(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.