Erdogan faces a thrilling race against an emboldened opposition
Crisis in the cost of living is seen as a dent in his chances
Turkey’s two-decade transformation is at stake
By Orhan Coskun and Birsen Altayli
ANKARA, May 14 (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has nurtured an image of a robust and invincible leader throughout his two decades in power, but he appears vulnerable as the political landscape could shift in his opponent’s favor on Sunday at the Sunday’s presidential election.
Erdogan emerged from humble roots to rule for 20 years and reshape Turkey’s domestic, economic, security and foreign policies, reshaping historical leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded modern Turkey a century ago.
Erdogan, the son of a sea captain, has faced strong political headwinds ahead of Sunday’s elections: he was already blamed for an economic crisis when a devastating earthquake struck in February. Critics accused his government of a slow response and lax enforcement of building regulations, failures that they say could have cost lives.
Opinion polls show it’s a tight race, but critics have drawn parallels to the circumstances that brought his Islamist-rooted AK party to power in 2002, in an election also shaped by high inflation and economic turmoil.
Two days before the vote, Erdogan said he came to the office through the ballot boxes and would leave by the same route if he had to.
“We will accept as legitimate any result that comes out of the ballots. We expect the same promise from those who oppose us,” he said in a televised interview on Friday.
The day of retribution has come for his enemies.
Under his autocratic rule, he amassed power around an executive presidency, muzzled dissent, imprisoned critics and opponents, and seized control of the media, judiciary, and economy. He crammed most public institutions with loyalists and hollowed out critical state organs.
His detractors have vowed to undo many of the changes he has made in Turkey, which he has tried to shape his vision of a pious, conservative society and assertive regional player.
The high stakes in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections are nothing new for a leader who once served a prison sentence – for reciting a religious poem – and survived an attempted military coup in 2016 when rogue soldiers attacked parliament and killed 250 people .
The 69-year-old Erdogan, a veteran of more than a dozen electoral victories, has targeted his critics in typically belligerent fashion.
He has peppered the ramp-up period with celebrations of industry milestones, including the launch of Turkey’s first electric car and the inauguration of the first amphibious assault ship, built in Istanbul to carry Turkish-made drones.
Erdogan also flipped Turkey’s first supply of natural gas from a Black Sea reserve, promised households free supplies, and inaugurated its first nuclear power plant in a ceremony virtually attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His attacks on his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, include allegations without evidence of support from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency since the 1980s that has killed more than 40,000 people. Kilicdaroglu has denied the allegations.
While trying to bolster his appeal among conservative voters, Erdogan has also spoken out against LGBT rights, calling them a “deviant” concept that he would fight.
‘BUILDING TURKEY TOGETHER’
Polls suggest the vote could move to a second round later this month — if neither Erdogan nor Kilicdaroglu win more than 50% of the vote — and some are leaving Erdogan behind. This indicates the depth of a cost-of-living crisis fueled by his unorthodox economic policies.
An attempt by authorities to cut interest rates in the face of rising inflation was designed to boost economic growth, but it crashed the currency in late 2021 and worsened inflation.
The economy was one of Erdogan’s main strengths in the first decade of his rule, as Turkey experienced a long-lasting boom with new roads, hospitals and schools and rising living standards for its 85 million people.
Halime Duman said the high prices had pushed many messages out of her reach, but she remained confident that Erdogan could still solve her problems. “I swear, Erdogan can fix it in an instant,” she said at a market in central Istanbul.
The president grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul, attended an Islamic vocational school and entered politics as the leader of the local youth wing. After serving as mayor of Istanbul, he entered the national scene as head of the AK Party (AKP) and became prime minister in 2003.
His AKP tamed the Turkish military, which had toppled four governments since 1960, and began talks in 2005 to secure a decades-long ambition to join the European Union – a process that later stalled.
Western allies initially saw Erdogan’s Turkey as a vibrant mix of Islam and democracy that could serve as a model for Middle Eastern states struggling to shake off autocracy and stagnation.
But his push for more control polarized the country and alarmed international partners. Avid supporters saw it as a just reward for a leader who put Islamic teachings back at the center of public life in a country with a strong secular tradition, and championed the pious working class.
Opponents portrayed it as a leap into authoritarianism by a power-hungry leader.
Following the 2016 coup attempt, authorities launched a massive crackdown, imprisoning more than 77,000 people awaiting trial and sacking or suspending 150,000 from government jobs. Human rights groups say Turkey has become the world’s largest jailer of journalists for a while.
Erdogan’s government said the purge was justified by threats from supporters of the coup, as well as from Islamic State and the PKK.
At home, a sprawling new presidential palace complex on the outskirts of Ankara became a striking sign of its new powers, while abroad Turkey became increasingly assertive, intervening in Syria, Iraq and Libya and often deploying Turkish-made military drones with decisive force.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Ali Kucukgocmen Written by Tom Perry Edited by Jonathan Spicer, Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry)