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Turkey elections: why Erdoğan and his party are suddenly vulnerable

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps it's inevitable that even the most popular strongman loses his appeal. President Erdoğan chose early elections, but Turks are starting to signal they've had enough of one-man rule.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Activists in the ruling Justice and Development Party staff a mobile party information center at the Uskudar ferry terminal in Istanbul, Turkey, June 10, 2018, as Turkey prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections.

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Day after day, Turkey’s opposition parties brave a scalding heat wave to hand out leaflets. They’re energized by a belief that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – after half a generation in power – may be vulnerable in the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections. Mr. Erdoğan called the early elections in what appears now to be a failed attempt to get ahead of an economic downturn. Still, he remains the most popular politician in Turkey, burnished by wall-to-wall television coverage of his every utterance, the result of AKP control over all of Turkey’s key media organs. But Erdoğan’s us-versus-them style – he derides many of his foes as “terrorists” – has polarized Turkey. Opposition parties have put up stronger-than-expected candidates and unified for the first time. “In a one-man regime, all the problems you have in your life, whether it’s the economy or politics, you end up blaming on that one man,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s quite a challenge to continue to win elections if you have a very determined 50 percent of the population who doesn’t like you.”

Caner Güneş, with short black beard, nationalistic tattoos, and blue jeans, is a member of the youth wing of Turkey’s main opposition party.

He helps staff a Republican People’s Party (CHP) tent blasting music and political speeches at a ferry terminal in Kadiköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul.

“The atmosphere now has really changed,” says Mr. Güneş. “In one neighborhood, when we went out there they used to throw stones at us,” he says. “Now they shake our hands and say, ‘You have our vote.’ ”

Not every district in Turkey has seen such a dramatic change of heart. In the neighborhood in question, Güneş attributes the shift to the clumsy handling of residents whose homes were razed to make way for a top-dollar building project run by a company linked to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But day after day, Turkey’s opposition parties brave a scalding heatwave to hand out leaflets, energized like never before by a belief that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP – after half a generation in power – may be vulnerable in June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections.

To be sure, Mr. Erdoğan remains the most popular politician in Turkey, burnished by wall-to-wall television coverage of his every utterance – the result of the AKP’s successful, systematic effort to control Turkey’s key media organs – and a campaign that has used state resources to blanket the country with his image and the words “strong leader.”

But Erdoğan’s us-versus-them style has polarized Turkey, and his dream of ushering in a new presidential system with supreme powers may be in jeopardy as opposition parties have put up stronger-than-expected candidates, unified for the first time, and smell blood.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A man tries to clear the road in Istanbul as supporters of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party await an address from their candidate Muharram Ince on June 8, 2018.

The transformation to the all-powerful new presidential system, approved in a narrowly won referendum last year, is to begin with this vote.

Erdoğan called this snap election 18 months early, expecting yet another victory by out-running an opposition resurgence and economic downturn. Instead, the currency has dropped nearly 20 percent in recent months with more trouble to come, prices have continued to soar, and more and more Turks are showing signs of Erdoğan fatigue.

“For the first time in almost 16 years of AKP rule, people are able to imagine a situation in which he wouldn’t be the ultimate winner,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “This is a natural course of events. There is no single person anywhere in the world who's in power for 16 years, and would not start going down in popularity.

“He may still end up winning, but the truth is, inside Turkey he no longer looks invincible – quite the opposite,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş, noting that Erdoğan has had to make new alliances, distribute large government handouts, and jack up AKP mobilization to score a 51 percent win in the presidential vote that would avoid a second-round runoff.

“Erdoğan has spent so much time creating a one-man regime, but in a one-man regime all the problems you have in your life – whether it’s the economy or politics – you end up blaming on that one man,” says Aydıntaşbaş.

“He’s still the most popular guy on the street, but it is also a very divided country,” she says. “The anti-Erdoğan camp is now almost half the population, so it’s quite a challenge to continue to win elections, if you have a very determined 50 percent of the population who doesn’t like you.”

Unity in opposition

To maximize their chances, four of Turkey’s fractious opposition parties have joined in an unprecedented show of unity for the parliamentary vote. They have not held back in their criticism – and neither has the president, in return – as their leaders crisscross Turkey, speaking to multiple rallies each day.

CHP candidate Muharrem İnce, a former physics teacher who has vowed to restore democracy and the rule of law, told crowds last week that Erdoğan was “too tired” to solve Turkey’s “big problems.”

