Could Turkey reject Erdogan and turn around its struggling democracy?

High stakes as charismatic strongman faces first credible challenge in recent memory

Turkey votes on Sunday in a crucial election to determine whether the geopolitical lynchpin will be steered back onto a democratic course as strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan battles to hold on after 20 years in power.

During that time Erdogan has purged non-loyalists from the judiciary, central bank, military, and education system while suppressing the independent media, leading to an electoral field the opposition complains is tilted in Erdogan’s favour.

Yet public anger over ruinous economic policies, lax building codes and a slow rescue effort blamed for exacerbating February’s devastating earthquake, means that for the first time in recent memory Turks face an election that the charismatic populist has a credible chance of losing.

Polls show Erdogan level with or lagging behind his main rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a gentle social democrat who has vowed to reverse the increasingly authoritarian concentration of power in the hands of the president, normalise the economy, and put Turkey back onto a democratic and pro-Western footing.


If any candidate wins a majority of over 50 per cent of votes the outcome should be known by Sunday evening, but if none reaches that threshold a second round of voting will be held on May 28th.

The last-minute withdrawal by a minority candidate, Muharrem Ince, was seen as potentially concentrating opposition votes behind Kilicdaroglu, and the Turkish stock market jumped in response.

But the charismatic Erdogan has overseen the deep polarisation of Turkish society and retains a loyal support base. Rival passions spilled into open brawling during overseas voting among diaspora communities in France and the Netherlands in recent weeks that saw a high turnout.

In echoes of the last United States election, Erdogan and his allies have dropped hints that they could reject the result if the opposition wins, with interior minister Suleyman Soylu describing the vote as an attempted “political coup” aimed at destroying Turkey.

Polls for parliamentary elections held simultaneously on May 14th are tight, but some show the alliance led by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be in the lead, raising the prospect that the opposition could win the presidency without a majority in parliament. This could make for an uphill battle to carry out their promises and political uncertainty ahead.

Whatever the outcome, it will have profound implications for the European Union as Turkey is a crucial player: the broker of deals to allow Ukraine’s grain to pass the Black Sea, an actor in regional conflicts, the last barrier to Sweden joining Nato, and a valve to migration into Europe from the Middle East.

Who is Erdogan?

From a working class neighbourhood in Istanbul and boasting a swagger from his Black Sea roots, the young Erdogan was a street vendor and semi-professional footballer who made his start in student politics before rising to become mayor of Istanbul as an Islamist party candidate in the 1990s, and was credited with cleaning up the streets.

From his earliest years in politics the devout Erdogan was suspected by critics of an agenda to weaken Turkey’s proud secular tradition. He served a spell in prison for reciting a stirring traditional poem at a rally that spoke of mosques as “our barracks”, a political setback that ultimately proved a boon to his popularity.

With the way forward for Islamist parties seemingly barred, he began a political experiment, founding the conservative AKP as a way of reconciling faith and democratic values in the style of Europe’s Christian democrat parties. Though it rejects the label, its foreign policy has sometimes been described as “neo-Ottoman”: nationalist and aspiring to restore a powerful past.

The party was rewarded with emphatic electoral victories, in a political upheaval seen as a rejection of the old Turkish elite. Erdogan became an international political darling as, in the first decade of the new millennium, he implemented reforms that advanced Turkey towards European Union membership, oversaw an economic boom, and kept Western allies close.

But Erdogan’s second decade in power was to see a dramatic rollback of the reforms and freedoms of the first, as he oversaw the creation of a new presidential system that handed him sweeping powers.

His increasingly authoritarian turn, characterised by the erosion of democratic institutions, a relentless building boom that enriched allies, the prolific jailing of journalists and crackdowns on the minority Kurdish population, accelerated following an attempted coup in 2016.

Turks needed two Lira to buy one euro in 2010. But they have seen the value of their savings and international purchasing power collapse as Erdogan insisted on maintaining an unorthodox economic policy of slashing interest rates even as inflation reached hit 85 per cent last year. One euro gets more than 21 Lira now.

The harrowing death toll of 50,000 in February’s earthquake, which flattened newly-built apartment blocks, led to deep anger as an old campaign video emerged of Erdogan lauding his government’s achievement of a “zoning amnesty” that allowed building contractors to skip safety regulations.

The opposition against the 69-year-old has been galvanised not by the strength of an alternative candidate, but by the mass of people who want Turkey to change course.

The not-Erdogan candidate

In many ways Kemal Kilicdaroglu (74), is Mr Erdogan’s opposite.

He grew up in a remote mountain hamlet in eastern Turkey, born to a family from the Alevi community, a minority within Islam that has been subject to discrimination and targeted attacks. He proved academically keen as a child, going on to study economics and pursue a successful career as a civil servant in the ministry of finance.

Entering politics in the same era as Erdogan, he was elected to parliament for Istanbul in 2002, making a name for himself as a “clean politics” candidate who alleged corruption in the ranks of the ruling AKP.

After an unsuccessful run to become mayor of Istanbul, he became the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s once-dominant centre-left – a much reduced force with a history dating back to the founding of the modern secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

His selection as the candidate to represent a joint effort of six opposition parties to unseat Erdogan was not without challenge – one party initially withdrew in protest, as doubts were aired about whether the bespectacled former accountant had the stuff to win a campaign.

Soft-spoken and earnest, Kilicdaroglu’s style is a world away from Mr Erdogan’s ability to fire up the crowd against the enemies of Turkey.

He has promised to restore democratic institutions, end the powerful presidency created by Erdogan by returning to a parliamentary system, get the economy back on a steady footing, and unify the diverse strands of Turkish society.

“Our identities are the assets that make us who we are,” he said in a Twitter campaign video in which he broke a political taboo by candidly acknowledging his Alevi heritage.

He also condemned as “shameful” the practice of “collective stigma and treatment of the Kurds as terrorists” whenever election time comes around.

Ilke Toygur, a political scientist specialising in European geopolitics and Turkey’s relations with the West, said it would be vital for the international community to quickly demonstrate that “a democratic Turkey belongs to the western community” if the opposition prevails.

If they lose, she expects Erdogan and his party to double down on their authoritarian path to prevent any further challenge. “They will consolidate their rule.”