Turkey’s pugnacious President Erdogan has eye on history at high-stakes elections
New powerful presidency comes into effect after polls
Turkey on Sunday awaited the outcome of its most tightly fought elections in recent years, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking a new mandate and control over parliament in the face of a revitalised opposition and weakening economy.
After 15 years in power that have already seen Turkey transformed, Erdogan wants to win a new mandate and rank as the key figure of his country’s modern history alongside its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan, 64, has in his political career overcome a stint in prison, mass protests and even a bloody coup attempt to emerge as Turkey’s uncontested leader first as premier and then as president from 2014.
He has freed up constraints on religion in the officially secular but overwhelmingly Muslim state, overseen a vast programme of infrastructure building he calls his “crazy projects” and implemented a more assertive foreign policy.
For supporters, Erdogan gives a voice to Turkey’s conservative Muslim majority, has brought new levels of economic prosperity and commands respect on the international stage.
But detractors argue Erdogan is taking Turkey on a dangerous path to authoritarianism reminiscent of the Ottoman Sultans, coupled with reckless handling of the economy and an imperial foreign policy.
One thing is certain – Erdogan in elections on Sunday was facing his biggest ballot challenge against a resurgent opposition and a rival, Muharrem Ince, who can match the president’s charisma.
Whatever the result, “his most powerful days may very well be behind him,” said Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution.
If there was a global contest for winning elections, Erdogan would see himself as the undisputed – and undefeated – heavyweight champion of the world.
In one and a half decades since his ruling party came to power, Erdogan has taken part in 12 elections – five legislative polls, three referendums, three local elections and a presidential vote – and won them all.
Known to his inner circle as beyefendi (sir) and to admirers as reis (the chief), Erdogan prides himself on being able to woo doubters with his indefatigable campaigning.
His only setback – so far – came in June 2015 elections when the AKP won the most votes but lost its overall majority for the first time.
But Erdogan swatted away the prospect of a coalition, saying such governments belonged to the days of “old Turkey”.
He called new elections in November 2015 where the party’s majority was restored.
Erdogan pressed on with an April 2017 referendum on a new constitution that abolishes the office of prime minister and that critics said resembled an autocracy, but eked out a relatively narrow win.
Erdogan, the most popular but also divisive leader in modern Turkish history, moved Sunday’s elections forward from November 2019, arguing the new powers would better enable him to tackle the nation’s mounting economic problems – the lira has lost 20 per cent against the dollar this year – and deal with Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and in neighbouring Iraq and Syria.
Erdogan’s main challenger is 54-year-old combative former physics teacher Ince, who is backed by the centre-left main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and has wooed crowds with an unexpectedly engaging election campaign.
His rallies in Turkey’s three main cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir drew massive numbers.
Addressing a rally in Istanbul on Saturday attended by hundreds of thousands of people, Ince promised to reverse what he and opposition parties see as a swing towards authoritarian rule under Erdogan in the country of 81 million people.
“If Erdogan wins, your phones will continue to be listened to … Fear will continue to reign … If Ince wins, the courts will be independent,” said Ince, adding he would lift Turkey’s state of emergency within 48 hours of being elected.
Turkey has been under emergency rule – which restricts some personal freedoms and allows the government to bypass parliament with emergency decrees – for nearly two years following an abortive military coup in July 2016.
Erdogan blamed the coup on his former ally, US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and has waged a sweeping crackdown on the preacher’s followers in Turkey.
The United Nations say some 160,000 people have been detained and nearly as many more, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked.
The president’s critics, including the European Union which Turkey still nominally aspires to join, say Erdogan has used the crackdown to stifle dissent.
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Few newspapers or other media openly criticise the government and he has received far more election coverage than other presidential candidates.
Erdogan, who defends his tough measures as essential for national security, told his supporters at rallies on Saturday that if re-elected he would press ahead with more of the big infrastructure projects that have helped turn Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies during his time in office.
Polls show Erdogan falling short of a first-round victory in the presidential race but he would be expected to win a run-off on July 8, while his AK Party could lose its parliamentary majority, possibly heralding increased tensions between president and parliament.
Other presidential candidates include Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), who is now in jail on terrorism-related charges that he denies. If the HDP exceeds the 10 per cent threshold of votes needed to enter parliament, it will be harder for the AKP to get a majority.
In a final appeal for votes in a video clip from his high security prison, Demirtas said: “If the HDP fails to get into parliament, all Turkey will lose. Backing the HDP means supporting democracy.”
Turkey was Sunday also electing 600 lawmakers to parliament – 50 more than in the previous assembly.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Associated Press