Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned to the campaign trail on Saturday, appearing to have recovered from a recent bout of stomach flu that interrupted a live TV interview. The illness, which was declared as gastroenteritis by Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, exposed a moment of weakness in the usually resilient leader.
The health of a head of state is always a delicate matter, straddling national security and state secrets. However, transparency is essential in a democracy, as citizens deserve to know about their leader’s physical capabilities.
Erdoğan’s cancellation of three days’ worth of in-person appearances was telling, as election campaigns and rallies were once his forte. I’ve closely followed his rallies in the past and even deviated from mainstream opinions at the time to predict his success. However, I have witnessed the slow deterioration of his performance over time.
His health issues are not the primary obstacle to reversing this downward trend. Factors that were once his most significant electoral strengths, such as past economic achievements, divisive strategies, religious sensitivities, international influence, and initial democratizing efforts, are now either missing or no longer effective for him.
This episode also highlighted the lack of secondary figures in his party capable of connecting with the masses. Many are either ineffective or divisive within the AK Party’s voter base, making Erdogan’s absence detrimental to both his presidential election prospects and his party’s parliamentary performance.
Previously, Erdoğan might have used his energetic campaigning performance along with state resources and his dominant control over state and private media to swing votes to his side. However, his strategy this time around seems to be keeping his existing voter base rather than expanding it. To achieve this, he leans heavily on conservative sentiments, launching unfounded attacks on the main opposition and stoking tensions on Turkey’s political fault lines.
In contrast to the president’s polarizing populist tactics and “us versus them” rhetoric, the opposition embraces pluralism. Dubbed the “Table of Six,” the Turkish opposition is a diverse coalition of six political parties, encompassing secularist, liberal, nationalist, and religious conservative ideologies. This official alliance garners external support from left-wing, left-liberal groups, individuals, and notably, the Kurdish movement.
The alliance’s unexpected tenacity can be attributed to grassroots unity and the political leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As the head of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kılıçdaroğlu’s capacity to bring together different factions and preserve the alliance’s coherence is vital for its success.
What’s more, Erdoğan faces difficulty connecting with first-time young voters who have lived their entire lives under his rule, as his AK Party has been in power for 21 years. The number of first-time young voters is 5.2 million, a significant portion of the electorate that could sway the election outcome.
Social media has played a crucial role in allowing the opposition and critics of Erdogan to bypass the traditional media channels, which are heavily controlled by President Erdoğan. The election outcome may hinge on how effectively both sides utilize social media platforms to disseminate their message, engage with supporters, and sway undecided voters. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s recent social media performances, with record-breaking views on Twitter, indicate President Erdoğan cannot rely on his dominance of TV stations to stop the opposition from spreading their messages to the voters.
One factor playing into Erdoğan’s hands is an opposition presidential candidate whose campaign primarily targets other opposition candidates. If this divides the opposition vote and keeps the main candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, from receiving over 50% of the votes, the election will proceed to a second round. This would provide Erdoğan with more time to employ polarizing tactics and improve his prospects.
Erdoğan is also confronted with Turkey’s faltering economy, which poses another significant challenge. The persistent currency crisis and skyrocketing inflation rates have adversely affected the daily lives of Turkish citizens.
Following initial triumphs under the AKP government, Turkey’s economy started to stumble in the mid-2010s. The lira plummeted, and inflation soared. In a departure from conventional economic strategies, Erdoğan’s administration refrained from raising interest rates to tackle inflation. Consequently, the once-prosperous Turkish economy began to collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions.
The economic downturn, coupled with democratic backsliding, has led to a considerable loss of votes for the ruling party. In the 2019 local elections, the governing alliance relinquished control of numerous major cities. However, the decrease in votes does not correspond to the gravity of the economic crisis.
As the countdown to the May 14th election continues, it remains to be seen how Erdogan will navigate these myriad challenges. It is uncertain whether his well-established political machinery and polarizing tactics will be enough to secure another term in office. What is clear, however, is that this election will be a pivotal moment for Turkey and its future direction.
This article was originally published by Forbes.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not represent those of the Free Turkish Press.