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Erdogan struggles to maintain control

There seems a real chance that Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party may not emerge victorious from the elections scheduled for May 14.  

Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

by Neville Teller

Recent events have not been playing to the advantage of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There seems a real chance that he and his AK party may not emerge victorious from the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14.  

Erdogan certainly hopes to be re-elected, if only to preside over the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, which take place later this year. Modern Turkey existed on October 29, 1923, under its first president, Mustafa Kemal. His great achievement was to replace the creaky, autocratic, religion-based rule of the Ottoman past with a secular Westernized form of administration. 

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He was later formally endowed by parliament with the title Ataturk, Father of the Turks.  

For the past twenty years, the country has been ruled by Erdogan, first as prime minister and since 2014, as president. Erdogan, a strong adherent of the Muslim Brotherhood, has spent much of his time attempting to reverse some of Ataturk’s achievements. Exhibiting authoritarian tendencies from the start, Erdogan’s rule has degenerated into something approaching autocracy – a development accelerated after the anti-government coup of July 2016, some aspects of which remain unclear.

Having jailed thousands of political opponents, journalists, and leading public figures, Erdogan has also systematically restricted the media’s impartial coverage of national and international events. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), about 90 percent of Turkey’s national media is now under government control. In March, the government refused to renew the broadcasting license of the German media outlet Deutsche Welle.

Even so, Erdogan’s power is still subject to certain restrictions. 

Much to their credit, those operating Turkey’s electoral system have succeeded in remaining largely independent of government interference. Operating under close supervision, the electoral process in Turkey has managed to stay relatively free and fair.

Erdogan and his party have fallen in the public’s estimation for a number of reasons. After the violent earthquakes of February 6 left millions of Turks homeless, both president and the ruling party were widely criticized for their long-term failure to reform the country’s building regulations in advance of the disaster. They were also condemned for mishandling the search and rescue efforts afterward, while questions have been asked about how precisely the huge sums raised by a so-called earthquake tax imposed since 2002 (approximately $4.7 billion in total) have been disposed of.

Inflation in Turkey, out of control for a long time, officially stood in March at just above 50%, which is bad enough, but financial experts say the true rate is over 100%. Starting in early 2021, the Turkish lira began to fall sharply in value. By January 2022, the currency had lost 83% of its value, and the decline continued. Over the year to February 2023, it had lost a further 40% against the American dollar. 

It has steadied in recent months, as has the inflation rate, but the extended cost-of-living crisis has gripped all Turkish households and squeezed earnings and savings. This is why Erdogan launched his re-election campaign with a party pledge to slash inflation to single digits and boost economic growth.

Erdogan’s main opponent in the presidential poll is Kemal Kilicdaroglu. 

Unlike previous presidential elections, when Erdogan faced a disunited opposition, Kilicdaroglu is fighting as a unity candidate for six opposition parties. He also has the unofficial backing of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish HDP, which, because of a court case alleging links to Kurdish militants, is running for parliament under the banner of another party, the Green Left.  

Kilicdaroglu’s Nation’s Alliance, also known as the Table of Six, is united in its desire to return Turkey from the presidential system created under Erdogan to one led by parliament. To change the system, they need to win 400 of Turkey’s 600 MPs or, to take a proposal to a referendum, at least 360. As for the presidential election, any candidate that can secure more than half the vote is the outright winner. Failing that, the race goes to a run-off two weeks later. In that event, whichever party had won the parliamentary vote would be best placed to gain the presidency.

The decision of Muharrem Ince, a former center-left party colleague, to enter the presidential race may have diminished Kilicdaroglu’s chances of winning the election outright in the first round. Ince runs the secular nationalist Homeland Party and has a strong presence on social media. His dance moves on TikTok reportedly impressed young voters in particular.

Pre-election polls are notoriously unreliable. Recent surveys published online, though lacking information about the numbers polled or the methods employed, all show Kilicdaroglu leading Erdogan. The results of a poll posted on April 14 showed Kilicdaroglu with 50.3% as against Erdogan’s 43.8%. A poll by the organization Politpro published on April 22 gave Kilicdaroglu 47.7% and Erdogan 43%. If these figures indicate the nation’s voting intentions, then Kilicdaroglu can win the presidency in the first round. 

That leaves open the question of whether he would agree to a peaceful transfer of power if Erdogan were to lose. In 2019, when his party lost the municipal election in Istanbul, he insisted on a re-run, only to be shocked when the voters not only re-elected the original winner, Ekrem Imamoglu, but by a much larger margin. Imamoglu will not be participating in the forthcoming presidential poll. Found guilty of insulting public officials, he was sentenced to 31 months in jail last December and barred from all political activity. Yet according to Le Monde’s recent report, he is not languishing in some prison cell but has been crisscrossing the country for weeks, receiving a rapturous reception. The paper did not divulge how he has evaded incarceration.

Public opinion polls add to the excitement, but the only votes that count are the ones at the ballot box. There are several weeks yet before the elections, and, as the saying goes, a week is a very long time in politics.

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.  His latest book is“Trump and the Holy Land:  2016-2020”.  Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com

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