It’s now easy to forget that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was once hailed as the paragon of a “Muslim democrat,” who could serve as a model to the entire Islamic world.
In the early 2000s, hopes ran high about the charismatic, lanky, former football striker, who received only one red card in his playing career, unsurprisingly for giving an earful to a referee. The man from the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa promised something new: Finally, there was a master-juggler, who could balance Islamism, parliamentary democracy, progressive welfare, NATO membership and EU-oriented reforms.
That optimism feels a world away now, as Turkey heads into crunch elections on May 14 marked by debate over the centralization of powers under an increasingly authoritarian and divisive leader — dubbed the reis, or captain. Prominent opponents are in jail, the media and judiciary are largely under Erdoğan’s thrall and the kid from Kasımpaşa now rules 85 million people from a monumental 1,150-room presidential complex he built, commonly referred to as the Saray, meaning palace.
Little wonder, then, that the opposition is focusing its campaign on undoing the “one-man regime.” The six-party opposition bloc is vowing to take a pick-ax to the all-powerful presidential system Erdoğan introduced in 2017 and to shift to a new type of pluralist parliamentary democracy.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition leader challenging Erdoğan for the top job, describes the restoration of Turkish democracy as the “first pillar” of the election race. “In a manner that contradicts its own history … our veteran parliament’s legislative power has been consigned to the grip of the one-man regime,” Kılıçdaroğlu, an avuncular, soft-spoken former bureaucrat, said in a speech on April 23 commemorating the founding of parliament.
But is this talk of democratic restoration seizing the imagination in an election that is, quite literally, about the price of onions and cucumbers?
Turkey’s brutal cost of living crisis is the No. 1 electoral battleground. Kılıçdaroğlu hit a nerve when, onion in hand, he delivered a warning from his modest kitchen — no Saray for Mr. Kemal — that the cost of a kilo of onions would spike to 100 lira (€4.67) from 30 lira now, if the president stays in power.
Stung, Erdoğan insisted his government had solved Turkey’s food affordability problems, saying: “In this country, there is no onion problem, no potato problem, no cucumber problem.” But most Turks know Kılıçdaroğlu’s arithmetic is not outlandish; he is an accountant by training, after all. Annual inflation hit a record high of 85.5 percent last October, and ran at just over 50 percent in March. The Turkish lira has plunged to 19.4 to the dollar from about 6 to the dollar in early 2020.
In contrast to those bread-and-butter campaign issues, the main thrust of the opposition’s manifesto for switching power away from the presidency sounds legalistic. There are provisions to end the president’s effective veto power, ensure a non-partisan presidency and impose a one-term limit.
Parliament will be strengthened by measures ranging from a lower threshold for a party to enter the assembly to greater use of independent experts in committees.
Most observers looking back to identify a turning point where Erdoğan decided to centralize power around himself select the Gezi Park protests of 2013, when an unusually socially diverse band of demonstrators sought to stop a green space in Istanbul from being bulldozed for a shopping mall.
The protests — eventually smashed with tear gas and water cannon — swelled into a nationwide roar against Erdoğan’s cronyism and strongman style.
Demir Murat Seyrek, adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance, said it was the first time Erdoğan felt “the threat was against him” rather than the ruling AK party.
The final straw was an attempted coup in 2016 — the facts of which remain opaque — that pushed Erdoğan to hold a referendum in April 2017 on shifting to a presidential system. He won by the narrowest of margins (51.4 percent) and the opposition still disputes the result, not least because the vote was held during a post-coup state of emergency.
Seyrek noted the irony that the presidential system also had downsides for Erdoğan, particularly as he requires 50 percent of votes (+1) to stay in office. Now deserted by bigwigs from his AK party’s early days — former President Abdullah Gül and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have turned against him — he has to find increasingly extreme partners for his coalition to make up the numbers. “Each time, he wins by losing political power to other parties. He is winning by sharing power with more and more people,” he remarked.
A hardened political brawler, Erdoğan is punching back hard against the accusations that he’s the man undermining Turkish democracy.
As he has done for years, Erdoğan is turning the tables and casts himself as the voice of the majority, underlining Islamic propriety and family values, while saying his adversaries are in hock to terrorists, the imperialist West, murky international high-finance and LGBTQ+ organizations.
Mainstream rival parties are dismissed as fascists and perverts, and he predicts his voters will “burst” the ballot boxes with their tide of support on May 14.
Opposition politicians know full well they can easily be typecast by Erdoğan as reactionary voices of an old elite. That’s why they are being careful not to describe their proposed constitutional overhaul of the presidency as turning back the clock to some fictional glory days, but rather as creating something new: What the opposition manifesto calls “a truly pluralistic democracy” that “has never been possible” before.
Given the fears about Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism, speculation is intense over how fair the elections will be, and whether Erdoğan can rig them. Indeed, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu only fanned the concerns that the government could crack down on the democratic process by describing May 14 as an attempted “political coup” by the West — hardly words to be taken lightly given Turkey’s history of putsches.
With the full resources of the state and pliant media at his disposal, the president can certainly command disproportionate influence. In only the past few days, for example, Erdoğan has been able to offer free Black Sea gas as a pre-election perk.
But Seyrek at the Brussels School of Governance stressed that voting itself in Turkey should never be compared with Russia or Belarus. He argued the vote in each polling station would be closely monitored by all the political parties and other civilian observers. “I still feel in Turkey, what you can do against the result of elections is quite limited,” he said.
The consensus is that Erdoğan will be unable to fix the result in the case of a significant defeat. The greater danger, as noted by several analysts, is that he could attempt some high-risk stratagem in case of a tight result, demanding a recount or calling a state of emergency in case of some diversionary “incident.”
That would, however, only inflame the country’s febrile politics just as Ankara needs stability to attract foreign investors and resuscitate the economy.
The more surreal idea — but not an implausible one now — is that Erdoğan could tactically see the time is ripe to lead the opposition and attack Kılıçdaroğlu’s new government. The new president would be highly vulnerable to Erdoğan’s vitriolic rhetoric as he tries to hold together a fissiparous coalition in the teeth of an economic crisis.
Paradoxically, though, Seyrek noted that the AK party members in opposition could even support reforms to shake up the presidency and ensure media freedoms, as that would be in their interest. That could prove important as constitutional change would need a hefty parliamentary majority.
Or would Erdoğan simply take umbrage in defeat and quit the country?
Seyrek found that inconceivable. “In his mind, he is a second Atatürk, he would rather die than escape.”
This is a shortened version of an article originally published by Politico.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not represent those of the Free Turkish Press.