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Erdoğan’s grip on power in peril as Turks go into crucial vote

A major shakeup in world politics may be in the making as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces a very tough reelection on Sunday against a united opposition amid economic troubles and anger in the wake of catastrophic earthquakes.

(CN) — After 20 years in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in the fight of his political life as he faces possible defeat at the polls this month due to rising public anger over soaring inflation, disillusionment with his leadership after catastrophic earthquakes and a united opposition eager to oust a man they condemn as a corrupt autocrat.

Turkish voters will vote in bitterly contested presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday in what is being described by Erdoğan's critics as one of Turkey's most crucial elections ever because if the president stays in power the prospects for democracy, regional peace and economic vitality are bleak.

Ahead of Sunday's big vote, hopes are high that the Erdoğan era is indeed coming to an end.

“It's the first time people are feeling that the tables are going to turn,” said Anil Aba, a political economist at Yasar University in Izmir, in a telephone interview.

The outcome of the elections has huge ramifications because Erdoğan is seen as the leader of a NATO state with neo-imperial ambitions who's dismantled democracy at home and turned Turkey away from the West.

“It is the most pivotal elections since the 1950 elections that moved Turkey from a single-party authoritarian regime to a multiparty regime moving towards democracy,” said Lisel Hintz, an expert on Turkey at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. “What's at stake is women's rights, LGBTQ rights, economic development, foreign policy, the future of the youth, not to mention to the future of Kurds, whom the government has vilified since 2015.”

Hintz said this is the best chance the opposition has had to oust Erdoğan since he took Turkey's reins in 2003 by becoming prime minister.

Up to 64 million Turks are expected to vote in an election that will likely see very high turnout at more than 80%. A big factor will be up to 7 million first-time voters who've never known any leader other than Erdoğan. Polls indicate many of these young voters are eager for change.

As it stands, many pundits believe Erdoğan will be forced into a runoff on May 28. Polls suggest he could lose either in the first or second round of voting. A winner must get more than 50% of the vote.

Still, Erdoğan's dominant political machine, run by his Justice and Development Party – known by its Turkish initials, AKP – has many means at hand to steer the elections his way, even if that means meddling in the process.

“We know these elections aren't fair: The candidates don't have equal access; there's a bunch of opposition politicians in jail; the media is completely skewed towards the AKP,” Hintz said in a telephone interview.

With the election so close, Hintz said there is a “very clear danger” that Erdoğan and his allies may refuse to concede defeat, a scenario that could lead to violence.

The president and his circle “have an existential interest in staying in power because if they lose power they're going to be prosecuted for the ways they've enriched themselves and the corruption they've engaged in while in power,” Hintz said. “They have already shown that they're willing to use those tools in the authoritarian toolkit to stay in power.”

Erdoğan, 69, is running a nasty campaign as he hurls insults at the Nation Alliance, the six-party opposition, and foments divisions. A win by the opposition, Erdoğan's interior minister said recently, would amount to a coup backed by the West. Erdoğan likes to call his opponents irreligious and “pro-LGBT” and says they are backed by “terrorists,” linking his competitors to outlawed Kurdish militant groups.


“The ruling party has been playing a lot of identity politics in trying to prevent the opposition from coalescing,” Hintz said.

She worried Erdoğan may seek to declare victory early on Sunday before all the ballots are counted or accuse the opposition of winning by “working with terrorists” and dismiss the election as illegitimate.

“I'm very concerned about a potential violent confrontation on the day of the election,” she said.

In such a scenario, protesters might face repression from the military, police and pro-Erdoğan paramilitary organizations. Turkey's seen a lot of political violence in recent years, she noted.

Of course, other scenarios are possible too. If the election results are clearly against AKP, Erdoğan's regime could fall apart quickly with members of his party defecting and the security forces refusing to take up arms against the population, Hintz said.

Aba sees it differently. He said that although Erdoğan would be unwilling to concede if he loses the election, he still would likely be forced to give up the presidency because he cannot rely on the support of a superpower.

