Turks vote in test for Recep Tayyip Erdogan as recession hits home

Analysts say the president's party could lose Ankara and even Istanbul

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan cheer during a rally for the upcoming local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, March 30, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads into local elections Sunday fighting for what he says is Turkey's survival, with his party risking defeat in the capital amid an economic slowdown.

Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have won every vote since the party first came to power in 2002 but this time, analysts say the party could lose Ankara and even Istanbul.

It is the first municipal poll since Turks approved constitutional reforms in 2017 to create an executive presidency that gave Mr Erdogan wider powers, and follows general elections last year.

But Mr Erdogan, whose ability to win continuously in the ballot box is unparalleled in Turkish history, is more vulnerable with the country's economy in recession, unemployment up and inflation in double digits.

Much of the AKP's success has been down to his perceived economic prowess, but days before the vote, the Turkish lira has been sliding again, provoking memories of the 2018 currency crisis that badly hurt Turkish households.

Mr Erdogan, who is aware of his potential weakness and was previously the mayor of Istanbul, has campaigned across Turkey every day though he is not on the ballot.

Since Friday, he has held more than a dozen rallies in different Istanbul districts.

Voters are to elect scores of mayors, municipal councils and other local officials. Polls open at 0400 GMT in eastern provinces and 0500 GMT elsewhere in the country.

"Citizens are suffering because of the economic problems," Dervis Dikmen, 60, told AFP at an opposition rally in the southern city of Mersin. "Citizens cannot buy anything."

"I'm a trader, I'm retired but I've never seen a downturn like this," he said.

For his supporters however, Mr Erdogan remains the strong leader Turkey needs and they tout the country's economic development in the decade and a half that he and the AKP have been in power.

But rights activists and even Turkey's Western allies say that under his leadership the government has steadily eroded democracy, especially after a failed 2016 coup that led to tens of thousands of people being arrested.

The vote will be the first time since 2002 that the AKP is fielding candidates with its alliance partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has refused to field candidates in several cities, saying the elections are unfair. Some of its leaders have been jailed on terror charges, accusations they reject.

Critics say that with most media either pro-government or controlled by Mr Erdogan supporters, opposition parties campaigned at a disadvantage because Erdogan's rallies dominated TV coverage.

For Gareth Jenkins, a non-resident senior research fellow at the Silk Road Studies Programme, regardless of what happens on Sunday, "it has been several years since we have had anything resembling a fair election in Turkey.

"What has happened during the campaign for Sunday's local elections is unprecedented and demonstrates that – unlike during its first years in power – the AKP is no longer confident of being able to win a fair election. And it is almost certainly right."

The AKP aims to win Istanbul and Ankara, with Mr Erdogan fielding his ex-prime minister and loyalist Binali Yildirim for the country's biggest city and economic hub.

But in Ankara, Mansur Yavas – candidate for the opposition Republican People's Party CHP and the nationalist Good Party – might have a stronger chance of winning, according to recent polls.

Looking to rally conservative Turks, Mr Erdogan's message targeted opponents as enemies of the country, tying them to PKK Kurdish militants.

But with inflation at just under 20 per cent and unemployment at a near 10-year high in December, he has also sought to reassure voters the economy is under control.

"I am the boss of the economy right now as the president of this country," Mr Erdogan told a rally on Saturday. "We are in charge of the economy."

He has described the lira's fluctuations as part of a plot led by the United States to "corner Turkey".

Ayse Ayata, a political science professor at Middle East Technical University, said that after the vote, "the economy will take precedence and there will certainly be significant austerity measures".

The Turkish finance minister, Mr Erdogan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak, said economic reforms would be announced the week of April 8.

But Bulent Aliriza of the US-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, wrote in a report that it was still unclear whether Mr Erdogan's oratory skills and AKP advantages, "which invariably produced electoral success in the past, will overcome voters' growing concerns over the economy."