Millions of Turks will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for a new parliament and president. The twin elections they are the most closely watched and consistent since the country voted for a new civilian government in 1983 after the generals decided to return power. Today, that image has been reversed.
A democratically elected government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought Turkey closer to the stingy junta government than any of its predecessors in a downward spiral accelerated by the one-man system introduced through a controversial 2017 referendum that scrapped its parliamentary system. .
The contest is presented in apocalyptic terms as a struggle between freedom and dictatorship, between recovery and economic ruin. To this day, some reputable pollsters show the main opposition presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leading Erdogan by up to five percentage points. That is a wide enough margin to prevent Erdogan from refusing to budge or resort to fraud.
However, a third contender, Sinan Ogan, who remains in the contest even after his spoiler partner muharrem ince pulled at the last minute, it could force a runoff that would take place on May 28. What could happen in the interregnum? Will Erdogan’s camp instigate the kind of violence that could intimidate voters into staying with the devil they know? Will the civilian militias that are rumored to have formed just at this moment enter the fray?
The campaign has already been marred by violence, with opposition leaders facing physical attacks. There are rumors of a possible attempt on Kilicdaroglu’s life. He reportedly wore a bulletproof vest at a rally today in the Black Sea city of Samsun.
Sunday’s outcome remains distressingly unpredictable. Options about five million first time voters, most of them Gen Zers, have yet to be fully discerned. How many displaced earthquake victims will be able to vote is another big question. Conservative urban women who are said to be discontented by Erdogan’s harsh turn towards patriarchy could move the needle.
Past experience suggests that Erdogan and his cabal of thugs will slowly stop at staying in power. But it is the considerable popular support that he miraculously still has that has given him license to break all the rules. Would he be so ruthless if he lost that support? Whatever the outcome, Erdogan is a waning force and his health is shaky. That’s why he’s grooming his youngest son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, the mastermind behind Turkey’s legendary combat drones, to succeed him.
The main concern is that if Erdogan prevails, this will be Turkey’s last free, albeit unfair, election, plunging the country into a deep dark hole. The side that wins will face enormous challenges. The economy is already in shambles thanks in part to Erdogan’s obsession with keeping interest rates low and his eldest son-in-law, former Economy Minister Berat Albayrak, spending the country’s reserves to keep the lira afloat. The earthquakes in February have made things much worse. Cash injections from the Gulf and debt relief from Russian gas will not be enough for an economy the size of Turkey and its 85 million people.
Regardless of the outcome, Turkey will continue to face daunting challenges, and despite the pronouncements of the Cassandra Brigade, electoral politics will remain important.
Barring some black swan scenario, the Turks will return to the polls in less than a year, this time to elect new mayors.
Erdogan is hell-bent on taking back Istanbul, where he began his meteoric rise when he became the city’s first Islamist mayor in 1993. Winning the Kurdish vote is key. The largest pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), tilted the vote in favor of the opposition in the last round of the 2019 municipal elections, allowing it to seize both Istanbul and Ankara for the first time since 1993.
In parliament, too, the Kurds are poised to be kingmakers, with polls indicating Erdogan’s Popular Alliance will win a majority, but not the two-thirds needed to amend the constitution.
The HDP has told its supporters to vote for Kilicdaroglu on Sunday.
The opposition will have to work hard to retain their support, as will Erdogan to win them over.
They will also need to attract foreign investors again, and that means going back to fiscal orthodoxy and restoring the rule of law. That is unlikely under Erdogan. But Kilicdaroglu and his pro-secular Republican People’s Party are doing all they can, vowing to restore the independence of the Central Bank and the judiciary and repair ties with Turkey’s NATO allies. The markets are likely to give him a free pass, as are the Kurds, at least until the municipal elections, that is, unless his partners in the Table of Six fall into the kind of disputes that defined the series of coalitions. dysfunctional organizations that preceded Erdogan. .
If the opposition is victorious, they will inherit a big mess. But he will not face the institutional adversity that Erdogan suffered when he came to power in 2002. In those days, generals ran the country from behind the scenes, setting the limits on how far elected governments could exercise their own will. They did everything they could short of a military coup to get rid of Erdogan on the grounds that he threatened Turkey’s secular order by promoting, among other things, women’s right to cover their hair. The generals were equally appalled by his proposals to the Kurds. The CHP played along.
Erdogan refused to budge and his popularity skyrocketed as he lifted millions of Turks out of poverty. Armed with that support, he oversaw the mass trials of hundreds of military officers accused, many falsely, of conspiring to overthrow the government. Erdogan heaped all the blame for the trumped-up charges on his former ally, exiled Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen.
In an ironic twist, Gulen was named the mastermind behind the failed coup attempt to oust Erdogan in 2016, the culmination of a bitter power struggle that ended in bloodshed.
The end result is that the army has little or no influence over Turkish politics. Many would argue that today’s Erdogan is doing his job, cracking down on the Kurds and flexing Turkish muscle against them in Syria and Iraq. Others would say that a coalition government formed by a tenuous opposition could create new opportunities for the army to assert its role in a way that it cannot under a powerful figure like Erdogan. But for how long?
The 2010 rise of Kilicdaroglu, an ethnic Kurd and a member of the Alevi faith, to command the CHP offers hope. Under Kilicdaroglu, the party, despite initial resistance, has shed its rigid interpretation of secularism to embrace openly pious Turks. His rejection of Kurdish rights has also softened. Two decades under Erdogan helped force that change.