Addressing Erdoğan, he said he would collapse the 1,000-room presidential palace he had built in the capital, Ankara, “on your head.” He vowed to reverse the president’s “repressive” culture and promised that his face would not appear – as Erdogan’s often does – every time a Turk turned on the television.

“We will change the man who has been shouting at us for 16 years,” Mr. İnce told another rally.

Yet the campaign trail is the natural place for Erdoğan’s charismatic and combative style.

Erdoğan accuses İnce of “supporting terrorism” by meeting with a Kurdish presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), who is currently in prison; of “manipulating the electorate”; and of wanting to “return to the old Turkey” by destroying what the AKP has built.

“You will never even have the opportunity to even come to the palace,” he told İnce at a rally as crowds cheered.

A mixed record

Since 2002, the Islam-rooted AKP has transformed and modernized Turkey’s economy, raising the standard of living across the board even as top figures – and construction barons linked to the party – gained vast wealth.

But Erdoğan’s definition of democracy is rule by the majority only, without reaching out to other parties, and his authoritarian style prompted widespread protests in 2013, which vilified him as a “dictator.”

A crackdown on opponents that Erdoğan routinely castigates as “terrorists” was stepped up in 2013, then intensified after a failed coup in July 2016. Scores of journalists remain in jail – Turkey ranked highest in the world for jailed journalists in 2017, for the second year in a row – and 150,000 people have been purged from state institutions.

Every opposition leader has said they will immediately end the state of emergency, begun after the coup attempt and meant to last just three months. Erdoğan finally followed their lead, making the same promise on Wednesday.

“Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is human, we all make mistakes, but no one has done as much for the country,” says Yakup Varol, an aircraft technician and volunteer at the AKP tent at the ferry terminal, as he rolls up a string of orange and blue flag bunting at the end of the day.

“In every system, one person has the final say. This is no different,” says Mr. Varol. “This election the opposition is very aggressive. Now Turkey is a very beautiful country, but if the opposition wins it will all go.”

But that election outcome is impossible, say AKP officials at a mobile party kiosk in Üsküdar district, where they hand out red carnations and party balloons. Most volunteers are women wearing headscarves.

“His chance of losing is zero,” says İbrahim Yürür, head of a local AKP neighborhood association. “In every election we increased the level of support and number of votes, and the new presidential system will be – God willing – our crowning achievement,” he says of Erdoğan’s long-held dream, which would begin with a new five-year term.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Young women supporters of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party hand out coffee at a late-night political rally addressed by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Istanbul, June 10, 2018.

'No good slogans'

But not all ruling party operatives are convinced by their own propaganda.

“People are not enthusiastic this time – neither us nor our voters,” one AKP official told the Financial Times. “We are just saying the same things as before: we built a new bridge, we are building a new airport. There are no good slogans, no good songs.”

Instead, Erdoğan has inadvertently provided the opposition with useful slogans. When he said at a rally that he would go when the Turkish people said “enough,” the Turkish word “tamam” went viral and became part of the opposition lexicon.

Turkey faces a host of problems. Erdoğan has lambasted some European leaders as Nazis, exacerbated a collapse in Turkey’s relations with the US and with NATO, and been deeply involved in the Syrian war, which has brought more than 3.5 million refugees into the country.

Turkey this week launched attacks against the headquarters of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq – in a popular move dismissed as an election ploy by critics – and has engaged in multiple cross-border military operations in Syria.

“We are out here going to markets and bazaars, meeting 1,500 to 2,000 people a day. From their facial expressions and body language they are telling us they are tired,” says Hüseyin Yalçintaş, a flooring shop owner manning a tent for the nationalist İyi (Good) party, whose leader Meral Akşener is a veteran female politician.

“Then they actually say to us, ‘You’ve got to save us from these people. They are taking us away from democracy to a one-man regime,’” he says. “It’s a groundswell of people who are victims of the government, and we are the voice of these people.”

Unity in a box (of chocolate)

And that voice is magnified by unprecedented opposition unity.

“We haven’t wanted him from the beginning, but in 16 years Erdoğan has even worn out his supporters,” asserts Hülya Memoğlu, a local CHP activist at the ferry terminal tent.

“He’s never had all of Turkey, but he’s taken his half of it and kept pushing,” adds Yıldız Dikin, a leader of the CHP women’s wing in Kadiköy, nodding in agreement.

A box of chocolates arrives at the CHP tent as a gift from the HDP kiosk nearby, and begins to melt in the heat, even as it is offered around.

“This is HDP chocolate, this is unity!” says Ms. Dikin, clearly impressed. “Altogether we are going to take these [AKP] people down.”

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