Turkey election: Can anyone stop Erdogan?

A faltering economy may empower opponents of Erdogan’s cult of personality

Anyone driving the streets, highways and byways of Istanbul in recent days would be led to believe there's just one candidate standing in Turkey's presidential election on Sunday: the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan's face appears on posters hanging from bridges, on the sides of five-storey buildings and, most commonly, on almost every inch of available billboard space. "Turkey wants a big, strong leader," goes the caption accompanying his posters.

On a 45-minute drive through the Anatolian districts of this metropolis of 15 million people, the only sign that there are others in the race is a single billboard for Muharrem Ince, the opposition CHP presidential candidate. Switch on television, and there Erdogan is again: relaying in detail to a pair of meek interviewers how life was desperate for Turks in the 1990s, before the AK Party he leads came to power.

With five elections and referendum campaigns held over the past five years, Turks are no strangers to going to the polls. But what’s different ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday is that Turkey’s future is now clearly about one man. Never mind that Erdogan’s opponents don’t get a look-in; there are almost no references to the AK Party itself, a party that has transformed socio-economic life across the country, nor its candidates standing for election in these very localities.

In its 15 years in power, the AK Party under Erdogan has overcome an attempted military coup, a basket case economy and waves of Islamic State and Kurdish terrorist attacks. It has also transformed countless cities, towns and districts, improving the day-to-day lives of tens of millions of people.


Urban progress

The residential district of Uskudar on Istanbul’s Asian shore has perhaps benefited more than others. For a long time, it represented the worst of modern city life: clogged, narrow streets, poor electricity and water access, and endless blocks of dreary apartment buildings.

"Uskudar has changed a lot since the 1990s, both physically and demographically. For example, we use natural gas now, it wasn't there in the 1990s," says Aylin Ornek, a resident. "Besides the construction facilities, it has become the main transporting point of Istanbul, and this made Uskudar more attractive for people to live here. As I see it, the population is not as conservative as before."

The building of an €80 million mosque – Turkey’s largest – a state-of-the-art driverless metro line and a soon-to-be-opened 365m-high TV tower complete with restaurants and viewing deck have turned Uskudar into a thriving hub.

But on Sunday Erdogan faces major challenges. For the first time, Turkey's opposition is united. Two new faces in Muharrem Ince and IYI Party leader Meral Aksener are out to halt the president's increasingly vice-like grip on the country. The parties and others have formed the so-called "Nation Alliance", which hopes to take away the AK Party's parliamentary majority and reinstate a system in which Turkey's 600 MPs debate over and make laws.

An Erdogan victory would usher in a new executive presidency in which the role of prime minister would be abolished.

It is Ince in particular who stands as Erdogan's main threat. The fiery former physics teacher has courted Kurds by campaigning in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-inhabited city in Turkey, and visiting Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former co-leader of the Kurdish-focussed HDP (and who is also running for president) – previously unthinkable moves for a staunchly nationalist party. Ince drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to a rally in Izmir on Thursday, which was reported to be one of the biggest opposition gatherings in years. He has also repeatedly challenged Erdogan to a TV debate but the president has always refused.

Divisive rhetoric

How the election plays out for the HDP is of particular concern to the AK Party as it tries to maintain its parliamentary majority. Only parties that win 10 per cent or more of the popular vote can enter parliament, and should the HDP reach this threshold, the AK Party’s majority would almost certainly end.

Speaking from a prison cell, where he has been detained since November 2016 on charges of making terrorist propaganda, Demirtas implored voters to reject the government's divisive rhetoric. "The only reason I am still here [in prison]," he said in a video recording published alongside his oped in the New York Times last Wednesday, "is that the AK Party is afraid of me."

Tellingly, the long-standing notion that Erdogan represents for the West a crucial partner in a neighbourhood where countries such as Syria and Iraq have been traumatised by conflict is beginning to slip.

"Should Erdogan emerge electorally victorious but politically weaker with a narrow electoral margin – a real possibility – tensions with the West would put him at greater risk of Russian manipulation against Nato, " wrote Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe, a think tank, this week.

“Most polls predict that Erdogan will carry the presidency. In that event, liberties and tolerance in Turkey’s diverse society would fall even further, followed by Turkey’s alliance with the West.”

Unemployment and inflation

There has never been a better chance for Turkey's opposition. Under the AK Party, unemployment and inflation have languished in double figures for several years. The opposition CHP, long considered out of touch with people, has been revitalised since a "justice march" from Ankara to Istanbul last summer drew together millions of Erdogan opponents.

If the opposition Nation Alliance can deny the AK Party and its nationalist backers, the MHP, a majority in parliament, and if Erdogan is forced into a run-off vote (if he fails to win more than 50 per cent of the vote), the aura of invincibility that has surrounded him may begin to recede.

And yet, when the AK Party has been troubled in the past, it has come back stronger. When it lost its parliamentary majority in an election in June 2015, it was able to pivot its stance from conservative Islamism to a fervent anti-Kurdish nationalism that saw it regain control of parliament.

What’s different this time, however, is that by many accounts the Turkish economy appears headed for a period of crisis – a fact many link to Erdogan’s decision to call this election a year and a half ahead of schedule.

“We [Turks] spent all our money on concrete and construction for years, but life is getting more difficult every day,” says Uskudar resident Aylin Ornek. “I cannot say that because of the AK Party that we have better lives.”