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Record Wildfires Spawn Heated Political Rhetoric in Turkey

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As drought-driven wildfires ravage and traumatize Turkey’s farming sector, the catastrophe is fanning the flames of political division. 

Eight days into the country’s worst outbreak of wildfire in decades, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “under ferocious attack for his handling of the disaster, as well as his broader management of a country that was already battered by an economic crisis and the pandemic,” reports The New York Times.

Over the past week, more than 170 wildfires have kindled across the country. At least eight people have died, hundreds more have been hospitalized, and thousands have evacuated, fleeing ahead of blazes that are finding plenty of fuel after days of searing heat and months of drought. Countless herds of livestock have also been lost to the fires.

Also breaking out: political skirmishes, conducted largely on social media, between opponents of the Erdogan government and its staunch defenders. Critics are raising accusations of corruption and incompetence in the wildfire response, while Erdogan’s supporters say the accusers are simply using the catastrophe to undermine the state.

As it happens, the fires have been worst along Turkey’s south coast, an opposition stronghold, and local mayors along with officials of the opposing Republican People’s Party (CHP) have “complained in interviews and video appeals that they were not receiving the help needed from the central government—planes and helicopters to douse the blazes,” the Times says.

“Among the criticisms of Mr. Erdogan’s government have been its mothballing of planes to combat forest fires and its decision to contract for only three Russian planes in their place.”

Fanning the flames of political discord is the social media campaign #HelpTurkey. The movement, which presented itself as a legitimate effort to secure international assistance to fight the fires, seems likely to have been launched as a “sock puppet” effort to manipulate social media traffic and embarrass the national government. In response, government supporters have answered with their own hashtags asserting #StrongTurkey and #WeDon’tNeedHelp, while some government officials have lobbed likely baseless accusations that the fires were started intentionally by opposition supporters to “deflect blame for the disaster back onto their opponents.” 

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu condemned those comments. “When people whose souls are so hurt call for help, instead of understanding them, labelling the people as terrorists and collaborators is a tactic that only incompetent governments will resort to,” he said.