Voters to decide Erdogan’s fate and the future of a polarised country
by Dario Salvi

Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on 14 May, with a run-off two weeks later if no one gets 50 per cent in the first round. The Economist slams the Turkish leader for bringing the country “to the brink". The Kurdish vote, the migrant issue, and Islamic nationalism are expected to play a major role. A silent international community is ready for business as usual, source tells AsiaNews.

Milan (AsiaNews) – With an unexpected and controversial decision, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided to bring forward by a month, to 14 May, presidential and parliamentary elections initially scheduled for 18 June.

This is a symbolic date in Turkey, because, as the president himself noted, it is the day in 1950, 73 years ago, that saw the victory of conservative Adnan Mederes, who ruled the country until 1960 when he was deposed in a military coup and executed the following year.

In 1950,  the Democrat Party won the first free elections, remembered now for the clash with Greece over Cyprus and the pogrom against Turkey’s Greek minority in 1955.

By praising his predecessor, Erdogan is trying to hold on to power which he has had for more than 20 years, as prime minister until 2014 and then as president, boosted by his presidentialist reform.

In the event that no candidate wins 50 per cent, a run-off is scheduled for 28 May between the two most voted-for candidates.

According to the latest polls, the 68-year-old Erdogan is unlikely to get a first-round victory, but he remains the favourite, while the various opposition parties must find a strong and equally authoritative candidate.

The Economist attack

Major polls show that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be marked by an open race between the main ruling parties, above all Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP[*]), and opposition parties.

Voters remain polarised and divided between the president’s supporters and detractors, more than over policy in a campaign that does not yet seem very lively.

At a time of domestic crisis, difficult economic situation, and foreign involvement, this vote is the most serious electoral challenge Erdogan has had to face since coming to power. Indeed, for a country that is a major regional and military power and a member of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO), times are uncertain.

Still, Turkey can flex its muscles, threatening, for example, to veto Sweden’s application for NATO membership because of the burning of a copy of the Qurʾān, which Erdogan has been using for domestic consumption in line with a policy of "nationalism and Islam" that he has pursued for years.

Yet, the shadow the president has cast over the country risks dragging it into the abyss of a crisis that is not only economic, but also political and social, at least according to The Economist, which recently launched a harsh attack on his leadership.

For the British weekly, he has brought the country "to the brink of disaster" and to prove its point, it rattles off numbers and figures on the state of Turkey financial health a few months before the vote.

“Mr Erdogan’s behaviour as the election approaches could push what is today a deeply flawed democracy over the edge into a full-blown dictatorship,” writes the paper.

In the first part of his 20-year reign, Erdogan's leadership had positive effects on the economy and in terms of development and security; however, over time, it morphed into an "autocratic" leadership.

With the establishment of an executive presidency, he turned a largely ceremonial role into an office that decides the country’s fate. And some of his "eccentric" ideas have turned into "public policy."

For The Economist, another issue is the way he deals with rivals, first of all, Ekrem Imamoglu, the current mayor of Istanbul and a member of the Republican People's Party (CHP)[†], whom Erdogan has been trying to neutralise, including via the courts.

At the international level, while Erdogan has tried to mediate, fruitlessly so far, between Russia and Ukraine, and sought rapprochement with Syria, his attitude towards Greece and Cyprus risk causing new “territorial quarrels”. In Syria his approach – aimed at eliminating Kurdish enclaves on his south and south-eastern border and ensuring control of a cross-border strip – could “create further confusion and strife in Syria”.

For The Economist, Mr Erdogan is a bully who sees timidity as a reason to press his advantage and toughness as an incentive to mend fences”.

Unresolved issues: Kurds and migrants

Turkey is “very divided and ordinary people are very angry because prices are out of control not only because of inflation, but also in real terms,” said a diplomatic source, speaking to AsiaNews on condition of anonymity because not authorised to speak to the press.

The cost of living is very high, while salaries are often not enough to cover expenses, including the basics. While the government continues with a policy of large-scale investments, from construction to public works, which creates jobs, in the long-run this could turn into a bubble ready to burst.

Then there is "a frantic diplomatic activity" that “manages to keep the country afloat,” says the source. In the end, “nationalist and religious voters will vote for Erdogan, but it is unclear what will happen next; until May the status quo is destined to last in a very divided country”, split between rural and urban areas.

“Turkish Muslims tend to be fatalistic, while the rich and well-off go along with this government because of government aid and protectionist measures.”

“This is accompanied by nationalist policies and the gradual expulsion of migrants, who are sent away in large numbers.” The authorities “tend not to renew even visas for immigrants from Europe for fear that outsiders might report what happens inside.”

At the same time, “the Kurdish 'threat' and migrants play in favour of the government, which can also count on a silent international community, which appears to be tacitly willing to work with the current leadership".

In light of this, divisions within the opposition – secularists, Islamists, nationalists, pro-Kurdish parties – will not help defeat Erdogan and the AKP, especially since no single alternative candidate has emerged.

The pro-Kurdish party, which has the third-largest caucus in parliament, has so far been excluded from any alliance and might pick one of its own.

Erdogan is also not reluctant to use force and the courts to get rid of rivals or critics, as tens of thousands of people know after they were arrested and convicted in the wake of the failed coup in the summer of 2016.

The Turkish leader responded in his own way to the criticism by the British weekly. Upon leaving a mosque after Friday prayers (sign of the importance of religion), he said: “My people will determine the fate of Türkiye.” The latter is the new standard name for the country, which the Turkish president pushed for.

In the currently highly polarised political situation, the Kurds could make the difference. “If the opposition coalition manages to appeal to the Kurdish population, they will likely win the elections, whereas if they don’t have that support it will be very difficult, if not impossible,” writes Burak Kadercan, a Turkey expert.


[*] Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi

[†] Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi