Turkey’s Erdogan swings at main rivals as polls reveal falling support

After 18 years in power, the economy and lurid claims dent the president’s popularity

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (not pictured) in Budapest, Hungary November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo/File Photo
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As opinion polls show Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shedding public support under the pressure of an economic downturn and lurid claims about his close circle, his highest-profile rivals are coming under fire.

Opposition figures seen as posing the greatest threat to Mr Erdogan’s 18-year rule have faced angry mobs and criminal cases in recent days as the president’s popularity seemingly erodes.

A recent survey by Turkish polling firm MetroPOLL showed Mr Erdogan lagging by more than 10 percentage points behind two prominent figures from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) – Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas.

They succeeded in wresting control of Turkey’s two largest cities from Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2019, ending 25 years’ dominance by Islam-rooted parties.

Another figure who outpolled Mr Erdogan on the question of how respondents would vote in a presidential election was Meral Aksener.

An interior minister in the 1990s, Ms Aksener founded the centre-right Iyi Party four years ago when she split from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – currently the AKP’s election partner.

The growing popularity of these opponents comes as Turkey's economy is going through a tough period. The lira reached a record low against the US dollar on Friday and both inflation and unemployment are in double figures.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also had a negative impact on Mr Erdogan’s reputation, with claims that on-off lockdowns designed to protect the economy have been mismanaged.

Former prime minister and opposition Future Party leader Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to cheering supporters after riot police closed a road leading to the parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Davutoglu, who served as prime minister under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from 2014 to 2016, called for a parliamentary investigation into the allegations against Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and questioned the president's support for Soylu. Erdogan on Wednesday rejected a series of damning allegations made against Soylu and members of his entourage by a fugitive mafia boss.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Former prime minister and opposition Future Party leader Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to cheering supporters after riot police closed a road leading to the parliament in Ankara. AP

Wild allegations from a disaffected mafia boss with a history of fanatical support for Mr Erdogan have further damaged the government. The claims include state collusion with organised crime and the involvement of AKP figures or their relatives in crimes ranging from cocaine trafficking to murder.

Although presidential elections are not due to be held until 2023, the opposition, sensing AKP weakness, has called for early polls.

“Erdogan’s concern at this stage is maintaining his own voters rather than attracting opposition voters and towards that goal he tries to delegitimise opposition politicians,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara-based German Marshall Fund.

Mr Imamoglu, whose victory in Istanbul echoes Mr Erdogan’s success as mayor in the 1990s, has emerged as a particular target for prosecutors, who critics say take their lead from the president.

An indictment last week sought a four-year prison sentence on the accusation that in 2019, Mr Imamoglu insulted members of the Supreme Election Council by referring to them as “fools” when the first Istanbul vote that he won was overturned.

The mayor seems to have avoided another prosecution after the Interior Ministry quashed a preliminary investigation at the start of May. That inquiry included the allegation that Mr Imamoglu “disrespected” the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II by clasping his hands behind his back during a visit last year.

Ms Aksener, meanwhile, was targeted by a crowd of government supporters during a visit to Mr Erdogan’s home province of Rize, where the president received 77 per cent of the votes in the 2018 presidential election.

The Iyi Party leader earlier angered Mr Erdogan by likening him to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu during Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

“She put me in the same pot with Netanyahu … [and] was given a good lesson in my home town Rize,” Mr Erdogan said last week. “Pray that they haven’t gone too far while giving her the lesson. This is a first. There is more and more to come.”

Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said the AKP was seeking to “cordon off” strongholds as its electoral hopes diminished.

“It wasn’t just a direct attack on Aksener anywhere but rather in Erdogan’s home town and the implication, based on Erdogan’s speech, is that you can’t go to an AKP stronghold after you’ve criticised Erdogan,” he said.

“They’re going to make it more difficult for opposition politicians to campaign across the country, especially in their strongholds. On top of that, you have these kind of provocations and attacks so it going to be an environment of fear.”

Mr Yavas, who comes from the nationalist wing of the CHP, has not faced such attacks since an attempt to prosecute him in the run-up to the 2019 elections collapsed, but like Mr Imamoglu he has seen the government hinder municipality projects.

“Attacks on Yavas could easily backfire because of his political background and he’s also kept a very low profile and it’s not easy to attack someone who’s keeping a low profile,” Mr Unluhisarcikli said.

Dr Esen, meanwhile, said the AKP may see Mr Yavas as the weakest potential rival.

“We saw in the 2019 local elections that he’s not a good campaigner. He was ahead by nearly 10 per cent in the polls and then on election day that difference came down to two points.”

Sightline with Tim Marshall: Erdogan's bid to rid Turkey of Ataturk's legacy

Sightline with Tim Marshall: Erdogan's bid to rid Turkey of Ataturk's legacy

Analysts say Mr Erdogan may call early elections before he sinks too low in the polls, if he can rescue the economic situation.

He has promised to intensify the Covid-19 vaccination programme in June and, coupled with a rise in foreign tourism, this could see an improvement by the end of the summer.

Rapprochement with the West – Mr Erdogan is due to meet US President Joe Biden at a Nato summit on June 14 – would also increase foreign investment and improve the lira’s standing.

“If you’re haemorrhaging votes, it’s better to go to the polls now, defeat the opposition, demoralise them and hope for some kind of economic recovery,” Dr Esen said.