February 9, 2023

It took barely two days for Monday’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria to turn political. On Wednesday, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, warned of the danger of giving credence to “provocateurs”. He was referring to opposition figures who have criticised his slow reaction to the disaster and blamed the destruction of some 6,400 buildings in this notoriously earthquake-prone country on his government’s failure to enforce its own construction regulations. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party, accused Erdoğan of “primary responsibility” for these inadequacies, while on social media government and opposition figures batted back and forth footage of, on the one hand, ministers joining aid convoys to the affected region and, on the other, survivors standing in front of buildings that had collapsed onto their inhabitants, and pleading, “where is the state?”.

Turkey won praise for quickly assembling container cities to accommodate the Syrian refugees who streamed across the border in the early years of the civil war. And you can be sure that Erdoğan, a near-absolute ruler even before the state of emergency he proclaimed on Tuesday, will exert himself to get the homeless housed as soon as possible. Politically, the hazards lie in the past. Every collapsed building is a reminder of the corruption associated with a construction industry whose leading players are known more for their government connections than their adherence to safety norms. Alluding to hypothecated taxes that the government introduced after earlier earthquakes, and which are designed, among other things, to make buildings earthquake-resistant, Kılıçdaroğlu asked: “So where is that money? Gone! They fed it to the gangs!”

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The tragedy will cast a long and bitter shadow over the presidential election that is due on May 14. For the government, disaster management is an election campaign by another name. And Erdoğan loves elections. Since 2002, he and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have won six Turkish general elections, one presidential election and three referendums. That he doesn’t fight clean or fair can make one forget that he’s probably the world’s most successful electoral politician, and certainly among the most instinctive, a populist who’s rarely happier than when whipping up a crowd of flag-waving supporters, ridiculing his opponents or addressing in terms of proprietorial familiarity those pious Turkish nationalists who make up the biggest section of the country’s electorate.

Erdoğan’s worst shock at the polls came in 2019, when the AKP lost control of two key mayoralties: Istanbul, to a new star of the secular-leaning Republican People’s Party, Ekrem İmamoğlu, and Ankara. Erdoğan responded to defeat in Istanbul, which he considers his fief, by insisting on a rerun, which İmamoğlu won by a bigger margin. But last December a pliant judge sentenced the mayor to two and a half years in prison for calling election officials “idiots”, and banned him from politics — thus blocking his path to a run against Erdoğan in May.

Opinion polls suggest that not only İmamoğlu, who remains in office pending appeal, but also other opposition politicians, could beat Erdoğan — which makes sense when you consider that inflation is at 64% and the economic miracle Turkey enjoyed until 2015 has given way to pain, much of it self-inflicted. (The reason why Turkish inflation is the second highest in the G20 is that Erdoğan has an ideological aversion to raising interest rates; his Central Bank — “his” being the operative word — has cut the benchmark rate by 10 percentage points since September 2021, just as other central banks raised theirs.) But when, shortly before the earthquake, I asked a politically astute Turkish friend — someone I have known since the late Nineties, when I was a resident reporter covering, among other things, the rise of a promising young Istanbul mayor called Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — whether the president really can be beaten, she replied with an unhesitating “no”.

After two decades in which he has survived coup attempts by secularists and rival Islamists and bombing campaigns by Islamic State and Kurdish militants, Erdoğan’s staying power can appear uncanny and preordained. Bekir Ağırdır, a columnist, wrote recently that news that the six opposition parties that have formed an alliance against the AKP are already “sharing out jobs and power” betrays a delusional complacency that only “strengthens the conviction that [the election] can’t be won”. Another commentator noted that the media in Russia, Turkey’s most important ally, is predicting a shoe-in for Putin’s chum across the water, “the indispensable Erdoğan”.

Since 2016, when Putin, in contrast with the West, backed Erdoğan unconditionally as he suppressed a coup attempt by rival Islamists, the Turkish president has met his Russian counterpart more than any other leader. Uneasy bedfellows the two countries may be, with interests that don’t always coincide in Syria, the Caucasus and, most recently, Ukraine, but the relationship isn’t really about Turkey and Russia; it’s about two strong men who share a desire to boss the neighbourhood but have sharper differences with the West than they do with each other.

One might marvel that even now, after Erdoğan has captured the judiciary, locked up tens of thousands of opponents, throttled the internet and herded the approved media into pens of abject obedience, all the while relieving his own party of anything resembling a mind of its own, Turkey has an opposition at all. But the country contains big minorities — Kurds, liberals and a heterodox sect called the Alevis — who hate his Sunni Turkish majoritarianism and that, in the Kurds’ case, have taken up arms against it. If these constituencies pull together, and there is sufficient attrition from the government side, an electoral shock may still be possible. In the three national elections and one referendum that have been staged in Turkey over the past six years, the number of votes received by the opposition has oscillated between 22.5 and 24 million, while Erdoğan and his allies have received between 24 and 27 million.

