- - Sunday, June 17, 2018

ISTANBUL — It was supposed to be an easy win.

A prolonged state of emergency after a failed coup attempt and a constitutional referendum that delivered Turkey’s president sweeping new powers should deliver strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an easy win in Turkey’s June 24 snap elections, a vote moved up from November 2019.

But a reinvigorated opposition, demonstrating unexpected discipline, banded together to give Mr. Erdogan far more of a challenge than many had thought. An upset — or even a close result — could leave a major chink in the armor of the 64-year-old president, who has dominated the Turkish political scene for 15 years.

“The opposition seems much more energized, and we’re seeing that voters who traditionally supported the government are having second thoughts,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. “The economy isn’t doing well, and they’re tired of seeing the same man on their TV screens all day, every day.”

It’s a far cry from the political situation in Turkey only two years ago.

After the failed coup attempt in 2016, which Mr. Erdogan blamed on a U.S.-based rival, the government instituted a state of emergency. Mr. Erdogan then fired or detained enemies in government institutions, civil society and elsewhere. Thousands of opposition candidates, journalists, teachers and military personnel were ousted from their positions or imprisoned, giving way to a society increasingly acquiescent to the president.

Last year, criticism that Mr. Erdogan was eroding democracy in Turkey intensified after a constitutional referendum narrowly passed that transformed Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, giving the once-ceremonial post real power while allowing Mr. Erodgan to stay on as de facto chief.

But that centralization of power could now backfire on the government. Whoever wins this month’s presidential election will have sweeping executive powers, including the ability to issue decrees without parliamentary approval.

With just a week before the vote, polls indicate that it’s a toss-up whether Mr. Erdogan will be the president to inaugurate the system.

Mr. Erdogan is leading the race with about 48 percent of voter support in the first round, followed by Muharrem Ince, the candidate from Turkey’s largest opposition party, the center-left Republican People’s Party, with 25.8 percent, according to Turkish pollster Gezici. The fiery Mr. Ince has proved to be an effective campaigner for a party long considered a weak foil to Mr. Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP.

Former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, who founded her own nationalist party last year, rounds out the top three with 14.4 percent of voters’ support.

Despite Mr. Erdogan’s impressive lead, even the most optimistic polls indicate that he won’t secure the 51 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff with Mr. Ince. A poll released last week showed the president’s popularity slipping to 47.1 percent and the AKP losing its parliamentary majority.

In a break from the past, Turkey’s opposition candidates have vowed to support whoever qualifies against Mr. Erdogan in the runoff, presenting the greatest challenge to his presidency since he came to power 15 years ago.

Mr. Erdogan and his party seem to be quite worried,” said Marc Pierini, a Carnegie Europe scholar and a former European Union ambassador to Turkey. “They’re not as comfortable as they used to be.”

The plunging Turkish lira and rising consumer prices have hurt the government’s campaign, and some analysts say many voters are getting tired of their strong-willed president.

“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,” Asl Aydntasbas, a Turkey analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Christian Science Monitor.

“There is no single person anywhere in the world who’s in power for 16 years and would not start going down in popularity,” she said.

Regrouping

Opposition parties in Turkey span the political spectrum, but they have regrouped under turbulent political conditions to beat Mr. Erdogan at his own game, Mr. Pierini said.

Mr. Ince, a physics teacher and longtime member of parliament with the secularist, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, avoids the soft-spoken, technocratic tendencies that opposition parties in Turkey used to employ, favoring instead a more pugnacious campaign style reminiscent of Mr. Erdogan himself. He is openly playing on voter fatigue with the president.

“We will change the man who has been shouting at us for 16 years,” Mr. Ince said at a recent rally.

“For the first time in 15 years, we have an opposition candidate who has an appeal to the public and is able to make himself heard,” said Mr. Pierini. “Among other things, he uses some of the stunts that the president uses: He’s loud, he’s populist and he mingles with the people.”

Mr. Ince’s mix of popular appeal and promises to restore democracy and secularism in Turkey found a ready reception from voters in Istanbul one recent afternoon.

“I will vote this time for the CHP and Muharrem Ince. He is more democratic compared to the rest of the candidates,” said Hazal, a 22-year-old political science student in Istanbul who declined to give her last name, fearing it would cost her a job in the future.

Meanwhile, many voters more in tune with the president’s traditional Islamic ideals and conservative politics are moving to Ms. Aksener’s aptly named Good Party, said Mr. Turan.

Founded last year, the party is siphoning support from the president’s election partners, the conservative Nationalist Movement, eroding Mr. Erdogan’s hopes of securing both a parliamentary and presidential majority.

It’s an election strategy Ms. Aksener’s nationalist Good Party, along with the nation’s other opposition parties in the new electoral block, hope will deliver at least a parliamentary majority.

“It would be a big slam in the face if he gets a parliament where he doesn’t dominate,” said Mr. Turan. “He may feel quite weakened.”

With Turkey a major political, cultural and security player in NATO and the Mediterranean, in the Syrian civil war and the Iranian crisis, and in Central Asia, a political setback for Mr. Erodgan could have consequences far beyond Turkey’s borders.

A changing of the guard in Ankara could also help restore harmony to international institutions that Mr. Erdogan’s nationalist policies have disrupted, said Mr. Pierini, and perhaps ease strains with the Trump administration over Syria and Iran.

“You’ll have a return to rule of law and a reset of press freedom,” he said. That would mean a “big sigh of relief” from the EU and could help “heal the relationship with NATO and the U.S.”

With so much on the line, Mr. Erdogan isn’t taking any chances.

He is dominating in the media compared with other candidates, and the AKP is using state coffers to finance flashy campaign events using airplanes and helicopters when inflation and Mr. Erdogan’s tight grip on political institutions are driving Turkey into an economic crisis.

Mr. Erdogan’s supporters defend their longtime leader.

“After the elections, we are expecting a big economic crisis. But how is that the AKP’s fault?” said Erhan Yevsikof, a 40-year-old chef in an Istanbul restaurant. “What they do looks positive and sincere to me.”

Observers also worry that fraud might move the needle enough to deliver Mr. Erdogan a win. Electoral inconsistencies were reported in last year’s constitutional referendum.

“The central issue here is the fairness of the election,” said Mr. Pierini. “You could see those in power using all possible means to make sure things go their way.”

That ultimately means that this election is in no way “in the bag” for the opposition, he added, a sentiment echoed by many others in Istanbul, despite their opposition to the president.

“I have the feeling that Erdogan will win again, even maybe in the first round,” said Hazal. “See how desperate we are? He has taken from us the right to dream. What a nightmare.”

Austin Davis reported from Berlin.


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