Erdogan facing biggest political challenge in Turkish elections

A political street fighter known for his harsh rhetoric, Erdogan is finding he no longer dominates the political scene like he used to.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Eclipsed popularity. People walk under election posters for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and presidential candidate Muharrem Ince in Istanbul, on June 13. (Reuters)
Eclipsed popularity. People walk under election posters for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and presidential candidate Muharrem Ince in Istanbul, on June 13. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkey’s veteran leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the biggest political challenge to his 15-year rule in elections following a campaign marked by a reinvigorated opposition that is hoping to capitalise on perceived weaknesses of a government battling economic turbulence and accusations of corruption.

Approximately 57 million voters will decide the make-up of Turkey’s parliament and whether there will be a new 5-year term as president for Erdogan himself. The president, 64, called the elections 18 months early hoping to catch the opposition by surprise but has instead seen a spirited challenge by presidential hopefuls whose attacks have him on the defensive.

A political street fighter known for his harsh rhetoric and who has changed Turkey like no politician since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the republic almost a century ago, Erdogan is finding he no longer dominates the political scene like he used to even a few years ago, observers say.

His plan to use the election to turn Turkey into a presidential republic with wide-ranging executive powers for himself has been thrown into doubt as opinion polls predict that he could be forced into an electoral run-off and that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could lose its parliamentary majority.

“For the first time in years, the opposition is hopeful” that it can beat Erdogan at the ballot box, Aydin Engin, a columnist at the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, said in an interview. The president has suffered several setbacks during the campaign, including a failure of his teleprompter during a televised address that left him literally speechless and that became fodder for the opposition.

Long-term changes in the Turkish electorate are part of the problem for Erdogan. One is that many young voters in Turkey’s urban centres are turning against the president. With close to 19 million voters under the age of 30 and almost 3 million Turks allowed to vote for the first time, that shift concerns Erdogan and his AKP. “Young voters, even pious ones, don’t like what Erdogan has to offer,” Engin said.

Erdogan last year won a nationwide referendum about the introduction of the presidential system but most Turks in big cities voted against the president’s plan. That was not a coincidence and showed that Erdogan’s time-tested political recipes no longer work as well as they used to, said Selim Sazak, a US-based Turkey analyst.

The president’s core message is designed to appeal to observant Muslims and conservatives who remember the time before the AKP rose to power in 2002, when religious groups in Turkey’s society felt disparaged by secular elites in politics, bureaucracy and the military. “That doesn’t resonate with young people,” Sazak said in an interview. “It is really difficult for Erdogan to make that pitch.”

At the same time, 15 years of AKP rule mean that Erdogan and his party find it hard to put the blame for problems on someone else and must react to an opposition that has put internal differences aside. “In the past, Erdogan monopolised the narrative,” Sazak said. “Today, the opposition has changed the basic binary into a choice between the righteous and the corrupt.”

AKP voters in Istanbul say they remain convinced that Erdogan will win big on June 24. “There is no better leader than Erdogan,” said Hasan, who runs a spice shop in Istanbul’s Tophane district. “Even if the whole opposition unites, they will not be able to beat him.”

Like many AKP supporters, Hasan, who did not give his last name, says Erdogan has modernised Turkey by building roads, bridges and airports. “If Erdogan goes, the country will collapse,” he said.

The AKP campaign underlines Erdogan’s experience as prime minister from 2003-14 and as president since. “A great Turkey needs a strong leader,” reads one of the party’s main slogans on giant placards around Istanbul.

However, several opinion surveys say a strong showing by an alliance of three opposition parties could deny the AKP and its right-wing ally, the Nationalist Action Party, a majority in parliament.

In the presidential race, many observers say Erdogan is unlikely to win more than 50% of the vote June 24, which would force a run-off July 8. Then Erdogan would probably run against Muharrem Ince of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), who has motivated an opposition support base that largely stayed at home in previous elections.

Consequences of a split government with Erdogan in the presidential palace and a parliament dominated by the opposition are unclear. The CHP and the nationalist opposition Iyi Parti (Good Party) say they want to stop the transition to presidential rule and reinstate the parliamentary system.

Some media and politicians speculated that Erdogan could dissolve parliament after an opposition victory and call for new elections again. However, such a move would trigger a new presidential election as well and that would carry considerable political risks for Erdogan himself.