Poor economy and Energized opposition could spell defeat for Turkey’s Erdogan
At the front of an opposition rally in the Turkish industrial city of Bursa on May 11, a group of women lined up behind metal fencing waving flags and chanting about the cost of potatoes and onions.
“Erdogan’s got to go!” they shouted.
The rally, which attracted thousands of people, was held just days before Turkey votes in what is being called a pivotal election that could end Recep Tayyip’s Erdogan’s 20 years in power and usher in a new political era.
The rising cost of an onion, a kitchen staple, has become a symbol of Turkey’s rampant inflation and a fixture in political advertisements for opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu.
A 74-year-old former civil servant, Kiliçdaroğlu is leading a six-party alliance that has united in an effort to defeat Erdogan in the presidential election, which takes place May 14. (A parliamentary vote to elect the 600 deputies for Turkey’s Grand National Assembly will take place at the same time.)
“We need to change our country — right now, it is very bad,” said Serif Cetinkaya, 18, one of the estimated five million young people who will be voting for the first time in the presidential election.
“It will be a historical election for Turkish citizens,” said Seren Sevin Korkmaz, executive director of the Istanbul Political Research Institute. “It’s not just electing a presidential candidate or political party, but it is a selection for Turkey’s future.”
A tight race
The latest polls sugges Kiliçdaroğlu has a narrow lead over Erdogan, which may have widened after another opposition candidate with sparse support dropped out of the race this week.
There remains a real possibility that neither presidential candidate will get over the 50 per cent threshold needed for victory, thereby forcing a second round of voting, which would take place on May 28.
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Turkish society is polarized between the two political camps and that’s played out under a heavy police presence at massive, high-energy rallies held daily throughout the political campaign.
Erdogan, 69, is a populist with fiercely loyal supporters, but he and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) are facing criticism at home and abroad.
He is accused of mismanaging the economy and driving up inflation, while eroding the country’s institutions by squeezing the central bank and exerting control over a wide swath of the media.
The election also comes three months after a devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey killed 50,000 people and displaced more than three million. In the wake of the disaster, Erdogan’s government was criticized for not sending out search teams fast enough.
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Korkmaz says that after Erdogan was first elected in 2003, he was praised for the country’s economic growth and an infrastructure boom. He also strengthened international relations, mainly with the European Union, and solidified Turkey’s position as a regional power at the intersection of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Korkmaz says in recent years, Erdogan has turned the country into an autocracy, particularly after an attempted coup in 2016 that left more than 250 people dead. There has been a crackdown on dissent — opposition politicians and activists have faced arrest and jail time, and supposedly independent institutions like the judiciary have been weakened in an effort to prop up Erdogan’s power.
In 2005, Erdogan started accession talks with the EU, but as the years progressed, they came to a standstill, due to what EU officials call a “negative trend” in Turkey when it comes to the rule of law and fundamental rights. The European Commission accused the country of “democratic backsliding.”
In 2017, Turkey’s population narrowly approved a transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, the result of a referendum in which European observers believe millions of votes may have been manipulated.
The following year, Erdogan was re-elected and sworn in as president.
Centralizing power was an initial political advantage for Erdogan, but Korkmaz says it has since become a weakness, because people blame Erdogan directly for the “fragile economy and unbalanced foreign policy.”
Erdogan, who has promised that interest rates will keep dropping as long as he is in power, has put pressure on the central bank to adopt what many economists call an unorthodox policy to fight soaring inflation. Between 2019 and 2021, Erdogan’s government sacked three central bank governors, which hurt Turkey’s financial credibility and weakened its currency, the lira. Inflation peaked last fall at 85 per cent.
Official inflation now stands at 44 per cent. As a point of comparison, in the U.K. it is just over 10 per cent.
At a small market in Bursa on Thursday, shoppers surveyed fruits and vegetables that lined wooden tables — and the price tags attached. A few who spoke to CBC News said they can no longer afford to buy the usual groceries, and that the cost of living overall has jumped dramatically.
“[The government] does not think about us. They’re thinking about filling their [bank accounts],” said Aytekin Sasmaz. He showed CBC a plastic bag of onions, which he said would have previously cost the equivalent of 25¢ Cdn, and now costs around $2.50.
“I think that on May 14, the system and the government will change,” Sasmaz said.
The man who could defeat Erdogan
At a political rally in this city of three million later that afternoon, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu made an outline of a heart with his hands, mirroring many in the crowd who were making the same symbol.
“Spring will come to Turkey,” he shouted into a microphone. “We are going to change a totalitarian regime through democracy.”
Among other things, Kiliçdaroğlu promised that he would eliminate the polarization in this country of 85 million, and that people would live freely and “tweet without fear.”
His campaign has revolved around the idea of rebuilding democracy, but he has also pledged to send the more than three million Syrian refugees staying in Turkey back home, adding they are free to return as “tourists.”
In an interview with Reuters, Kiliçdaroğlu said he wanted to strike a balance when it comes to foreign relations with Russia, which he has accused of meddling in Turkey’s election. Moscow has denied this.
Kiliçdaroğlu said unlike Erdogan’s government, he would actively consult with the country’s foreign ministry and fully support the expansion of NATO. Turkey has stalled Sweden’s NATO bid as it tries to pressure the Nordic country to extradite alleged militants that Turkey suspects of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terror group by the EU, U.S. and U.K.
While Turkey’s close relations with Russia have sparked some friction among the NATO alliance, Erdogan has also been praised by the UN for helping broker a deal to facilitate grain shipments out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports amid the Russia-Ukraine war.
The president’s base
Many of Erdogan’s supporters view him as irreplaceable. At a massive, frenetic rally in Istanbul on Friday, people crowded the streets because there wasn’t enough room for the president’s thousands of fans near the mosque where the event was taking place.
“We love him so much,” said Dilara Emec, 20. She and her boyfriend, Omer Furkan, admit the economy is bad, but are adamant it’s not a reason to vote Erdogan out.
“You can find bread, you can find onions or potatoes, but you can’t find a country like this, a leader like him,” said Furkan.
Erdogan attended the rally after helping to open a newly built mosque. Throughout the campaign, he has defended his economic policies while railing against LGBTQ people and an opposition he says sides with terrorists. Erdogan insists he is ready to protect the country the way he did after the attempted coup in 2016.
A day earlier, protesters threw stones at the mayor of Istanbul, an opposition candidate who was campaigning in a city that’s traditionally been loyal to Erdogan’s party.
“We have to get rid of this polarization,” said Ertim Orkun, president of the Istanbul-based organization Vote and Beyond. His team has recruited about 65,000 volunteers to monitor roughly 200,000 polling stations in Turkey. Part of their training includes how to diffuse heated arguments.
“We try to prepare [workers] psychologically … ‘be the person who’s calm, who’s cool. Just try to neutralize the room.'”
“Every time we have an election, we keep saying the same thing: ‘This is the most important election ever.'”
Orkun expects tension and even anger after the ballots are counted this weekend, but dismisses fears over protests turning violent. He doesn’t buy into all the talk about the historic nature of this election.