, so I don’t think there will be any fallout,” said Sinan Ulgen, an expert on Turkish politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels. In fact, he said, Erdogan’s long-term problem is with the country’s restive Kurdish minority and his efforts to rewrite the constitution in a way that will answer their national demands.
“The Kurdish question is going to have a significant impact on popularity of the government and Erdogan,” Ulgen told The Media Line. “The downside is if Turkey fails to reach an agreement then this could open the way to radicalization of Kurdish issue. We have already seen signs of that.”
Erdogan and the AKP have been held up by many as a model for a successful mixed of Islam and democracy and by others a danger to the West and for democracy in Turkey. Whichever he is, Erdogan’s ability to navigate his country through the crises will have ramifications beyond Turkey’s borders.
Sunday’s earthquake – a tremor with a magnitude of 7.2 that struck the eastern Van Province, had claimed 534 dead as of Thursday. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of others are believed to remain beneath the rubble as the government struggles to mount rescue efforts and provide services for the survivors.
On Thursday, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek admitted that the funds collected through dedicated earthquake tax imposed from 1999 on things like telephone bills was in fact used for general purposes. The taxes were introduced after the Marmara earthquake in 1999, which killed more than 20,000 people, to pay for damage and earthquake preparedness.
The opposition and others have sharply criticized the government for the shortcomings, particularly its decision to reject outside aid except from neighboring Iran and Azerbaijan. With rescue teams short of equipment and tents, the government was forced to make an embarrassing backtrack and accept assistance, including from Israel, with whom it has had strained relations.
Erdogan conceded on Wednesday that there has been some initial stumbling in rescue efforts but insisted that they had been corrected.
“There was really a failure in the first 24 hours. We admit that. But there should be a margin for error in such big disasters,” he said, adding that he was planning a second visit to the eastern province before the end of the week. “The Red Crescent sent 15,379 tents. In fact, that should have been more than enough. But unfortunately the situation got out of control.”
Meanwhile, fighting the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is growing more severe. PKK fighters killed 24 Turkish soldiers and injured 18 more in a well-planned ambush last week, prompting the army to dispatch over 10,000 troops backed by drones, helicopters and fighter jets into the southern province of Hakkari and over the border into Iraq. The army claimed it killed at least 270 militants. 
Ulgen said the key to defusing the conflict is a new constitution, work on which has begin this month with a deadline of next summer for completion.
“If by then there is an agreed package on the table, then (Erdogan) is going to give a significant boost of popularity to himself because he can then legitimately say he has been able to find a solution to this problems that has proven to be intractable,” he said.
The PKK is intent on upsetting constitutional changes and the geopolitical situation may well assist it. The US withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year has many officials worried that PKK will step up operations in the north of the country, where an autonomous Kurdish region already exist.
“We have to think about this possibility. The PKK has already escalated its attacks and our troops launched an efficient offensive against them,” an unnamed Turkish diplomat told the daily Hurriyet on Wednesday.
Syria, whose regime has come under withering criticism by Erdogan for its violent crackdown on a months’ old rebellion, may also stir up trouble with the Kurds in revenge. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Damascus on Tuesday that it should “not even think about playing such a card.”
Even the earthquake could factor in as accusations of government neglect in meeting people's needs could alienate even those Kurds who have stayed aloof of the conflict. The quake struck largely Kurdish regions, where local authorities are in the hands of Kurdish opposition parties.