JOHN TULLOH. Turkey – Erdogan faces his toughest test.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would have been pleased when a recent edition of Time had him on the cover as one of the ‘Strongmen Era’. The Turkish president is indeed and he hopes the election this weekend will make him even stronger – a kind of 21st century sultan in the style of the Ottoman rulers he admires so much. But he has run into unexpected resistance: an opposition alliance gathering popular support and led by someone who can match Erdoğan himself for firebrand rhetoric. 

Presidential and parliamentary elections take place in Turkey on 24 June. Back in April, Erdoğan called the polls 17 months ahead of time to take advantage of a fragmented opposition and to fulfil his thirst to become the all-powerful executive president as narrowly approved by last year’s referendum. It also may have been to get in before Turkey’s wobbling economy alienated too many of his traditional supporters.

Whatever the motive, it was widely predicted at the time that Erdoğan would win just as he has in every electoral test over 15 years in power. Just to make sure, he had locked up thousands of opponents, jailed more journalists than any other country and manipulated the media so that 90 percent of it supported him, including turning the state television service into his own mouthpiece.

But little did the normally bellicose Erdoğan realise that he would now be on the receiving end of a credible opponent who can stir voters just as persuasively as he does. Muharram Ince, a former high school physics teacher, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHM) and now presidential candidate, formed a disparate alliance of four political parties.

‘He has hurled taunts (at Erdoğan) with the reckless abandon of a competitor who smelled blood’, reported the Washington Post. He has mocked Erdoğan’s economic policies which have caused the Turkish lira to plunge, accused him of exaggerating security threats in order to alarm  the populace and denounced him for spending lavish sums on palaces,  just as the Ottomans once did.

Ince (pron. Een-Jay) has effectively managed to exploit voter fatigue with Erdoğan. His alliance covers leftists, religious minorities, secularists, right-wing nationalists and pious Moslems. Polls suggest he will force the Turkish leader into a second round for the presidency and his alliance even might gain a majority in parliament.

But few expect Erdoğan to lose. He is the consummate political commissar. He has maintained the state of emergency since the failed coup two years ago. This has given him a free hand to pull even more levers of power. He has criminalised dissent by punishing anyone criticising him. He jailed the leader of a prominent pro-Kurdish party. He’s given the police the right to arrest anyone without a court order and encouraged government authorities to curb freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

Winning the election will give Erdoğan even more control over Turkey. Having scrapped the Prime Minister’s job, he can now invest even further authority in the executive presidency as he sees it. But he should not forget that last year’s referendum which extended his powers saw 49 percent of Turks voting No, as if to say ‘You have enough as it is’.

Just to improve his chances, Erdoğan has done away with the practice of all parties electing a joint chairman to oversee fair play in each of the electorates. Now they will be government officials who will be expected to do their duty. Erdoğan need not worry about the main media outlet still functioning independently, the secular daily Cumhuriyet, because its chairman, top columnist and 12 others are in jail for ‘aiding terrorism’.

There is a possibility that Erdoğan will not get it all his own way. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) might lose its parliamentary majority. But how much influence the already emasculated parliament will have on the presidency is another matter. As it is, Turkey is the worst offender of any country for loss of democratic rights over the past 10 years, according to Freedom House, the US think-tank. The Erdoğan way is right out of the playbook of his near neighbour and new friend, Vladimir Putin, who also likes to do everything his own way, though with more subtlety.

Turkey may well be heading from the Strongman Era to the Authoritarian Era with Erdoğan basking as a kind of Sultan of the Bosphorous, ruling with the all whims of a dictator or, as a NYT columnist put it, ‘a caliph-tyrant’.

FOOTNOTE. Erdoğan is the most consequential Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came to power 95 years ago. Despite a court order forbidding him, Erdoğan hijacked farmland in Ankara bequeathed to the state as a park by Atatürk so that he could build himself an opulent palace of more than 1000 rooms fit for a sultan. Ince has said that, if he wins, he will convert the palace into a place for social services. ‘You will never even have the opportunity to even come to the palace,’ Erdoğan replied, perhaps knowingly.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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