Turkey: Erdoğan faces his greatest electoral challenge yet

There was a moment when Turkey’s election debate came down to an onion and a warship. 

It began when Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the man leading the charge to break President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grip over Turkish politics, sat at his kitchen table last month, his shirt collar open, sleeves rolled up, and held up an onion.

The point the opposition leader wanted to hammer home to voters was that runaway inflation under Erdoğan’s watch has hurt every household. The price of a kilo of onions, vital for Turkish cuisine, has increased around fivefold in the capital city of Ankara over the past 18 months.

“The real agenda of the citizens is this. They know that when I come into power, democracy will come, money will flow, investments will flow, the currency will appreciate, prosperity will come,” said Kılıçdaroğlu, almost smiling at his campaign prop. “But if he [Erdoğan] stays, this onion in my hands will be 100 lira. It’s even 30 lira now.”

A day later, Erdoğan projected an altogether different image as he stood statesmanlike at a naval base for the inauguration of a new warship, an event he used to boast of Turkey’s strength and influence under his stewardship. The vessel, he said, was a symbol “that will strengthen our position as a leader in the ‘Turkish century’ and a nation that has a voice in the world”.

The contrasting images epitomise the stark choice voters face at elections on May 14: a charismatic strongman who has towered over the country’s politics for two decades, or a softly spoken, retired bureaucrat who is betting that years of creeping authoritarianism and soaring living costs will finally convince voters of the need for change. 

The stakes have rarely been higher as the republic marks its centenary. Erdoğan is battling for his political survival as he faces his biggest challenge at the ballot box since coming to power in 2003, with Kılıçdaroğlu leading a six-party alliance united in the fight to topple the president.

An opposition victory, particularly by a narrow margin, would test Erdoğan’s commitment to democracy, as well as the allegiances of a judiciary, police and military that he has spent two decades striving to bring under his control. If Erdoğan, who displays an increasing intolerance for dissent, secures another term, his critics fear he will steer Turkey deeper into authoritarianism.

“At the heart of it, it’s a choice about how Turkish democracy will evolve,” says Can Selçuki, general manager of Istanbul Economics Research. “If he wins, it’s the continuation of this imbalanced system whereby democracy is reduced to elections every five years, with no balances.”

The outcome could also determine the direction the $900bn economy takes. The nation urgently needs to attract foreign investment to manage a current account deficit that is near its widest level since records began and replenish diminishing foreign reserves. 

It is a crisis that has dented Erdoğan’s popularity as he has pursued an unorthodox monetary policy, opposing interest rate rises even as inflation has soared and dismissing three central bank governors in less than four years. Yet his supporters insist he is the only man capable of fixing the mess.

In the opposing corner, Kılıçdaroğlu is pledging to clean house at the state’s financial institutions and lure back wary foreign investors.

He wants to repair the Nato member’s often testy relations with Europe — a potentially significant shift for the west while it is preoccupied with Russia’s war in Ukraine — and would be a far less pugnacious figure on the international stage. He would not have the kind of close, yet complex, relationship Erdoğan has forged with Russian president Vladimir Putin, but would maintain economic relations with Russia, one of Turkey’s most important trading partners.

Kılıçdaroğlu has also promised to do away with Erdoğan’s prized powerful executive presidency, adopted after a contentious 2017 constitutional referendum, and return to a parliamentary democracy.

“We handed over the Republic of Turkey to one person [Erdoğan]. Such a mentality cannot exist,” Kılıçdaroğlu tells the Financial Times. “We will win and fix Turkey.”

Most polls suggest Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s party (CHP), enjoys a slim lead over the incumbent, with his chances buoyed by the fact the traditionally fractious opposition is at its most unified in its years-long quest to unseat the president. 

But opposition optimism is tempered by the scale of the task ahead. Erdoğan is a shrewd and ruthless operator who has consistently outmanoeuvred opponents to mastermind multiple election victories for parliament, the presidency and referendums.

Critics also acknowledge that in a nation deeply polarised between those for or against Erdoğan, he is still arguably Turkey’s most popular politician, with a strong support base among religious conservatives who see their prospects tied to the president’s. 

“After 20 years, of course we still have some doubts,” says a member of Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign team.