The opposition is disunited. Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party is a dogged but uninspiring Alevi. Its other main component is a Right-leaning party containing Turkish nationalists. But the Turkish nationalists refuse to admit the country’s main Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, regarding Kurdish nationalist politicians as the polite face of armed separatism. And yet Kurdish votes will be crucial if power is to change hands on 14 May. Four months shy of the election — and with the Peoples’ Democratic Party facing a possible ban for its links to Kurdish militants — it isn’t clear which candidate or candidates from the opposition alliance will stand and who might be acceptable to the Kurds.

Erdoğan devoted his first 10 years in power to trying to improve human rights, liberalise the economy and make peace with the Kurds, all under the approving eye of the US and the EU, with which Turkey opened accession talks in 2005. He also expelled Turkey’s meddlesome generals from politics and embarked on a creeping Islamisation of the state. He presented a smiling alternative to the authoritarian secular state when I met him, in his capacity as mayor of Istanbul, in the spring of 1997, offering me delicious early strawberries on the terrace of an Ottoman folly he had restored and assuring me of the purity of his democratic convictions. Six years later, after a spell in jail for quoting from a controversial poem, he came to power nationally with the support not only of a large chunk of the electorate but also of the West, which regarded Erdoğan’s brand of pious but apparently pluralistic conservatism, and the spectacle of a Muslim Nato member knocking on the door of the EU, as the world’s best chance of avoiding a clash of civilisations.

Then came the 2010s — the decade of the Syrian civil war, the collapse of the Kurdish peace process and rising tensions with the EU, which, it was now clear, had no intention of letting Turkey in — and his programme degenerated into an unstable collage of transactions, vendettas and exhibitions of military potency. Democracy and human rights were discarded even if Erdoğan still needs the shot in the arm of periodic elections, contests which, short of stuffing ballot boxes, he has used every means available to win. There is no longer anything in the way of overarching design save a mission to keep his job and resist the circling enemies that are determined to drag Turkey down from her rightful position of global influence.

Two decades of power does odd things. The same Erdoğan who once vowed to topple the “godless” Bashar al-Assad, and whose army occupies swathes of northern Syria, now wants normalisation with his southern neighbour. The philanthropist who let in 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the name of Islamic solidarity has done a volte face and vows to send them home. Erdoğan the doctrinaire Muslim welcomes millions of hard-drinking European tourists; the EU he takes such pleasure from deriding happens to be the country’s biggest trading partner and source of foreign investment. Putin’s pal also supplies drones to Zelensky. And every incoherence in policy is justified by invoking the goal of a strong, respected Turkey, capable of rebutting her many foes. You can be sure that, when the time comes to assess his government’s performance in dealing with the fall-out from the earthquake, Erdoğan won’t dwell on the Western countries that have rushed to Turkey’s aid.

Before the earthquake, in an address to the nation from his palace in Ankara, the President warned that the country’s enemies would never accept a Turkey “whose infrastructure is healthy, whose political will is its own, whose military and technological capabilities are rising”. Fortunately, he went on, “we have proved to the world in the struggle we have waged… that we can protect our independence and our future without regard to the impositions, desires and strictures of anyone else”. After a brisk overview of various recent ground-breakings, ribbon-cuttings and medal-pinnings he had attended, and not forgetting his latest chat with Mr Putin, he gave an enthusiastic account of the opening of a new high-speed metro line linking Istanbul and the airport, after which, pausing for effect, he said, “they don’t even have this in Paris”. This elicited dutiful titters among the cabinet ministers in the hall. Pressing home his advantage, the president concluded, “the Paris metro has a leaky roof”.

Having dealt with one European has-been, his tone hardened when he spoke of the public burning of a Quran by a well-known Islamophobe in Stockholm, on 21 January, as an “ugly act” which, since it took place outside the Turkish embassy and under the protection of the Swedish police, was “not only a religious issue, but also a national one”. Expanding his theme to include the current spat with Sweden and Finland over their accession to Nato, which he has promised to veto if they do not extradite scores of Kurdish “terrorists”, Erdoğan announced that “those who encourage or close their eyes” to the Quran’s desecration should “expect not the slightest indulgence from us on the subject of their application to join Nato… if you love the terrorists and Islamophobes so much (his voice rising to a familiar crescendo) why not entrust the security of your nation to them!” Calming down a bit, Erdogan went on to give details of his economic genius. The ministers crossed and uncrossed their legs. It wasn’t the performance of a man who expects to be moving out of his home, which cost $600 million, is four times the size of Buckingham Palace, and is alleged to have gold loo seats, later this summer.