“If they don't have an elder brother, if you like, to take care of your oppressive politics – politically, economically and sometimes using military support – if you don't have this backing, then you cannot recklessly turn up the pressure in the country,” Aba said. “I don't think he can dare to create turmoil on the election day if he loses because, I mean, he doesn't have any friends at the moment globally.”

He said the United States and the European Union certainly wouldn't prop Erdoğan up and even Russia wouldn't want to ensure his survival.

He has “no powerful backing, just some Arab money supporting him, but I don't think that's enough,” Aba said.

“The other option is – and the most likely option if you ask me – is that he's going to leave the country if he loses,” Aba said. “I think he will escape the country without creating big violence or a coup or a civil war.”

Erdoğan has been seriously weakened by a long-running economic crisis that saw Turkey's official inflation soar to a 24-year high of 85.5% last November, though it has slowed to about 44%. Economists say official figures are far below actual inflation.

As a consequence, the Turkish lira has been trashed. The devastating inflation has been exacerbated by Erdoğan's unorthodox fiscal policy to not raise interest rates.

“The purchasing power of the Turkish lira is terrible,” Aba said. “Whoever wins will take over ruins from Erdoğan – even if he wins, he will take over the ruins from his own government.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, right, arrives for a meeting of the European Political Community at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, Thursday, Oct 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Perhaps even more damaging was his government's slow response to catastrophic earthquakes on Feb. 6 that killed more than 50,000 people.

In the wake of the disaster, many Turks blamed Erdoğan for overseeing a corrupt system that allowed construction companies to get away with erecting substandard buildings, ignoring warnings from scientists and engineers about unsafe buildings and putting an unqualified crony at the head of Turkey's emergency relief agency.

“Tens of thousands of people died and people saw how imprudent the state was,” Aba said. “We are a statist nation, if you like. We have these Ottoman foundations. So, seeing the government, seeing the state, so weak and reliant on the private sector was a shock to most people. The blame was obviously on the Erdoğan government.”

Now, Erdoğan's AKP and his ultraconservative Islamist allies are neck-and-neck with the Nation Alliance, a group of disparate opposition parties, including former Erdoğan allies.

The opposition is led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a bookish and soft-spoken 74-year-old former civil servant and the longtime head of the Republican People's Party, Turkey's old center-left force founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish republic.


“It is a party that at its base was founded as this modernizing, nationalist, populist, leftist, secularist party,” Hintz said. “It's softened over the years in many ways, but one of the things that the AKP has tried to do is undo the secularization of the country. There is definitely a sense of trying to undo Ataturk's political project.”

Upon taking office, Erdoğan curbed the military as a political power and opened the door for non-secular politicians. Before Erdoğan's Islamist reforms, women were not allowed to wear headscarves in parliament and other public buildings, such as universities.

Erdoğan's political life has been spent fighting against Turkey's constitutionally mandated secularism. In 1997, he was imprisoned for reciting a Turkish nationalist poem deemed to incite religious violence. He also belonged to parties banned for being non-secular.

For his part, Kilicdaroglu is breaking Turkish taboos because he is both of Kurdish roots and an Alevi, a religious minority within the Islamic faith whose members have suffered discrimination and violence in Turkey.

“It's like an Obama moment for Turkey,” Aba said, referring to Barack Obama's groundbreaking win to become the first Black American president in 2008.

“He can sort of be a bridge builder across a lot of different groups,” Hintz said of Kilicdaroglu. “If there is going to be a person who can heal some of those divides and kind of lessen or ameliorate some of that societal polarization, I think he's a good figure for it.”

Recently, Kilicdaroglu made a video in which he spoke about being a member of the Alevi faith. It was seen as a bold move and if elected he would become the country's first Alevi head of state. Alevi make up an estimated 10% to 30% of Turkey's population of 84.3 million people. The vast majority of Turks are Sunni.

“It has been a barrier if you are an Alevi to take a position in the government,” Aba said. “It is the first time that an Alevi is challenging and getting very close” to winning national elections.

Aba called Kilicdaroglu “an honest social democrat and a progressive politician” who can be trusted when he talks about restoring democracy in Turkey.