On a knife’s edge

It is not the first time pollsters and opposition figures have predicted that Erdoğan’s hold on power may be slipping. In June 2015, the president’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. Erdoğan doubled down and called a snap election for November that year. The AKP then defied polls predicting a hung parliament to restore its majority.

Three years later, the opposition confidently bet that double-digit inflation and a slump in the lira would help bring Erdoğan down. Instead, he won with 53 per cent of the vote, securing him the executive presidency he had long sought.

Today the economic malaise is far deeper. The lira, which had fallen to about TL4.5 to the dollar when voters went to the polls in 2018, is today trading above TL19. In October, inflation peaked at a 24-year high as consumer price growth exceeded 80 per cent.

The situation has been exacerbated by the earthquake that devastated southern Turkey in February, killing more than 50,000 people and displacing another 3mn, with many criticising the government’s initial response. And Erdoğan, 69, lacks the energy he once had — his campaign was briefly interrupted by a stomach bug that caused him to fall ill live on TV. 

“No incumbent has entered a campaign with so many structural limitations and deficiencies,” says Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University and a CHP member. “On top of that, this is basically a government that has been in power for 21 years, unprecedented in Turkey’s multi-party history, and Erdoğan is an ageing autocrat. When you add all these factors, structurally speaking, he [should] be defeated.”

He is, however, only “cautiously optimistic” the opposition will prevail. Like other analysts, Esen predicts the presidential contest will go to a second round, with no candidate garnering more than 50 per cent of the ballots. Analysts also forecast a hung parliament, with the possibility of the AKP bloc securing most seats — underscoring the knife-edged nature of the contest.

“My sense is that both the opposition and the ruling party are confident of victory, and that’s not a good sign in an authoritarian state, because yes authoritarian regimes do miscalculate, but they also tend to have a lot of resources at their disposal,” Esen says. 

Analysts and opposition figures have long complained that voting takes place in an unlevel playing field. Erdoğan unabashedly uses the state’s machinery to back his cause, and much of the media has fallen under government control, pliantly adhering to the president’s narrative.

His campaign has been characterised by a combination of pre-election giveaways — from free gas for a month to raising the minimum wage and offering students up to 10GB of free internet — plus the inauguration of state projects, including the naval ship, a gas processing facility and a Russian-built nuclear plant.

In speeches, Erdoğan has sought to project his experience and the strength of the state, while accusing Kılıçdaroğlu of preparing to “beg” from western donors and “loan sharks” and surrendering to the IMF while being pro-LBGT and aligning with “terrorists”. 

But Erdoğan’s supporters know he is in a fight. A person with insights into the campaign says: “There’s no panic, but they aren’t comfortable.” 

Ferhat Pirinççi, an analyst at Seta, a think-tank with close links to Erdoğan and his government, says the president’s campaign is “confident”. But “they think they need to work hard; they know it’s on an edge”.

He believes that despite criticism over the government’s response to the quake, the massive reconstruction needs work in Erdoğan’s favour, citing his experience and record of delivering infrastructure projects.

“Before the earthquake support was dropping for the government because of the economic crisis. After the earthquake . . . everybody started to ask ‘who can [help us] recover’?” he says. “When you check surveys, even people who don’t vote for Erdoğan, say Erdoğan. It’s about trust.”

Pirinççi also suspects the opposition inadvertently gifted Erdoğan an advantage by selecting Kılıçdaroğlu as its candidate. “He was one of the best candidates for Erdoğan because he’s familiar with him,” he says. “[Erdoğan] is the master of politics.”

‘A good civil servant’

It is not just those rooting for Erdoğan who question Kılıçdaroğlu’s electability. 

For months after the opposition “table of six” announced their pact to unite behind a single candidate last year, speculation swirled about whether it would select the slight 74-year-old, or one of the CHP’s younger, more charismatic leaders, notably Ekrem İmamoğlu or Mansur Yavaş, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.

The CHP-led alliance includes the nationalist İyi party led by Meral Akşener and two smaller parties headed by erstwhile Erdoğan allies. Turkey’s third-largest political group, the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) has not joined the coalition, but, crucially, is backing Kılıçdaroğlu’s bid. 

Tensions over the leadership issue burst into the open in March, when Akşener pulled the İyi party out of the coalition saying she could not back Kılıçdaroğlu, days before he was named as the candidate. The İyi party returned to the fold after İmamoğlu and Yavaş were named as vice-presidents (the coalition has seven vice-presidents). 

