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Erdoğan Faces an Electoral Abyss
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Erdoğan Faces an Electoral Abyss

A soft-spoken civil servant is challenging the Turkish leader's 20-year rule.

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. 

The main alliance challenging Erdoğan’s reign—the so-called “table of six”—is incredibly diverse, including liberals, Islamists, nationalists, and conservatives. That ideological diversity is both a strength and a weakness. 

Debates over who to champion the shaky coalition nearly sank it last month, when the head of the nationalist IYI party withdrew from the table before being reluctantly called back hours before Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy was announced. Many opposition officials and supporters worried about the diminutive opposition leader’s electability, pointing to the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, as stronger contenders. The alliance ultimately settled on running the mayors as vice presidential candidates.

Sneeringly branded “Mr. Kemal” by Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu is now embracing the modest public image that nearly kept him off the ticket. Speaking directly to voters from his kitchen, Kılıçdaroğlu presents himself as the foil to his charismatic, populist opponent, merging bread-and-butter issues with broader concerns over the fate of Turkey’s democracy. Rather than promoting efficient governance, he argues, Erdoğan’s consolidated leadership has given way to economic disrepair and widespread corruption. 

February’s earthquakes strengthened the case against the hyper-centralized system. In the aftermath of the disaster, which killed at least 50,000 people and displaced millions, critics blamed the government for the shoddy construction that led to the sky-high death toll and the slow response time of rescue teams that left thousands trapped beneath the rubble. Erdoğan’s popularity took a dip. 

But the structure of Turkey’s elections make dislodging Erdoğan more difficult, even at this point of relative weakness. A recent survey by Turkey Report, an Istanbul-based polling firm, put Kılıçdaroğlu at a more than 8-point advantage over the incumbent in a head-to-head race. “He’s faring well, particularly because he has the two mayors on the ticket as VPs,” Can Selcuki, Turkey Report’s director, said in an interview. 

Yet Turkey’s presidential elections use a runoff voting system wherein winning the first round requires Kılıçdaroğlu to garner more than 50 percent of the total vote—a requirement complicated by two splinter candidates, Muharrem İnce and Sinan Oğan. Rumors abound about their alleged AKP funding or social media support. 

Taking into account undecideds, splinter candidates, and protests votes, the Ankara-based Metropoll gave Kılıçdaroğlu a slim 1.5 lead over Erdoğan in the first round of voting. This margin is “not safe,” Metropoll chief Ozer Sencar told The Dispatch. “We can’t know what kind of irregularities might happen.”

Erdoğan’s opponents worry that a tight race will open the door to government interference, as it appeared to during the 2019 municipal elections. After Imamoğlu narrowly beat Erdoğan’s handpicked candidate for Istanbul mayor in 2019, for example, a partisan election commission canceled the results and called a repeat election, which Imamoğlu won by nearly ten points. A similar story played out the same year in the municipality of Honaz, where CHP-backed Yüksel Kepenek saw his mayoral victory overturned before winning in a repeat race.

“In Turkey we have democracy, so 50 percent plus one should be enough to win the elections. But now we have to open the gap, it seems,” Kepenek said. “If something like this happens again, it would really hurt democracy.” 

The opposition is now focused on reassuring voters going into Election Day and plans to deploy monitors to voting stations across Turkey. Worries about voter intimidation and fraud remain, but Erdoğan’s opponents know better than to play them up. “If we say that it won’t be fair elections, people lose their hope and don’t go to vote,” said Selçuk Sarıyar, Istanbul’s deputy mayor. “Of course we know that the current ruling party will play all his cards, in legal or illegal ways or in ethical or unethical ways.”

This is of particular concern in heavily Kurdish areas, where Turkey’s largest ethnic minority has long faced varying degrees of voter suppression. Kurds account for roughly 20 percent of the country’s population, making them a crucial swing vote in any Turkish election but particularly in the tight presidential race next month. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) typically runs its own presidential candidate, but recently decided not to put forth a contender in a huge boon to the opposition’s first-round chances. 

“In the presidential elections, we will carry out our responsibility against the one-man rule,” HDP co-leader Pervin Buldan said last month in announcing the decision, though she stopped short of explicitly backing the table of six. 

Despite casting the AKP as peacemaker in Turkey’s longstanding conflict with its Kurdish population at the start of his presidency, Erdoğan has all but lost the support of the minority group. He’s jailed thousands of Kurdish political figures, including HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, in what critics decry as politically-motivated detentions. There’s also an ongoing legal case to bar the HDP, the Turkish parliament’s third-largest party, from national elections entirely. The main opposition hopes it can pull in the large Kurdish voter base in the presidential race—but it needs to tread lightly to avoid losing the support of nationalists in the mainstream Turkish electorate.

Because Kılıçdaroğlu hails from the Alevi community—another persecuted minority group—some political analysts consider him uniquely suited to bridge the ethnic divides. He recently visited Urfa to meet Emine Senyasar, a Kurdish woman who claims her family members were killed by people close to the AKP but says she’s unable to get legal recourse in the AKP-controlled judicial system. Erdoğan, meanwhile, has attacked Kılıçdaroğlu’s six-party alliance for having what he says is a seventh partner “hiding under the table”—the HDP, which he and other Turkish politicians accuse of working with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

Going after Turkey’s Kurds is one way Erdoğan stirs up nationalist sentiment to win over voters. The other is taking shots at the West.

Erdoğan this month urged his supporters to “teach America a lesson” by voting AKP in the upcoming election following a meeting between Kılıçdaroğlu and U.S. Amb. Jeff Flake, adding: “Our doors are now closed to him. You cannot see [me] anymore.” In February, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu accused Flake of trying to stage a coup, telling him to “get your dirty hands off Turkey.” 

This anti-Western rhetoric makes its way into Turkey’s foreign policymaking, where Erdoğan continues to block Sweden’s NATO bid over its alleged support for the PKK and picks fights with its neighbor and fellow NATO member Greece. At the same time, he’s forged close bonds with President Vladimir Putin and helped Russia get around Western-led sanctions. 

“This is a very consequential election, for Turkey but also for the global balance of power. Erdoğan has led Turkey for 20 years, increasingly positioning Turkey as a non-aligned country that pursues its strategic autonomy,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Dispatch. “He’s not shy about it. He believes that Turkey should have a foot in each camp.”

The opposition promises better relations with the West, or, at the very least, more predictability in its approach to foreign policymaking. Ünal Çeviköz, Kılıçdaroğlu’s main foreign policy adviser, hopes to revive Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and clear the way for Sweden’s entry into NATO if the six-party alliance prevails next month. But Kılıçdaroğlu’s promise to respect human rights and political freedoms at home is perhaps the most encouraging signal to the U.S. and its international allies. 

“Washington is increasingly seeing the current systemic competition with China and Russia as the fight between autocracies and democracies. On this, just as it is on other geopolitical issues, Turkey is in the middle,” Aydıntaşbaş said. “A return to rule of law, a return to democracy would provide Turkish citizens a little more breathing space, but it would also give the world a huge win in this struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.”

Of the 62 million Turkish citizens who will be eligible to vote next month, some 6 million of them will be casting ballots for the first time. For some, it could also be the last time, as young people in cities and towns across Turkey quietly discuss plans to leave the country if Erdoğan wins again.

Sarıyar, the Istanbul deputy mayor, hopes they’ll exercise their political freedom next month before resigning to life without it: “We’ll select if we want to live in democracy or under autocracy.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.