Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

Arab News,
June 19, 2018

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday faces the biggest ballot box challenge
of his 15-year grip on Turkey, seeking to overcome a revitalized opposition
against the background of an increasingly troubled economy.
Tayyip Erdogan has won successive elections since his ruling party came to
power in 2002, transforming Turkey with growth-orientated economic policies,
religious conservatism and an assertive stance abroad. (Reuters)

A self-styled heavyweight champion of campaigning, Erdogan has won successive
elections since his Islamic-rooted ruling party came to power in 2002,
transforming Turkey with growth-orientated economic policies, religious
conservatism and an assertive stance abroad.

But he
appears to have met some kind of match in his main presidential rival Muharrem
Ince, a fiery orator from the left of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who
has been unafraid to challenge Erdogan on his own terms.

intrigue is deepened by the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections
on the same day under controversial constitutional changes spearheaded by
Erdogan which will hand the new Turkish president enhanced powers and scrap the
office of prime minister.

The vote
takes place almost two years after the failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan
from power, a watershed in its modern history which prompted Turkey to launch
the biggest purge of recent times under a state of emergency that remains in

55,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown whose magnitude has sparked
major tensions with Ankara’s Western allies.

Only a
knockout first round victory for Erdogan and a strong parliamentary majority
for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be seen as an
unequivocal victory for the Turkish leader.

And many
analysts believe Ince can force a second round on July 8, while AKP risks losing
its parliamentary majority in the face of an unprecedented alliance between
four opposition parties.

“This is
not the classical opposition that he has been facing for 15 years and which he
more or less succeeded in managing and marginalizing,” said Elize Massicard of
the French National Center for Scientific Research.
“It’s a new political dynamic that has grown in magnitude,” she said.

opposition was already boosted by the relatively narrow victory of the “Yes”
campaign in the April 2017 referendum on the constitutional changes.

opinion polls — to be treated with caution in Turkey — suggest Erdogan will
fall short of 50 percent in the first round.

remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician and inspires sometimes
near-fanatical support in the Anatolian interior, where he is credited with
transforming lives through greater economic prosperity.

“A great
Turkey needs a strong leader,” says the slogan on election posters of Erdogan
plastered across Turkey.
But the elections come at a time when Turkey is undergoing one of its rockiest
recent economic patches despite high growth, with inflation surging to 12.15
percent and the lira losing 20 percent against the dollar this year.

brought the elections forward from November 2019 in what many analysts saw as a
bid to have them over with before the economy nosedived.

opposition has sought to play on signs of Erdogan fatigue and also echoed
Western concerns that freedom of expression has declined drastically under his

For the first
time, Erdogan has been forced to react in the election campaign as the
opposition set the pace.

He had to
deny quickly when Ince accused him of meeting the alleged architect of the 2016
failed coup, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan promised to lift Turkey’s two-year state
of emergency only after the CHP had vowed the same.
“The opposition is able to frame the debate in the election and this is a new
thing for Turkish politics,” Asli Aydintasbas, fellow with the European Council
on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said.

“A party
that has been in power for so long is, in an economic downturn, going to
experience a loss (in support) and lose its hegemony over politics,” she added.

While the
CHP sees itself as the guardian of a secular and united Turkey, Ince has also
sought to win the support of Turkey’s Kurdish minority who make up around a
fifth of the electorate.

A rally
held by Ince in the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir in the southeast attracted
considerable attention. “A president for everyone,” reads his election slogan,
over a picture of the affably smiling former physics teacher.
The opposition, which argues that Erdogan has been given a wildly
disproportionate amount of media airtime in the campaign, has sometimes
resorted to creative and even humorous campaign methods.

The Iyi
(Good) Party of Meral Aksener, once seen as a major player but lately eclipsed
by Ince, put out humorous messages on Google ads and even devised a computer
game where light bulbs — the AKP symbol — get destroyed.
Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party
(HDP), has campaigned from his prison cell following his jailing in November
2016. He made an election speech on speaker phone through his wife’s mobile but
was allowed give a brief election broadcast on state TV, albeit from prison.