The 20-year rule of Turkey’s president is in a precarious position ahead of May’s election due to collapsing support amid the country’s earthquake rescue efforts.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan marks two decades in power on Tuesday, and is seeking a third consecutive term in office in the up-coming elections.
But the 69-year-old, who served as prime minister from 2003-2014 and as president thereafter, is facing one of his toughest tests of his time in office.
The country is reeling from last month’s earthquake that killed more than 54,000 and displaced millions across Turkey and Syria, and is also facing a cost of living crisis.
Now, Erdogan finds himself 10 percentage points behind his rival ahead of the vote on May 14, seen by many as the most consequential election in Turkey’s history.
The 20-year rule of Turkey’s president is in a precarious position ahead of May’s election amid collapsing support due to the country’s earthquake rescue efforts
The elections will decide not just who leads Turkey but how it is governed, where its economy is headed and what role it may play to ease the conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East, and also the fates of NATO applications by Finland and Sweden.
Polls show the Turkish opposition’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leading against Erdogan by more than 10 percentage points.
The opposition bloc, called the Nation Alliance, is also leading the parliamentary race by at least six points ahead of Erdogan’s AK Party (AKP) and its allies. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) remains comfortably above 10 percent.
Despite Erdogan’s struggles in the polls, commentators have cautioned against ruling the political veteran out of the race just yet, and that pinning the blame on him and his party for Turkey’s woes alone will not be enough to defeat him.
Wolfango Piccoli, political risk advisory co-president at Teneo, said the Nation Alliance must present a unified front and sell the voters a plan to keep up their momentum heading into the elections.
‘Simply blaming Erdogan for everything that is wrong in Turkey won’t cut it. Past elections have shown that Erdogan is a phenomenal campaigner, but recent remarks suggest he has lost his popular touch and his ability to connect with voters,’ he said.
Erdogan started out as a reformist who expanded rights and freedoms, allowing his majority-Muslim country to start European Union membership negotiations.
But he later reversed course, cracking down on dissent, stifling the media and passing measures that eroded democracy.
His actions have resulted in him being labelled an autocrat and strongman by many, but he has proven time and time again to be resilient.
Erdogan’s first foray into top politics was in 1994, when we was elected mayor of Istanbul, running on the pro-Islamic Welfare Party ticket.
However, three years later in 1997 he was convicted of ‘inciting hatred’ for reading a poem that the courts deemed to be in violation of Turkey’s secular principles. He was sentenced to four months in prison, and barred from politics due to his conviction.
Nevertheless, he pressed on with his political ambitions, breaking away from the Welfare Party with other members of his reformist wing to create the conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001.
AKP won a parliamentary majority just a year after the party was founded and in 2003, Erdogan was elected to parliament after his political ban was lifted, and days later, he replaced AKP colleague Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s prime minister.
Demolishing and debris removal works continue over collapsed buildings after two massive earthquakes hit multiple provinces of Turkey in February. Picture taken on March 12
In this aerial view, a tent city for earthquake victims on March 9, 2023 in Malatya
As a sign of his government’s wish to move closer to the West, Turkey began accession talks to the European Union in 2005 after a series of reforms, and in 2007 Erdogan won 46.6 percent of the votes in general election.
But in 2008, Erdogan’s rule took an autocratic turn.
The first of a series of trials against military officers, lawmakers and public figures began, with the suspects accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
But the trials turned out to be a sham, all based on faked evidence designed to eliminate Erdogan’s opponents.
In 2010, Edogan won a a referendum on constitutional changes that allowed the government to appoint high court judges, curb the powers of the military and ensure presidents are elected by a national vote rather than by parliament.
The year after, he won another landslide victory with 49.8 percent of the vote.
Nationwide anti-government protests erupted in 2013 over plans to cut down trees in Istanbul’s central Gezi Park. Turkey’s largest ever protests resulted in eight deaths, while the government was accused of using excessive force against protesters.
Despite the unrest, Erdogan won Turkey’s first presidential election held by direct popular vote a year later. Although the post is largely ceremonial, he was accused of exceeding his powers and meddling in the running of the country.
In 2016, Turkey’s government survived a military coup attempted that was blamed on followers of US-based cleric Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan’s.
The failed coup results in nearly 290 deaths, and sparked a large scale government crackdown on Gulen’s network, arresting tens of thousands and purging more than 130,000 from government jobs.
Many media and nongovernmental organisations were closed down and the crackdown then expanded to critics, including Kurdish lawmakers and journalists.
The EU accession talks, which had made slow progress, were frozen amid the democratic backtracking.
The country slid further towards becoming an autocracy in 2017 when voters in a referendum narrowly approved switching the country’s political system from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidential system.
The vote abolished the post of prime minister and concentrated a vast amount of power in the hands of the president. Critics called the system a ‘one-man rule.’
Despite this, 2018 saw Erdogan win presidential elections with 52.59 percent of the vote, thus becoming Turkey’s first president with executive powers, while his party’s alliance with a nationalist party secured a majority in parliament.
On the international stage, Erdogan’s government has often played the part of both mediator and agitator.
In 2019, Turkey launched an offensive in to north-east Syria, where Turkish forces have been accused of human rights violations by right’s groups. The intention was to expel Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), designated as a terrorist group by Ankara.
But Amnesty International has said that Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian forces ‘have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians’.
In the case of the war in Ukraine, he has used his ties to Russia and NATO to help push through a vital grain deal, and attempt peace talks.
However, he has also moved to block Sweden’s bid to join NATO in a blow to their Western allies.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the mausoleum of the nation’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, during a ceremony to mark the 79th anniversary of his death, in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 10, 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan September 16, 2022 – during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Fearing that they might be targeted next after Putin’s invasion last year, the Nordic nation and neighbouring Finland abandoned their traditional positions of military nonalignment to seek protection under NATO´s security umbrella.
All 30 allies signed Finland´s and Sweden´s accession protocols. Almost all have since ratified those texts, but Turkey and, more recently, Hungary have sought guarantees and assurances from the two.
NATO must agree unanimously for them to join.
Now, as the country reels from last month’s deadly earthquake, he must once again persuade to voters that he is the man to lead Turkey into an uncertain future.
He has pledged to rebuild homes destroyed in the earthquake within a year, but it will be many months before thousands can leave their tents or container housing, and daily queues for food, and move into permanent housing.
His government has been accused of acting slowly after the earthquake. Commentators have said that despite his near total control over the country and its institutions, he was not able to mobilise them quick enough after years of erosion.
A poll published by Aksoy Research on Saturday and conducted on March 8 showed Kilicdaroglu, named as the opposition alliance candidate on March 6, leading against Erdogan with 55.6% support and 44.4%, respectively.
It showed the main opposition bloc garnering 44.1% of votes and the HDP at 10.3%. The AKP and its nationalist MHP allies earned 38.2% together.
A poll conducted on March 6-7 by Alf Research showed Kilicdaroglu at 55.1% and Erdogan on 44.9%. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) was the most popular with 31.8%, while the AK Party trailed with 31%.
The main opposition bloc earned 43.5% of votes, while the HDP got 11.3%, that poll showed. The AKP and the MHP together had 37.5% support.
Piar Research showed Kilicdaroglu winning with 57.1%, with Erdogan lagging on 42.9%. The CHP got 32.3%, the AKP 30.8% and the HDP 11.6%. The main opposition bloc got 46.4%, while the AKP and MHP earned 37.8%, the poll, published on March 10, showed.
ORC Research showed Kilicdaroglu ahead with 56.8% and Erdogan on 43.2%, according to a poll conducted on March 4-6, before Kilicdaroglu was officially announced as the opposition candidate.
Pictured: A destroyed building is demolished on Saturday after last month’s earthquake
In a poll by Metropoll, 34.4% of people blamed the government for the losses during the earthquake, while 26.9% blamed contractors.
The municipalities came in third, with 15.4% of contributors saying they were to blame, while 12.9% answered with ‘all.’
Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey programme director at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said the opposition alliance was ‘diverse’ and each prominent figure within the alliance could appeal to a different segment of Turkey.
‘In this specific moment we have more reason to be optimistic about Turkey’s election delivering an opposition win than we have ever been in the last 20 years,’ she said, speaking on a panel hosted by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.