But Kılıçdaroğlu, who has led CHP, the secularist party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father, since 2010 without previously directly taking on Erdoğan, still has some convincing to do. 

Esen says there were “better options” as the presidential candidate. He describes Kılıçdaroğlu as a polite, quiet person — “a good civil servant who knows how to work the room silently” and can be underestimated. 

Bilge Yilmaz, a senior member of the İyi party and a Wharton business school professor touted as a possible economy tsar if the opposition wins, is circumspect when discussing Kılıçdaroğlu, saying “it is what it is right now”. 

His concern is the “tricks” Erdoğan might deploy. “It’s going to be hard,” Yilmaz says. “These ‘autocratic’ leaders cannot lose, cannot afford to lose . . . so he will try hard undoubtedly.”

Erdogan’s supporters insist he will win fair as square as the most popular candidate. But concerns about election irregularities and the independence of the High Election Council, the main electoral body, have risen in tandem with Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. 

Analysts typically divide Erdoğan’s years in power into two halves. During his first decade, he oversaw widespread development, implemented myriad infrastructure projects, improved the lot of pious conservatives previously marginalised by secular politicians and attracted foreign investment.

The tide began to turn, however, after the months-long Gezi park protests in 2013 over a planned urban development in Istanbul. Erdoğan responded with a violent crackdown. The slide towards authoritarianism gathered pace after a 2016 coup attempt, after which he launched a sweeping purge of the security services and the civil service, while imposing a state of emergency that remained in place when elections were held two years later.

Sunday’s vote will take place with Selahattin Demirtaş, HDP’s former leader, spending his seventh year in jail on charges of supporting terrorism and with İmamoğlu facing a possible ban from politics after a court convicted him in December of “insulting” electoral officials.

İmamoğlu drew the president’s ire in 2019 after he narrowly won the mayorship of Istanbul — the city where Erdoğan grew up — for the opposition for the first time in a quarter of a century. The election board ordered a rerun, which İmamoğlu won. But the opposition viewed the saga as evidence of electoral officials bowing to political pressure — and a warning of what might come.

Despite this, analysts and opposition officials say that while they do not expect a fair election, they hope the voting process will be relatively free, believing that only a small percentage of votes could be manipulated. 

But Yilmaz worries about how Erdoğan might react if the parliament is gridlocked and the president is forced into a run-off that would be held two weeks after Sunday’s vote. 

“There will be some rigging for sure, but there are more things that I’m worried about,” Yilmaz says. “He may feel at some point that a sense of instability might make him a more forceful candidate . . . he might [create] some tensions.”

As campaigning intensified last month, interior minister Süleyman Soylu portrayed the election as a western “political coup attempt”.

Still, Yilmaz and others appear confident that Erdoğan would accept defeat, particularly if Kılıçdaroğlu secures a clear victory. “I don’t think he’s going to get into a path that is destructive for himself and the country,” says Yilmaz.

“Despite everything, Turkey has enough democratic history and institutions to prevent a power grab,” says Selçuki at Istanbul Economics Research. “Second, I think the security institutions will side with the victor. Ruin the judiciary, ruin the institutions, but when it comes to the ballot box, don’t mess with that — the Turkish public reacts every time.”

The outcome on Sunday is likely to be determined by “restless conservatives” who traditionally vote for Erdoğan, but no longer believe he is delivering; an estimated 5.3mn new young voters; and Kurds who make up about 18 per cent of the 85m population, analysts say.

But even if Erdoğan loses, few will rush to write his political obituary, particularly as there will be questions about how the opposition holds together if confronted with the huge challenges facing Turkey. 

Analysts say issues ranging from the allocation of cabinet posts to how the disparate coalition parties tackle Kurdish rights, and a more than three-decade insurgency by Kurdish militants, would test its coherence.

Opposition officials defend the coalition, arguing that it was more than a year in the making, adding that the parties have agreed to some 2,300 policy points. 

“People will have different views, but people have signed a policy document,” Yilmaz insists. “If any coalition is stable, this is the one.” 

Whatever the outcome, with a shaky economic outlook and a politically divided population, Turkey faces a tough road ahead. 

“This is going to be the hardest situation for the republic in its history, I call this the century of disaster,” Yilmaz says. “And rightfully so.” 

Additional reporting by Funja Güler in Ankara

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