The upcoming election in Turkey on May 14, which will decide the fate of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is an event that many people over the world will watch closely. Erdoğan’s political career and legacy are on the line, and voters will be asked to determine if Erdoğan will continue to dominate Turkish politics domestically and regionally.
Erdoğan Has Had a Long and Problematic Political Career
Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is also the author of “A Sultan in Autumn: Erdogan Faces Turkey’s Uncontainable Forces.”
In his book, Cagaptay traces the political career of Erdoğan from its beginning until recent years. He explains how Erdoğan took a political system that was staunchly secular and dominated by the military and changed it to a government dominated by a Turkish version of political Islam. Erdoğan used populist messages echoing pan-Ottoman policies and dismantled significant opposition forces.
The book aptly describes how Erdoğan survived a coup d’état by some branches of the Turkish military and how Erdoğan developed a foreign policy that seemed to reinstate Turkey as the defender of the Islamic world. Cagaptay notes that Erdoğan assigned himself the role of a modern-day Ottoman sultan, but his book also points to the problems that are at the core of Erdoğan’s government. Erdoğan’s image as someone who takes care of the less fortunate and who solves the problems that inefficient government mechanisms create has taken hit after hit for several years.
Cagaptay’s book also covers Erdoğan’s failure to heal the crippled Turkish economy, his refusal to deal with high inflation rates and his abysmal policy regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, issues that I’ve discussed in previous articles in recent years. But the devastating earthquakes in Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and was met with government ineptitude to a level that sent shockwaves all over Turkey, might be the final straw for Erdoğan and his government.
[Related article: Turkey, Earthquakes and the Geopolitics of Natural Disasters]
The Election in Turkey: Erdoğan’s Opposition Leader
This next election cycle might bring a change to Ankara. After 20 years of Erdoğan’s rule, there is a chance that the opposition will carry the election in Turkey.
According to Reuters, polls from March 13 show that Erdoğan is lagging behind opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu by at least 10 points. Kiliçdaroğlu is a 74-year-old economist who has been involved in Turkish politics for decades.
Kiliçdaroğlu was chosen as the nominee for six opposition parties that decided to run as a bloc, hoping to unseat Erdoğan. Unfortunately, Kiliçdaroğlu is not a very charismatic leader. He has failed in the past against Erdoğan. But the six parties making up the bloc are determined to force change, even though some in the bloc would rather a more popular face be chosen to lead the opposition.
In a recent statement published by his party, Kiliçdaroğlu made his message clear: “We have purified and democratized everything that is oppressive. They dragged the most repressive to their side. They made the alliance partner of the one who declared war on the law on preventing violence against women. We will not allow your achievements and freedoms to be destroyed.”
What Turkey’s Election Results Will Mean to the World
The day after Turkey’s election will be interesting not only from a domestic perspective, but also for regional players. The Erdoğan era changed Turkish foreign policy; Erdoğan had a vision to reestablish Turkey as a leading regional and global power and wanted to be seen as a modern-day sultan. He sought to gain more political power for Turkey and to be the legitimate leader of all Muslims.
However, Erdoğan crossed lines multiple times during his tenure by clashing with the U.S. and Russia, among other countries. Erdoğan wants to be involved in everything that happens in the region and to have decision-making power.
This attitude has ruffled more than a few feathers of other nations over the years. Erdoğan has antagonized policymakers all over the world, especially the White House.
As a NATO member, Erdoğan has cooperated with the Russian army, attempting to purchase anti-aircraft systems from Russia. The U.S. military believes this collaboration will expose information about U.S. aircraft sold to Turkey.
In the past two years, there has been a change in Erdoğan’s behavior. He has lowered his level of public vitriol and has mended relations with other countries.
However, Erdoğan is still the same basic political leader: a nativist and an authoritarian with visions of grandeur. His self-esteem has gone a long way in continuing the rapid deterioration of the Turkish lira and his failure to competently deal with Turkey’s recent earthquakes has brought many voters to a point where a change is felt mandatory.
There is still time before the election to change the situation and erase the 10% gap, but this election will involve a race that challenges Erdoğan and his party. If Erdoğan loses the election and respects the results, Turkey can change direction in multiple ways, including the Islamist turn it took in Erdogan’s era.
According to U.S. News and World Report, Erdoğan seems to acknowledge what is at stake in Turkey’s election: “We are starting the election calendar even as we are focusing all of our attention on healing the wounds caused by the earthquake, rebuilding and restoring our cities and ensuring that our people obtain homes as soon as possible.
“We need to implement a program that will heal the wounds of an unprecedented destruction in an unprecedented speed…The only way to overcome the direct and indirect effects of the earthquake and normalize the situation in the region and our country as soon as possible is through the implementation of decisions by a strong political will.”
Unfortunately for Erdoğan, voters in Turkey’s election might not have that strong political will.
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