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What President Erdogan's future may hold, after Turkey's devastating earthquakes


It's been just over a month since earthquakes devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, and the dimensions of the tragedy have become all too clear - tens of thousands killed, even more injured, millions now homeless. But now we want to focus on how the disaster has been handled and what that might say about the leadership of one central figure. I'm talking about Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That's because Turkey has become a major player in global politics. It's a member of the NATO alliance, and Erdogan was a key figure in negotiating a deal to get grain shipments out of Ukraine last year.

But his tenure has been marked by increasing controversy. He's been accused of taking on ever more autocratic tendencies, and he was the subject of a coup attempt in 2016. Given all this, we wanted to hear more about what his history as a leader might tell us about what we might see next as the country faces upcoming elections, even as it tries to recover from the earthquake. We called Soner Cagaptay for this because he's been following Erdogan for years. He's the author of "Erdogan's Empire: Turkey And The Politics Of The Middle East," and he's here with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SONER CAGAPTAY: A pleasure. Thank you for hosting me.

MARTIN: Let me just start with the news of the week. On Friday, President Erdogan announced that elections in Turkey will be held in May - May 14. I think that is a month earlier than scheduled. I mean, even as we said, you know, the country is still recovering from this devastating event. And, you know, millions of people are displaced. They don't even have homes. So how do you read this decision?

CAGAPTAY: It's a month before the constitutionally prescribed deadline of June 18th. And I think President Erdogan has decided that the earlier he does the elections, it's - the better it is for him. Because Turkey suffered from its worst natural disaster in history, thousands have died. I think the country is now still in the stage of grief, trying to come to terms with loss. And next, of course, what will follow is anger. So President Erdogan is going to face criticism for relief and rescue efforts and construction and corruption and all of that. And he's decided that he's - just wants to move forward with the elections as soon as possible, before grief turns into anger and that he could be buried under the tsunami of anger if it does.

MARTIN: Has the earthquake shifted things for him, from what you can tell?

CAGAPTAY: It has. So President Erdogan - I followed his career for about two decades. He's built a brand in Turkey, an interesting one as a Janus-faced politician, right? He's delivered growth for about 15 years, lifted people out of poverty, increased incomes, access to the pie. All of that is great. And he has a base, including many people, poor people he has lifted out of poverty, that loves him. But he's also got a dark and illiberal side. He's a nativist, populist politician. He has brutalized, cracked down on demographics unlikely to vote for him. So he's got a chunk of the country that loves him and a chunk of the country that simply loathes him.

So I would say his brand over the last two decades was that he was seen as an autocratic politician, but his brand was also that - was that he would take care of you. He was efficient and effective. So it was kind of like this father figure in Turkish politics. And the earthquake has completely bookended that. While disaster hit, the autocratic patriarchal figure, President Erdogan, was not there to take care of the citizens. And I think it's going to be hard for him to rebuild his image going forward.

MARTIN: You wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs this month. And you wrote, quote, "Erdogan will shift posture and seek to once again instill fear in the citizenry, trying to appear strong and in command." You added that, for example, during a public address, Erdogan chided citizens for spreading fake news in an indignant tone. What is that all about? Like, what is he trying to accomplish here?

CAGAPTAY: For Erdogan, you know, his wrath is as real as his compassion. And I think over the years, while those who oppose him have come to loathe him, he's built a base constituted by conservative voters also attracted to his nativist populist message who simply love him. So I was really surprised that in the aftermath of this biggest disaster in Turkey's history, where thousands died and thousands others were waiting under the rubble to be pulled out alive, he chided citizens for criticizing him and his performance. And I think that's the angry Erdogan that perhaps we're going to see going forward. He's realized that if he doesn't double down on autocracy, he's not going to win the election.

MARTIN: But just - forgive me, just playing devil's advocate here. This was a tragedy of enormous dimensions. I mean, would not that have strained the resources of most countries?

CAGAPTAY: Absolutely. I think that a disaster of this proportion, perhaps no government could have handled response to it in a way that, you know, relief would be there in hours after disaster struck. But in Turkey, it took 48 hours for the government's relief agencies to appear. NGOs run by civilians did a better job than publicly funded agencies with billion-dollar budgets. And here's what happened. Erdogan, when he came to power after consolidating, gutted out many of Turkey's institutions.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. What you have just said here is kind of at the crux of what a lot of our reporters saw on the scene, which is that how is it that these NGOs, privately funded groups, even sometimes informal, you know, networks, you know, family groups were able to get on the scene faster than government-funded agencies? And, in fact, I mean, is it my understanding that Turkey has the largest standing army in the Middle East, right? Doesn't it have like a million men under arms?

CAGAPTAY: It's the second-largest army in NATO. It also is a country with a nearly trillion-dollar-size economy, massive institutions. But while consolidating power, especially in the last decade, Erdogan has gutted out many institutions. Take, for instance, Turkey's equivalent of FEMA, which is called AFAD in Turkey. This is relief and rescue agency - emergency disaster response agency, right? So instead of putting engineers, civil engineers, rescue engineers, earthquake engineers - Turkey is an earthquake prone country, sadly - to run this agency, Erdogan appointed loyalists. And Turkey's an advanced cases of what happens to countries when a nativist populist leader takes over.

So the leader not only demonizes those who don't vote for him, but also guts out institutions and turns them into zombie institutions. If the institution doesn't fall to him, the leader will basically appoint loyalists or pass legislation to diminish its power. That's what happened to Red Crescent Society in Turkey, which has been a traditional agency in Turkey that delivers relief in case of earthquake and other disasters. That agency completely disappeared because Erdogan didn't like it and he set up his own. So the sad part of it is that after the earthquake struck, neither the Red Cross was there, nor the new agency Erdogan had set up there. And citizens were on their own. Civil society stepped in. And I think the takeaway for citizens is going to be that Erdogan, the powerful, autocratic, father-like figure of politics is not really the father that's taking care of the citizens.

MARTIN: What is driving Erdogan at this point? Has he changed over the course of time? I mean, he's been in power in one form or another for some two decades now. What's driving him?

CAGAPTAY: So what animates President Erdogan at this stage is political survival. He has to win elections at whatever cost. He's afraid that if he loses elections, he'll be prosecuted or even persecuted, he and his family members. And therefore, he'll try to win elections by hook or by crook. So that means doubling down on autocracy. That means launching new culture wars to polarize. That means going after vulnerable groups, women, LGBTQ in Turkey, other minorities. That also means that he is going to do whatever is necessary to win the elections. There are foreign policy components of it. He's been cultivating good ties with rich Gulf monarchies and Russia from which financial inflows have come to Turkey, helping with the economy. So I would say for President Erdogan, what is at stake is Erdogan's own career.

MARTIN: So it sounds to me like these elections in May really will be worth watching.

CAGAPTAY: They'll be historic because Erdogan is the inventor of nativist populist politics model that has been copied by leaders elsewhere in Europe and closer to home. And I think historic because this will be the bookend of this kind of politics in the world. I think Erdogan is the best executor of this kind of politics globally. And historic also, because either 20 years of Erdogan rule in Turkey will come to an end or he'll stay in power forever, so long as he's alive.

MARTIN: That is Soner Cagaptay. He's the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That's a Washington-based think tank. His latest book is "A Sultan In Autumn: Erdogan Faces Turkey's Uncontainable Forces." Thank you so much for joining us.

CAGAPTAY: It's a great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.