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Turkey’s Democratic Opposition Tests Cracks in Erdogan’s Iron Grip on Voters

ISTANBUL — When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called early elections two months ago, he seemed assured of victory. But as Sunday’s vote approaches, the man who has transformed Turkey over 15 years in power appears increasingly vulnerable.

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Carlotta Gall
, New York Times

ISTANBUL — When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called early elections two months ago, he seemed assured of victory. But as Sunday’s vote approaches, the man who has transformed Turkey over 15 years in power appears increasingly vulnerable.

The question will be, just how vulnerable is he?

The vote will be watched far beyond Turkey’s borders for what it will decide about the direction this country of 80 million — whether it continues down the path of populist authoritarianism with Erdogan, or takes a turn for democratic change.

A skillful politician with a fervent support base, Erdogan still leads in the polls. But dissatisfaction over a sudden downturn in the economy is spreading. So is alarm over Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism, which, if he wins, will be given even freer rein under a newly strengthened presidency.

“A strong Turkey needs a strong leader,” Erdogan bellowed to the crowd of several hundred thousand in his final Istanbul campaign rally Sunday. “May God let us continue on this path by becoming more powerful.”

Whether Erdogan can secure the outright victory he wants by gaining 50 percent of the vote — avoiding a runoff — may depend on how deeply the wariness and unhappiness with his rule have unsettled his core supporters.

In particular, the collapse of agriculture, a plunge in the value of the lira and a sudden rise in food prices may deliver Erdogan a shock at the polls, opposition party workers say. Much of the president’s base of support has been among conservative rural people. “I am hesitant this time,” said Bulut, who sells fresh juice from a cart near Istanbul’s ferry docks. He gave only his first name for fear of repercussions. He said he had voted for the governing party over the past 16 years but complained angrily about the deteriorating economy.

“No jobs,” he said. “I am here for 22 years, it became worse gradually. Our money has no value anymore.”

If 7 to 8 percent of formerly loyal voters abandon the president’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the governing party will lose, said Ozer Sencar, who runs the independent Metropoll polling agency.

There are already signs of defections, Sencar said, noting that some of them had voted against Erdogan in last year’s referendum to expand the powers of the presidency, which passed only narrowly.

“This is the group that will determine the fate of the election,” he said.

Most of the group are conservative Islamists among the Kurds who are disappointed that Erdogan failed to keep his promise to make peace with Kurdish separatists, Sencar said.

Four opposition parties — the Republican People’s Party, the Good Party, the Felicity Party and the tiny Peoples’ Democratic Party — have formed an alliance to maximize their assault against Erdogan.

But the state of emergency Erdogan snapped in place almost two years ago after a failed coup has allowed the government to tilt the playing field greatly in its favor.

Erdogan has used the extra powers to jail political opponents, including nine Kurdish members of parliament and dozens of Kurdish party officials, as well as 70,000 students and activists and tens of thousands of members of the military and public employees. Demonstrations are banned, and access to national television is tightly controlled.

The Kurdish candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, has campaigned from prison, where he is being held while he awaits trial on terrorism charges. He relies on a team of lawyers to relay his messages on social media. And last week he was permitted to record a single campaign speech inside prison that was aired on the state-run Turkish Radio and Television, or TRT.

A former interior minister, Meral Aksener, is barred from using large rally sites and has barely been seen on television — most of which is controlled by the government or its allies.

Muharrem Ince, the closest challenger to Erdogan, fares slightly better, appearing on some television channels but still barred from TRT. Over the past six weeks, Erdogan has enjoyed 181 hours of national television airtime, while Ince was allowed 15 hours, Aksener three hours and the rest one hour or less, according to the Supreme Board of Radio and Television.

It is Ince who has been Erdogan’s main target, smeared by “fake news” campaigns by government supporters. But he has parried the attacks with humor and a hopeful message and has started drawing crowds to match those of Erdogan.

