Erdogan victory would deal big blow to Turkey’s democracy, but will it be fatal?

Millions of Turks will head to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots for a new parliament and president. The twin elections are the most closely watched and consequential since the country voted for a new civilian government in 1983 after the generals decided to hand back power. Today, that picture has been turned on its head. 

A democratically elected government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought Turkey closer to the tightfisted rule of the junta than any of its predecessors in a downward spiral accelerated by the single-man system rammed through in a controversial referendum in 2017 that scrapped its parliamentary one.

The contest is being cast in apocalyptic terms as a fight between freedom and dictatorship, between recovery and economic ruin. As of today, some respectable pollsters show the main opposition’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leading Erdogan by as much as five percentage points. That is a broad enough margin to keep Erdogan from refusing to concede or resorting to fraud.

However, a third contender, Sinan Ogan, who remains in the contest even after fellow spoiler Muharrem Ince pulled out at the last minute, could force a runoff that would take place on May 28. What might happen in the interregnum? Will the Erdogan camp instigate the sort of violence that could cow voters into sticking with the devil they know? Will civil militias rumored to have been formed for just this moment step into the fray?

The campaign has already been marred by violence, with opposition leaders facing physical attacks. Rumors are swirling of a potential attempt on Kilicdaroglu’s life. He reportedly wore a bulletproof vest at a rally today in the Black Sea city of Samsun.

Sunday’s outcome remains nerve-wrackingly unpredictable. The choices of an estimated five million first-time voters, most of them Gen Zers, have yet to be fully discerned. Just how many displaced earthquake victims will get to cast their ballots is another big question. Urban conservative women said to be disgruntled by Erdogan’s hard turn toward patriarchy could move the needle.

Past experience suggests that Erdogan and his thuggish coterie will stop at little to stay in power. But it is the considerable popular backing he miraculously still commands that has given him license to bend all the rules. Might he be as ruthless if he lost that support? Whatever the outcome, Erdogan is a waning force and his health is shaky. That is why he is grooming his younger son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, the mastermind behind Turkey’s fabled combat drones, to succeed him.

The main worry is that should Erdogan prevail, this will be Turkey’s last free — if unfair — election, plunging the country into a deep dark hole. Regardless who wins life will be hard. The economy is already in shambles thanks in part to Erdogan’s obsession with keeping interest rates low and his elder son-in-law, former Economy Minister Berat Albayrak, blowing through the country’s reserves to keep the lira afloat. February’s earthquakes have made things a lot worse. Cash injections from the Gulf and debt relief on Russian gas won’t cut it for an economy the size of Turkey’s and its 85 million people.

No matter the result, Turkey will continue to face enormous challenges. Yet despite the pronouncements of the Cassandra brigade, electoral politics will retain their importance.

Barring some black swan scenario, Turks will be back at the ballot box in under a year, this time to elect new mayors.

Erdogan is bent on clawing back Istanbul, where his meteoric rise began when he became the city’s  first Islamist mayor in 1993. Winning the Kurdish vote is key.  The largest pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), swung the vote in the opposition’s favor in the last round of municipal elections in 2019, allowing it to bag both Istanbul and Ankara for the first time since 1993. 

In the parliament, too, the Kurds are poised to be kingmakers, with polls indicating that Erdogan’s People’s Alliance will win a majority but not the requisite two thirds needed to amend the constitution.

The HDP has told its followers to vote for Kilicdaroglu on Sunday.

The opposition will need to work hard to retain their support, as will Erdogan to woo them to his side.

They will also need to lure back foreign investors, and that means reverting to fiscal orthodoxy and restoring the rule of law. That is unlikely under Erdogan. But Kilicdaroglu and his pro-secular Republican People’s Party are making all the right noises, pledging to restore the Central Bank’s independence and that of the judiciary and to mend ties with Turkey’s NATO allies. The markets are likely to give him a free pass, as are the Kurds, at least until the municipal elections — that is, unless his partners in the Table of Six descend into the sort of bickering that defined the string of dysfunctional coalitions that preceded Erdogan.

Should the opposition emerge victorious, it will inherit a huge mess. But it will not face the institutional adversity Erdogan did when he rose to power in 2002. Back in those days, the generals ran the country from behind the scenes, setting the boundaries of how far elected governments could exercise their own will. They did everything they could short of a military coup to get rid of Erdogan on the grounds that he threatened Turkey’s secular order by promoting, among other things, a woman’s right to cover her hair. The generals were just as horrified by his overtures to the Kurds. The CHP played along.

Erdogan refused to cave, and his popularity soared as he lifted millions of Turks out of poverty. Armed with that support, he oversaw the mass trials of hundreds of military officials accused, many of them falsely, of plotting to overthrow the government. Erdogan piled all the blame for the bogus charges on his erstwhile ally, the exiled Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen.

In an ironic twist, Gulen was named the mastermind of the failed coup attempt to topple Erdogan in 2016, the culmination of a bitter power struggle that ended in bloodshed.

The end result is that the army has little if any sway over Turkish politics. Many would argue that today’s Erdogan is doing its job for it, repressing the Kurds and flexing Turkish muscles against them in Syria and Iraq. Others would say that a coalition government formed by a tenuous opposition might create new opportunities for the army to reassert its role in a way it cannot under a powerful figure like Erdogan. But for how long?

The ascent in 2010 of Kilicdaroglu, an ethnic Kurd and a member of the Alevi faith, to the helm of the CHP offers hope. Under Kilicdaroglu, the party, despite initial resistance, has shed its rigid interpretation of secularism to embrace overtly pious Turks. Its rejection of Kurdish rights has also softened. Two decades under Erdogan helped force such change.

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