Erdoğan Faces an Electoral Abyss

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, on March 29. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP) (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)

ISTANBUL—Millions of young Turkish voters heading to the polls next month will face a momentous question: Should they fire the only national leader they’ve ever known? President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is staring down his biggest political challenge in 20 years, and his opponents quietly worry that if they don’t prevail in the upcoming election, the window of opportunity will close for good.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu—a soft-spoken, 74-year-old former bureaucrat—at first glance seems like an unlikely political revolutionary, but he currently leads the polls, even if by a razor-thin margin. Backed by a six-party alliance, the longtime head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) hopes to restore Turkey’s parliamentary system and reverse Erdoğan’s effective one-man rule. It’s a tall order, even with Erdoğan facing myriad domestic crises and a reinvigorated opposition.

Erdoğan took power in 2003, winning over Turkey’s conservative masses with promises to promote Islam and alleviate poverty. Ambitious infrastructure projects and sweeping social welfare programs solidified the popularity of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) early on. Nationalist fervor—with its focus on external enemies—helped the embattled president recover in popularity more recently. But as more Turks look inward for the source of their troubles, the government has responded by rolling back political freedoms.

First as Turkey’s prime minister and later as its president, Erdoğan has been at the forefront of this democratic backslide. A failed coup in 2016 allowed him to seize wide-ranging emergency powers and jail political rivals, and, a year later, push a constitutional amendment through parliament to dissolve the already-weakened premiership. As the country’s sole executive, Erdoğan has exercised nearly unbridled control over the country’s media outlets, central bank, courts, and, crucially, election officials. 

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