“He has paid a price over the last decade,” he said. “He was insulted by Erdoğan numerous times and by Erdoğan's supporters in political meetings, on TV. He was even beaten by an Erdoğan fanatic – he got a punch in the face a few years ago.”

People walk past an election campaign billboard featuring Republican People's Party presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, center, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, left, and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Regardless, Kilicdaroglu “never gave up” and “stood up against this regime,” Aba said.

In the international media, Kilicdaroglu got the nickname “Turkey's Gandhi” after he led a days-long march from Ankara to Istanbul in 2017 to protest the jailing of Enis Berberoglu, a parliamentarian and spokesman for the Republican People's Party. Berberoglu was accused of spying for giving two journalists' secret information about Turkey's alleged supply of weapons to Islamic State rebels in Syria.

For the ideologically divided Nation Alliance to pick Kilicdaroglu as its leader was a major turning point in the campaign.

“That had been super-contested,” Aba said. “A lot of people did not want him to be the leader. He is not very charismatic; he has not had a whole lot of success as the leader of the main opposition party.”

But the opposition seized on the AKP's weaknesses and failures after the February earthquakes and united behind Kilicdaroglu.

Aba said the AKP put off many voters by taking a combative tone after the earthquakes.

“The AKP started using rhetoric, saying that anyone complaining about the earthquake is a traitor: 'We are going to find you and we're going to punish you,'” Aba said. “It was really divisive, really negative messaging from the government.”


Kilicdaroglu has campaigned on reviving democracy, ending Erdoğan's crony capitalism, fighting corruption, ensuring equal rights for minorities and easing the economic pain with programs to reduce student debt, introducing free milk and lunches at schools and raising public salaries to catch up with living costs.

On Tuesday, Erdoğan countered Kilicdaroglu's promises with an announcement he was raising public sector wages by 45%, a desperate but potentially effective move to shore up key support ahead of Sunday's vote.

After two decades in power and successive electoral wins, Erdoğan has boasted on the campaign trail about turning Turkey into a regional power and infusing society with traditional Islamic values. His admirers call him the “reis,” a Turkish word for chief, with many seeing him as an almost spiritual figure.

He has achievements he can point to. Under his watch, Turkey ushered in an age of mega projects, such as a massive suspension bridge over the Dardanelles, the introduction of high-speed rail lines and an explosion of urban development. Last month, he hailed the opening of Turkey's first nuclear power reactor, built by Russia's nuclear energy company. He's also made Turkey a military power.

Ahead of the elections, Erdoğan has touted the roll-out of the first Turkish-made fighter jet and the country's first domestically manufactured electric automobile, the Togg. Turkey is making fighter jets because it was suspended from the F-35 fighter jet program by the United States in 2019 after Erdoğan entered a deal to buy Russia's S-400 missile defense system.

But a majority of Turks may be fed up with his authoritarian regime.

“Everything from the media to the judiciary to the Supreme Electoral Council, which is going to be really important [in these elections], is in large part under the formal or informal influence of the ruling party,” Hintz said.

Since taking office, Erdoğan has consolidated power in his hands, jailed critics and political rivals, cracked down on free speech, imposed conservative Muslim values, conducted purges of civil servants deemed to be enemies following an attempted coup in 2016 and flexed Turkey's military might in the wider region.

In 2017, Erdoğan's grip tightened even further after Turkish voters narrowly approved constitutional changes that turned Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential one.

This left Erdoğan and his family ensconced in a newly-built 1,000-room presidential palace in Ankara and living lavishly at other government mansions, surrounded by pomp, wealth, body guards and yes-men.

“On one side, you see people committing suicide because of their credit debts,” Aba said. “And on the other side, you see Erdoğan's fancy palace and the first lady's expensive shopping from Italian designer brands.”

However, an end to the Erdoğan era could usher in a period of political instability because of deep ideological differences among the six opposition parties. The coalition includes right-wing nationalists, anti-Kurdish elements, Islamists, left-wing secularists and former Erdoğan allies.

“In a lot of cases where wide, big-tent opposition movements have been able to overthrow electoral authoritarian regimes, like we saw with the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s, they were united about what they opposed but couldn't agree on what they did want,” Hintz said. “This is what is happening in Turkey.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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