14 May will mark Turkey’s centenary and its President will be fighting for the right to take the country into its second century.

Something extraordinary happened in Turkey last week. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologised.
While visiting one of the areas hit hardest by the deadly earthquake on 6February, Erdogan, not known for modesty or contriteness, asked for forgiveness over the rescue delays blaming them on the bad weather. “Due to the devastating effect of the tremors and the bad weather, we were not able to work the way we wanted”, he said. So no blame on him; just the weather.
It’s almost four weeks since the world watched in horror as a brutal earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale and lasting only 85 seconds, devastated an area the size of Hungary on Turkey’s Syrian border. The death toll to date is more than 50,000 and the total damage is estimated at about $100 billion, ranking the earthquake and its 2,100 aftershocks the fourth costliest earthquake on record and the deadliest natural disaster in Turkey’s modern history. The catastrophe struck just as Erdogan was gaining momentum and starting to lift his approval numbers from a low suffered during a dire economic crisis that exploded last year.
14 May this year will mark Turkey’s centenary and its President, a teetotal, authoritarian former political Islamist will be fighting for the right to take the country into its second century. RecepErdogan had been hoping to approach the elections with a series of celebrations, but instead the presidential and parliamentary elections will be taking place in the aftermath of those disastrous earthquakes and tragic deaths. The irony is that he swept to power in 2002 partly thanks to an earthquake. The lamentable response of the then ruling coalition to the 1999 quake that hit Istanbul and Turkey’s north-western industrial heartlands, swept Erdogan to power. His campaign had railed against the then government’s inadequate preparation and the endemic corruption that allowed construction companies to skimp on building safety while pocketing large profits. Today, it’s the current leader of the opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is fuming about the “Gang of Five” major builders, who have close ties to Erdogan, and whose buildings were so badly constructed they failed to stand up to the earthquake. Touché!
But Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a wily politician and has built a strong power base among the divided electorate over the past 20 years. While there is plenty of evidence that he has been severely weakened by the current disaster, any criticism of him in the western or social media is unlikely to make its way onto Turkish TV or newspapers, as over his time in office he has developed almost a “Putinesque” control over the media. He has also learned from the Russian grandmaster how to side-line his strongest rival, Istanbul mayor EkremImamoglu, by concocting a conviction that bars him from office. By following Putin’s example in targeting and intimidating journalists in order to stifle public debate, subjugating judges, and purging the army and civil service, he has strengthened his de facto one-man rule.
In a classic Erdogan gambit, he is also exploiting to the full a benign fault-line that runs through his country—the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Spurned for membership of the European Union, President Erdogan is clearly using Turkey’s membership of NATO for domestic political ends, playing one side against the other and even favouring Moscow over NATO partners. For years, Turkey under Erdogan has been Russia’s most trusted partner within NATO.
Perhaps he is recalling Winston Churchill, who once said “never let a good crisis go to waste”. For Erdogan, that good crisis is the Ukraine war—a time for a star turn on the world stage as a mediator, while redefining Turkey’s role within NATO. Given its international isolation over the Ukraine war, Russia hopes to stay as Turkey’s ally despite many points of friction, not least Turkish drone sales to Ukraine. For now, the war has further increased Turkey’s importance to “pariah” Russia. Turkey has become a safe harbour, the only country in Europe to welcome Russia’s dictator and Russian business with open arms. In turn, Turkey has become Russia’s valued trading partner and a source of cash. There is also a growing sense of mutual dependency: Putin needs Erdogan’s help to salvage what is left of his legitimacy on the world stage; Erdogan will need Putin’s help in winning the elections this year and holding on to power.
Moscow is undeniably benefitting from Erdogan’s rejection and circumvention of Ukraine-related sanctions. Istanbul’s trade with Moscow grew by nearly 200% in the six months after Russia’s invasion, a figure which includes higher energy imports. Of particular current concern to Washington are the so-called dual use products, typically electronics that appear benign but that contain components such as chips that can have military applications and therefore avoid sanctions. US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson told Turkish bankers in Ankara last month that the marked rise over the past year in non-essential Turkish exports or re-exports to Russia makes the Turkish private sector particularly vulnerable to “reputational and sanctions risks”. In other words “be careful”.
But thenTurkey has for long been dealing with Russia in matters annoying the West. In 2017, Erdogan brokered a deal to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, reportedly worth $2.5 billion, which saw Turkey kicked out of the F-35 programme and its defence officials sanctioned. The deal had infuriated Washington as it viewed the missile system a threat to NATO forces. Undeterred, last September Erdogan said his country is considering buying a second S-400 system, despite strong objections by his NATO allies.
Erdogan’s behaviour also infuriates many in the West. “Turkey’s two-faced sultan is no friend of the West and it’s time to play hardball”, said the (UK) Guardian star columnist Simon Tisdall earlier this month. “If Erdogan’s sickening schmoozing of Putin, double dealing over Ukraine, neo-ottoman overreaching and on-off aggression towards fellow NATO member Greece are not sufficient proof of good faith”, he continued, “then consider his other war on his country’s democracy. Human rights abuses aside, Erdogan has made a huge mess of Turkey’s economy. Inflation is at 58 percent and living standards are plummeting. More than 70 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds say they would prefer to live abroad”. Strong stuff, but many western leaders would agree.
Turkey’s elections on 14 May this year are the most important in decades and will determine whether this nation of 85 million will keep hurtling down the road towards being an authoritarian, expansionist power, or whether it chooses a more liberal, pluralistic path. As the Economist questioned in a recent cover story: “will Turkey pull away from the brink and return to its flawed attempts to push through Ataturk’s quest towards western-style democracy, or plough on towards a much more dictatorial darkness?”
While the country grieves for the lives lost in those earthquakes (two more hit Turkey’s southern province of Hatay recently, causing further deaths and destruction) optimistic opposition journalists write that Erdogan will “go the way he came”, crushed by an earthquake like the one he harnessed to victory. Others say “not so fast”, citing Erdogan’s strong power base, control over the media and disunited opposition. Nevertheless, because of the ailing economy and the general malaise about his belligerent presidency, Erdogan finds himself electorally vulnerable for the first time in two decades. In just ten weeks’ time, the world will discover if Turkey experiences yet another earthquake. This time a political one.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.