Designed as his biggest power grab yet, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, at 64, can no longer be sure of winning the election for Turkish president, which takes place on June 24, the same day as the parliamentary vote. Four opposition parties have banded together to support each other’s candidates, their prospects boosted by the country’s failing economy, rising unemployment, a falling lira and rising prices. Immigration, with 3.5 displaced Syrians allowed to live and prosper in Turkey, is another burning issue.
Since a coup to topple him failed in 2016, Erdogan has ruled the country with an iron fist, ruthlessly purging its ruling elites including the armed forces, jailing tens of thousands, including journalists, and silencing political opponents. Yet a referendum on constitutional reforms last year conferred on him another six-year term with sweeping new powers, comparable to those of US and Russian presidents, if he wins the coming election.
What then? His ministers and advisers don’t dare ask. Maybe his wife Ermine, with whom he lives in a villa on the Ak Saray (White Palace) grounds in Ankara, knows the answer. She is widely reputed as the true “strongman” of Turkey. His failure to gain 51 percent of Turkey’s 55 million eligible voters in the first round of the vote would be a major setback for the authoritative leader. If he loses, few believe that he would willingly hand over the keys of rule to the opposition front-runner Muharrem Ince. A five-time member of parliament for the Republic People’s Party, Ince, a secularist, is touting change.
For some Turks, Erdogan is a towering figure and the only credible choice for president. Yet the audiences for his ranting, hate-filled public speeches against enemies at home and abroad are dwindling. While he maintains that no one else is qualified to fix the economy, opposition leaders like Ince, the nationalist Meral Aksener and dissident Islamist Temel Karamolaoglu are chipping away at his support base. His favorite themes are his great victories (against the Kurdish “terrorists”) in Syria and Iraq, although a close look shows that the Americans stopped the Turkish army’s grand advance on the key Syrian town of Manbij after seizing Afrin from the Kurdish YPG; and his army’s march on PKK strongholds in the Qandil mountains of Iraq found them deserted.
But who is interested? A recent survey of popular option showed 51 percent naming the economy as their primary concern, security a distant second with only 13.4 percent.
Erdogan makes no secret of his extremist Islamist associations, as a lone champion of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip; nor does he hide his contempt for the Trump administration. Turkey is striving for independence from imperialist America, he boasts, an argument which his military chiefs see as harmful, especially when he goes shopping for advanced weaponry in Moscow.
The key to Erdogan’s ambitions lie in his contention that the founding of the Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 was a “historic mistake. He has indeed taken military steps in the region to restore the old boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and bolster his pretensions to succeed Sultan Abdulhamid II as emperor, by planting military bases in Qatar, the Red Sea and the Balkans. Erdogan is undoubtedly a skilled politician and canny campaigner, but his volatile personality and often irrational outbursts of paranoia may compromise his bid for the glittering prize of almost limitless ruling powers.