Yet there is no doubt that Erdogan’s persona has dominated the campaign. His campaign posters are the largest and most numerous. His rallies are broadcast live on virtually every television channel. And his voice is heard everywhere.

Erdogan also controls all the levers of power, rules by decree under a state of emergency and can count on a tame judiciary and presidential guard.

Government employees are ordered to attend Erdogan’s rallies — and give him their vote if they value their jobs — opposition campaigners say — and journalists in media outlets, which are mostly owned by allies of the president, are given guidelines on what to write.

But signs of disaffection are visible. Supporters declare their love for Erdogan, yet many start leaving his rallies halfway through his long-winded speeches.

The former Islamist allies who have turned against the president are the most outspoken.

Temel Karamollaoglu, leader of the small Felicity Party, criticizes Erdogan for betraying his religion by letting corruption and injustice invade his government. He is set to draw away 2 to 3 percent of Erdogan’s conservative religious following.

“You cannot have one man with all the power,” Karamollaoglu told supporters in the town of Sakarya. “You cannot expect any justice from judges receiving orders from the top.” The party has produced some of the most surprising campaign ads, passed around on social media. One shows workers in a tailor’s shop packing away plaid jackets similar to those that Erdogan wears. The sign on the door says: “Boss gone crazy. Closeout sale.”

The Republican People’s Party, which has a long tradition of secularism, has added several Islamists to its party list to build an Islamist alternative to Erdogan’s AKP.

One of the co-founders of the AKP with Erdogan, a former deputy prime minister, Abdullatif Sener, is running for parliament on the Republican People’s Party list in the conservative city of Konya.

He stunned villagers during meetings in a farming district with strident criticism of Erdogan, the likes of which is never heard in the mainstream media.

“If you cannot buy food and clothes for yourself, it means the economy is not growing,” he told them, disputing government claims of 7 percent growth. He accused Erdogan of neglecting Turkey’s agriculture to make money on deals importing foodstuffs.

“You want to farm your land but this government made us completely dependent on imports,” he said. “All they think of is ransacking the country.”

A shopkeeper in the village of Cayhan told Sener that villagers were too scared to tell the truth but that almost all were going to switch their support away from Erdogan.

“Something is going to happen,” said Bulent Ecevit Tatlidil, a member of the executive bureau of the Republican People’s Party who is from the farming district.

Outrage over a sudden paucity of onions has even hit the main television news. Aksener accused Erdogan of treason for his neglect of agriculture.

“One million are jobless,” she told a rally in Istanbul. “The fields are empty, livestock is finished. To wipe out Turkish agriculture is treason.”

Yet the opposition is also bracing for every manner of obstruction, including fraud and violence.

Sener's campaign office in Konya was attacked last week by members of the local youth wing of the AKP, who slashed a poster of Sener and smashed campaign cars.

The election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has noted in a preliminary report that the president enjoys favorable conditions, while other parties face obstructions to campaigning and a pervasive atmosphere of fear in the Kurdish areas of the southeast.

The opposition parties are fielding 100,000 volunteers to observe voting in every polling station but face multiple challenges as regulations have been changed to allow unstamped ballots to be counted, and some polling stations have been closed and voting moved to other locations.

In the southeast, violence has broken out; an election dispute led to the deaths of three people in the town of Suruc. Some analysts speculated that the clash was about how to fix the vote for Erdogan.

The Kurdish vote, which represents about 10 percent, is particularly important for both sides. If Demirtas’ People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, can pass a 10 percent threshold, it could rob Erdogan of a majority in Parliament.

If the party wins less than 10 percent of the vote, its votes will be distributed to the other parties, which would most likely help Erdogan secure a majority.

In a sign of how crucial the Kurdish vote is, Erdogan urged party members to make sure the HDP vote remained below 10 percent.

In a video posted inadvertently over social media last week, Erdogan told a closed gathering of regional party members to watch HDP voters.

Then he asked his supporters to “mark their opponents,” suggesting that by doing so they would be doing “a special job that I believe may bring us a very different result.”

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