Turkey’s vote, closely watched, may set the country on a new course

In the year that the Turkish republic celebrates its centenary, the country is being closely watched to see if a united opposition can succeed in overthrowing an increasingly authoritarian leader in the NATO member country.

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, due to take place on Sunday, could extend the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a third decade, or could set the country on a new course.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), is the main challenger trying to oust Erdogan after 20 years in office. The 74-year-old is the joint candidate of a six-party alliance that has vowed to dismantle an executive presidential system Erdogan installed and return the country to a parliamentary democracy with checks and balances.

In addition to the opposition alliance, Kilicdaroglu has won the support of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, which wins around 10% of the vote. And polls have given him a slight lead. However, the race is so close that it is likely to be decided in a runoff between the two favorites on May 28.

Erdogan, has lost some ground amid a faltering economy and a cost-of-living crisis. His government has also been criticized for its poor response to a devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey, killing tens of thousands of people earlier in the year.

“For the first time in the 20 years since Erdogan came to power, he is facing a real electoral challenge that he may actually lose,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund, adding that the race is on. it was about two competing visions. .

“On the one hand, there is President Erdogan’s vision of a security state, a monistic society, with consolidated power in the hands of the executive,” he said. “On the other hand, there is the vision, represented by Kilicdaroglu, of a more pluralistic Turkey in which no community is opposed, one that is becoming more democratized and… there is a clear division of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. .”

Erdogan is running for a third presidential term, having served three terms as prime minister before that. The 69-year-old leader of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is already the country’s longest-serving leader. A highly divisive politician, Erdogan has based his election campaign on past achievements, portraying himself as the only politician who can rebuild lives after the February 6 earthquake in southern Turkey that leveled cities and killed more than 50,000 people.

It has also embarked on a spending spree ahead of the election, including raising the minimum wage and pensions, in a bid to offset the effects of inflation.

During his campaign stops, Erdogan has tried to portray the opposition as complicit in “terrorists” as well as foreign powers who want to harm Turkey. In an attempt to cement his conservative base, he also accused the opposition of supporting “deviant” LGBTQ rights and being “drunken”. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of his supporters were shown a fake video showing a commander of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, singing an opposition campaign song.

Kilicdaroglu, meanwhile, is a soft-spoken politician credited with uniting a previously fractured opposition. His six-party National Alliance, which includes Islamists and nationalists, has vowed to reverse democratic backsliding and the crackdown on free speech and dissent under Erdogan.

Two other candidates are also in the running for the presidential job, but are considered outsiders. They are Muharrem Ince, a former CHP leader who lost the last presidential election to Erdogan in 2018, and Sinan Ogan, a former academic who is backed by an anti-immigrant nationalist party. Ince, who heads the Homeland Party, has been criticized by Kilicdaroglu’s supporters, who accuse him of splitting the vote and forcing the election into a second round.

The main issue for the elections is the economy and high inflation that has reduced the purchasing power of families.

In Istanbul, a teahouse owner, Cengiz Yel, said he would vote “for change” because of the government’s mishandling of the economy.

“We worry about rent, electricity and other bills.” And he said. “Over the past year, I started each new month with more debt.”

Others profess their enduring love for a leader who improved the country’s infrastructure and lifted many out of poverty in the early years of his rule.

“I love my nation. I want to be with a leader who serves his nation,” said Arif Portakal, a 65-year-old Erdogan supporter in Istanbul.

The campaign has been marred by some violence. On Sunday, protesters in the eastern city of Erzurum hurled stones as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu campaigned for Kilicdaroglu from atop a bus. At least seven people were injured.

Voters will also cast ballots to fill seats in the 600-member parliament. The opposition would need at least a majority to be able to enact some of the democratic reforms it has promised.

More than 64 million people, including 3.2 million expatriate Turkish citizens, are eligible to vote. More than 1.6 million people have already voted ballots abroad or at airports. Voter turnout in Türkiye is traditionally high.

There is concern about how voters among the 3 million people who have been displaced after the earthquake that devastated 11 provinces will be able to vote. Officials say only 133,000 people who were forced to leave their hometowns have registered to vote in their new locations. Some political parties and non-governmental organizations plan to transport evacuees back to the earthquake zone so they can vote.

Many have questioned whether Erdogan would accept electoral defeat.

In 2015, Erdogan is believed to have worked behind the scenes to block coalition talks after his ruling party lost its parliamentary majority in elections. The party regained a majority in repeat elections a few months later. And in 2019, the ruling party questioned the results of local elections in Istanbul after the AKP lost the mayoralty. This time, however, the party suffered a more humiliating defeat in the re-election.

Observers are eager to see if an organized opposition can overcome the odds in a country where the leader exercises tight control over the media, the judiciary and the electoral body and yet achieve peaceful regime change.

“The world is watching because this is also an experiment, because Turkey, like other countries, has been following the authoritarian path for a while,” Unluhisarcikli said. “And if this trajectory can be reversed through elections alone, that could serve as an example for other countries.”


Mehmet Guzel contributed from Istanbul.

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