For the past three years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken his nation on a seemingly endless political roller-coaster ride. Under the auspices of his government, the country has seen two parliamentary elections and a controversial referendum that vested wider powers in Turkey’s presidency. Meanwhile, the purges he commenced after a failed coup attempt in 2016 are still roiling the country.
The next big event comes June 24, when Turks will vote for their next president and parliament. For Erdogan and his opponents, the stakes are as high as ever. If he wins, Erdogan will assume the Turkish presidency’s expanded executive powers, granted by the bitterly fought referendum in 2017.
After a decade and a half in power, Erdogan has become the most consequential Turkish politician since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. But his critics fear the death of Turkey’s enfeebled democracy and the strengthening of an overt authoritarian. A growing body of analysts cast Turkey under Erdogan as a prime example of how democracies can backslide and how ostensibly liberal politics can give way to toxic majoritarianism.
Erdogan is a canny political operator, and he has preserved his rule by mobilizing a divisive yet effective brand of religious nationalism. He has trained his ire on a vast web of supposed enemies abroad, from obstreperous Western governments to a Kurdish separatist terrorist group to a geriatric cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. But although he once could campaign on a track record of economic prosperity and development, the Turkish economy is teetering dramatically.
“Years of irresponsible policies have overheated the Turkish economy. High inflation rates and current account deficits are going to prove sticky,” Atilla Yesilada, an analyst with Istanbul-based Global Source Partners, said to The Washington Post. “I think we are at the end of our rope.”
“Opposition leaders have also cited encouraging poll numbers that they say reflect voter fatigue with the president after a tumultuous few years in Turkey marked by growing tensions with some of the country’s NATO allies and intensifying social polarization at home,” wrote The Post’s Istanbul bureau chief, Kareem Fahim. “The results suggest a possible opposition victory — if not in the presidential race, then in the parliament, where they hope to roll back the majority held by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP.”
Erdogan’s challengers are stronger this year, thanks both to the political winds and the emergence of an opposition alliance that includes not only leftists, religious minorities and secularists but also right-wing nationalists and pious Muslims.
Erdogan’s main opponent in the presidential race is Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party, a centrist party once associated with decades of stifling secularism as well as the repression of ethnic minorities carried out by the Turkish state. Ince, a former schoolteacher, has worked assiduously to dispel this image and champion a more inclusive future.
The challengers say that Erdogan is hobbling the country by sparring with the European Union and NATO, and making moves that tanked the Turkish currency. “The policies that Erdogan or his government are following do not help Turkey stand up on her own feet in almost all aspects and policies, whether economic or foreign policies,” Islamist presidential candidate Temel Karamollaoglu said to the Guardian. “His method of approach, the discourse, causes polarization in Turkey.”
But there are limits to the time-for-change argument. “The opposition’s main message is, enough is enough. You have been in power too long, you represent the past,” Omer Taspinar of the Brookings Institute said to Fahim. “Maybe that would work if he was 80 years old. Erdogan is still a force to reckon with, despite his vulnerabilities. He has done well for the middle class.”
As in elections in 2015, all eyes are on the Kurdish vote. Kurds represent about 20 percent of the country’s population; Erdogan, who moved to liberalize restrictions on Kurdish cultural rights, once drew tremendous backing from religiously-minded Kurdish voters. But the resumption of conflict with Kurdish militant groups in Turkey, Syria and Iraq has weakened that support, as has his government’s persecution of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, a left-wing, pro-Kurdish party that Ankara accuses of collusion with outlawed Kurdish militants.
If the HDP can win more than 10 percent of the national vote required to gain seats in Turkey’s parliament — as it did in June 2015 — Erdogan’s AKP will struggle to win a majority. The HDP’s charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been thrown in jail on terrorism-related charges he and his supporters flatly reject. He is running for president behind bars.
“The Kurds are a reality, and in every country in the Middle East, in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, they are on the front lines for the struggle of democracy,” Demirtas told me in an interview in 2016, before he was sent to prison. “There’s a fundamental ideological conflict between the Kurds and Erdogan, who has a Turkish Islamist ideology.”