JUN 24, 2018: Turkish voters are going to the polls today for what are seen as the most crucial elections in Turkish modern history as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble on snap elections (18 months earlier) could backfire.
The Turkish people feeling the pinch of soaring inflation, a plunging currency and high interest rates will decide whether to grant Erdogan a second five-year term, in the most fiercely fought elections in the country in years.
As BBC reports from Istanbul, “Worshiped by his supporters, abhorred by his critics, this is President Erdogan’s judgement day. Nobody can tell which way it will go.”
The biggest election issue is the economy. The Turkish lira has tanked and inflation stands at around 12% – so ordinary people are feeling the squeeze.
Emergency clamped 18 months ago after failed coup against Erdogan is another issue.
And, for the first time presidential and parliamentary votes are taking place on the same day.
Some 59 million Turks inside and outside the country are eligible to vote in both presidential and parliamentary elections but regardless of who wins, what the surprise could be, the country will be radically changed.
There are six candidates for president besides two main contenders Erdogan and center-left Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Each brand the other unfit to run Turkey.
Mr Ince, whose fiery campaigning has revitalized Turkey’s demoralized opposition, promised to push back what he characterized as a slide into authoritarian rule under Erdogan.
“If Erdogan wins, your phones will continue to be listened to… Fear will continue to reign,” he told at least a million people gathered in Istanbul. “If Ince wins, the courts will be independent.”
At his own rally, President Erdogan – who was prime minister for 11 years before becoming president in 2014 – used a violent metaphor to summarise his hoped-for result, asking supporters, “Are we going to give them an Ottoman slap [a technique for knocking someone out] tomorrow?”
He accused Mr Ince – a former teacher and MP of 16 years – of lacking the skills to lead.
“It’s one thing to be a physics teacher, it’s another thing to run a country,” Mr Erdogan said. “Being president needs experience.”
If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s poll, the top two will be involved in a run-off. And whoever becomes president will be assuming enhanced powers approved in a referendum last year. These are not easy times. Turkey’s been in a state of emergency since a failed coup attempt in 2016 and the economy’s in crisis. Also, fault lines between the left and the right and secularist and Islamist have blurred. It’s either you love Erdogan or you hate him.
So could there be a surprise? And what would that mean for Turkey’s future?
Erdogan narrowly won a referendum last year to convert the country’s parliamentary system to a powerful US-style executive presidency without the check and balance.
Whoever wins will be given sweeping new powers, as the role of prime minister is dissolved and the president gains the authority to issue laws by decree.
Normally splintered, the opposition is largely united against Erdogan for the first time in years, and by offering a wide range of presidential candidates, they could split the vote enough ways to leave the front-runner with less than 50% of the ballots to win outright.
If no one gains a clear majority, Turkey will hold a run-off presidential vote on July 8, a potentially dangerous scenario for Erdogan, who has typically run against lackluster candidates and prevailed in the first round.
If a runoff round is held, Erdogan is most likely to face off with Ince, the candidate for the main opposition CHP)which has a secularist stance.
Ince, a former high school physics teacher, brings a charisma that the CHP has sorely lacked in previous elections. On Wednesday, he held what appeared to be the biggest rally in the campaign period yet, drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters in the secularist CHP stronghold of Izmir, on the Aegean coast.
He is 10 years younger than Erdogan and has tried to portray the President as an aging leader with no fresh ideas.
Like most opposition candidates, Ince has vowed to restore the country’s parliamentary system. But there are doubts over whether a new president with sweeping powers will be quick to give them up, particularly if their party does not also hold a majority in parliament.
On the parliamentary front, the three main opposition parties have formed a coalition for better odds against the Erdogan-headed AKP-MHP alliance. The pro-Kurdish HDP will run alone, and if it gains 10% of the vote, it can gain seats in parliament and threaten Erdogan’s majority.