Campaign songs waft through the air, political billboards and brightly coloured bunting dot the town centre and campaign offices pulse with activity in the sunny port city of Mersin on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – Turkey’s leader for two decades – are locked in a tightly fought race for the presidency in advance of the May 14th vote. That has prompted a grassroots drive to win over voters in Mersin, the capital of a swing province whose population has swollen with people who fled a catastrophic earthquake in February.
Serdar Tatar, who runs a butcher’s shop in central Mersin, previously voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) but has now changed course, in part because of his financial struggles in a country where inflation is running at an annual rate of 43.7 per cent.
“There is no prosperity. The rich get richer. The lower class is crushed,” he said late last month. “I will vote for Kılıçdaroğlu.”
Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are duelling to secure more than half the votes in the presidential race to avoid an unprecedented run-off. Wolfango Piccoli, co-president for political risk at advisory group Teneo, said, however, that the contest was “super tight”. While polling has, historically, been patchy, some analysts suggest this will be Erdoğan’s toughest-ever contest.
Tatar is not alone in his anger over the state of the economy. The election comes at a time when many Turkish families are struggling with runaway inflation, while criticism is rising over the government’s tightening grip on the media and other institutions.
Kılıçdaroğlu has united six parties with widely different ideologies to wage a stiff resistance campaign against Erdoğan. Most polls show the opposition leader, a mild-mannered former economist, to be in advance of the more pugnacious president.
Senior officials in the opposition alliance say they are cautiously optimistic that Kılıçdaroğlu can win, although most also acknowledge Erdoğan is a shrewd campaigner who can deploy the full arsenal of the state. Kılıçdaroğlu told the Financial Times last week that he expected a mostly free voting process but did not trust Turkey’s top election board, warning that it could intervene if Erdoğan loses.
Erdoğan received extensive local media coverage last week after inaugurating the country’s first nuclear power reactor, a Russian-built plant near Mersin. He spoke via video link after he became ill with what the government described as stomach flu.
Polls indicate both men will struggle to secure 50 per cent of the vote since several other candidates are also vying for the presidency.
“For [the] first time in [the] past 20 years, Erdoğan is starting the race not in the lead but as the follower. So, the opposition needs to defend its support. This time, it’s Erdoğan who has to swing votes,” said Can Selçuki of consultancy Istanbul Economics Research.
If no candidate captures half the vote, a run-off will be held on May 28th. This would mark the first time Turkey has gone to a second round since a new presidential system took effect in 2017.
“A second round is one of the few almost certainties we have,” said Piccoli.
Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based Tepav think-tank, said that while voters’ behaviour in any second round would be hard to predict, the results of the parliamentary vote – to be held at the same time as the first-round presidential ballot – would probably play a role.
The People’s Alliance, a coalition of the AKP and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement party (MHP), at present controls the legislative branch. Polls suggest Kılıçdaroğlu’s “table of six”, formed of his left-leaning Republican People’s party (CHP), the nationalist Good party and four smaller groups, is trailing Erdogan’s coalition in the parliamentary race.
Koru said that if the People’s Alliance won parliament, it could provide a major boon to Turkey’s long-standing president. “Erdoğan’s pathway to victory really can’t be a first-round win – that’s not realistic,” Koru said. “He needs to get parliament in [the] first round, then in [the] second round, argue ‘Vote for me, or else we’ll have a divided government’.”
In Mersin late last month, a truck bearing the face of Kılıçdaroğlu loudly played a catchy anthem promising “spring will come again”. A parliamentary candidate for his CHP party walked door-to-door, shaking hands and handing out flyers.
In the 2018 election, Erdoğan and former presidential candidate Muharrem İnce received almost the same share of votes in the wider Mersin province – highlighting the importance of the area in advance of this month’s election.
On a single day, candidates from at least four parties canvassed businesses in an attempt to secure votes.
“People want something to change, for the order to change,” said Gülcan Kış, a CHP candidate for parliament, after addressing more than two dozen people in a leafy, upscale part of Mersin.
Kış pushed back against widespread criticism that Kılıçdaroğlu lacked the charisma to energise voters. The 74-year-old opposition leader has sought to turn his studious air to his advantage, posting campaign Twitter videos from an office surrounded by books.
One monologue on Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith, something many supporters worried would be used against him in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, has garnered more than 114 million views.
“[Kılıçdaroğlu] brought very ‘un-like-minded’ people together and took a step towards changing the order and system of this country by gathering around the same table,” Kış said. “In fact, this turned into a struggle beyond Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s struggle and it turned into a struggle for integrity.”
At Tatar’s butcher’s shop, a pensioner contemplating the poultry offerings was distraught about the economic situation for ordinary Turks and suggested that her patience was running out.
“I used to have chicken once a week. Now, only once a month,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “This government hasn’t changed things in 20 years – why will things be different now?”
Across town in the market, however, not all locals were feeling the economic pain. A shopper perusing tomatoes said the prices were “quite reasonable for the season”.
Firdevs Aktürk, an MP candidate for Erdoğan’s AKP party, defended the president’s unconventional economic policies.
Strolling through stalls of fruit and vegetables and shaking hands with stallholders and patrons, she said that Turkey’s problems were not too different from those of other nations: “There is an economic crisis in all countries in the world right now.”
“Our president is personally making announcements [on how to improve the economy],” she added. “And he will announce more in the future.” – The Financial Times