Despite the odds, Erdogan is still very much in the fight

Four weeks from Turkey's elections, the country's President can still count on his loyal supporters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan during the unveiling of his Justice and Development Party's election manifesto in Ankara on April 11. AFP
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It’s a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, hidden inside an unshakable political will.

If you had said a few months ago that Turkey would suffer cataclysmic earthquakes, killing 50,000 people and levelling cities as the state faced much of the blame, the lira would plunge to new record lows, nearing the dreaded 20-to-the-dollar mark and deepening a three-year economic crisis, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be essentially tied with his main foe four weeks before the election, I may have advised you to visit a psychiatrist.

Yet here we are, with a collection of early April polls putting the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu at 45.7 per cent support and Mr Erdogan just a hair behind at 45.5 per cent. The actual gap may be a bit larger, as the other candidates in the May 14 presidential vote, particularly Muharram Ince, likely siphon more votes away from Mr Kilicdaroglu, which would not be the case in a potential May 28 run-off.

But still, for now, the tightness of the race is stunning. Nearly two years ago I detailed in these pages Mr Erdogan’s political resilience and wondered how he might bounce back this time. Well, he seems to have done so, but precisely how is anybody’s guess.

After 20 years in power — more than a fifth of the history of the Republic, which celebrates its 100th birthday in October — Turkey’s long-time leader appears to have established a mind-meld with nearly 40 per cent of the electorate. No matter what sort of trauma his Justice & Development Party (AKP) and the country pass through, they stay by his side.

Consider the loss of his brain trust, an issue of particular import amid crippling economic troubles and accusations of corruption and mismanagement. Nearly a decade ago, Mr Erdogan lost his second-in-command, a fellow AKP co-founder and perhaps the party’s most trusted voice: former president Abdullah Gul. Though a committed Islamist, Mr Gul was politically moderate, and so widely respected that several opposition parties have sought to recruit him.

In 2019, Mr Erdogan lost the architect of his foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, who then launched the Future Party and has since joined the opposition alliance. Most troubling, he has lost both architects of his early economic success, Mehmet Simsek and Ali Babacan. Like Mr Davutoglu, Mr Babacan also launched his own party and joined the opposition; both are in line for vice presidential posts should Mr Kilicdaroglu win the presidency.

As for Mr Simsek, Mr Erdogan has in recent weeks asserted that the former finance minister would return to oversee his economic policy, but Mr Simsek has refrained from any public confirmation. Meanwhile, the AKP released its electoral manifesto last week, which focused on economic revival without laying out any major changes or advancements.

To win, Mr Erdogan likely needs to appeal to the country’s six million first-time voters, many of whom are unemployed, as well as the urban middle classes facing tough times, particularly in the quake-ravaged southeast. He has vowed to jumpstart the economy and bring inflation, currently around 50 per cent, down to single digits, even while maintaining the unorthodox view that high interest rates spur inflation. He has also pledged to rebuild quickly, including some 320,000 new housing units within a year.

Another wise move may be to target nationalistic swing voters torn between the Kemalist vision of Mr Kilicdaroglu’s CHP and its far-right ally IYI and the religion-influence nationalism of the AKP and its partner the MHP. Mr Erdogan may be doing just that, rolling out gleaming new military hardware to boost Turkish pride and leaning into anti-Western rhetoric.

Turkey’s long-time leader appears to have established a mind-meld with nearly 40 per cent of the electorate

“The West is saying it is against Erdogan,” he declared last week, referring to himself in the third person. “My nation will foil this plot on May 14.”

As befits the party of the republic’s secularist founder, Ataturk (“father of the Turks”), the main opposition CHP is embracing pro-western views. Mr Babacan earned his MBA in the US and the opposition alliance’s other economic adviser, IYI’s Bilge Yilmaz, is a former Ivy League professor. Observers expect the opposition to institute an orthodox economic approach that upends Mr Erdogan’s stance on interest rates and inflation.

Mr Kilicdaroglu officially launched his campaign last week in Canakkale, where a young Ataturk first made his name by helping repel a major Allied advance in the Dardenelles Strait in 1915. "We must change the old system and bring democracy, justice and the rule of law,” said a CHP supporter in the crowd.

Mr Kilicdaroglu recently met the US Ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake, drawing condemnation from President Erdogan, and has vowed to gain Turks visa-free travel to the EU soon after taking office. Ataturk was not exactly a friend to Turkey’s religious conservatives, so it almost seemed intentional when Mr Kilicdaroglu was photographed last month standing on a prayer rug with his shoes on. He later apologised for the misstep.

Finally, Mr Erdogan has settled into a new presidential system with little apparent concern for term limits. Turkey’s electoral council recently approved his candidacy after critics argued that he had already served the maximum two terms. His 74-year-old opponent, on the other hand, has vowed to serve only one term — just long enough, in his view, to reinstall the old parliamentary system and restore order.

There has been some crossing of lines, as was seen in the case of a group of graduates from a religion-focused Imam Hatip school who recently declared their support for Mr Kilicdaroglu. So it’s a bit of an over-simplification, but this election could be viewed as another referendum on Turkish identity: it’s West vs East, progressive vs conservative, liberal democracy vs a more authoritarian system. Turkey’s been waging this battle for a century, but these days it’s far from alone: we’ve seen echoes of it in Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, India, Brazil and even the US.

In recent years he’s surely been buoyed by a more compliant press, but Mr Erdogan has never lost a national vote. He has lost cities, and in 2015, his parliamentary majority. But since the AKP launched in 2001, neither he nor the party has ever been beaten in a nationwide contest, through two referenda, six parliamentary elections and three presidential votes.

That stunning record now faces its greatest test. Can Mr Erdogan win yet again without offering anything new? We’ll soon know whether he has succeeding in building his “New Turkey”, or if Ataturk’s children have decided the grass on the other side is not so green after all.

Published: April 18, 2023, 2:03 PM