The odds are stacked in the Turkish president's favour but that doesn't rule out an upset
Can the mighty Erdogan be beaten in Turkey's upcoming presidential elections?
When Turkey heads to the polls on June 24, it will be to decide on its ruler under a new presidential system. Until now, the president's role has been largely ceremonial, but in a successful referendum last year, divisive strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a former prime minister and the current president – replaced the old parliamentary system with an executive presidency.
In the coming vote, Mr Erdogan plans to tighten his stranglehold on the country by being voted into his strengthened role. But is it a done deal, or could the infamous “do not insultan” be toppled from his custom-made throne?
Analysts note that Mr Erdogan is approaching the elections from a near overwhelming position of power. “He has all the competitive advantage any candidate could wish for,” said Ziya Meral, a Turkish-British researcher and writer specialising in Turkish politics. “He was able to call elections at a time when his party and constituency are ready and the political risks that can weaken votes could be contained. He also has the full power of state, and a nationwide state of emergency [in place since a coup attempt in July 2016] as well as dominance over media coverage.”
As if this weren’t enough to contend with, a new law passed earlier this year allows Turkey’s High Electoral Board to merge electoral districts, move ballot boxes, count unstamped – and therefore unverified – ballots, and permit security forces to be present at polling stations. Many see this as a way to rig votes, intimidate voters (as has long been alleged in the majority-Kurdish southeast), and move ballot boxes away from opposition strongholds. You could say it’s now legal to cheat.
Yet however improbable, an opposition win is not entirely impossible. The sudden announcement last week that the election was to be brought forward by more than a year-and-a-half caught the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with their trousers down. But by the end of this weekend, they are expected to announce their candidate, either independently or as a coalition with the Islamist Felicity Party and centre-right Good Party.
“The unprecedented developments in the opposition camp over the last couple of days have been an important reminder that there is still a lot the opposition parties can do to alter the directions of the politics in this historic election,” said Mr Meral. “At the moment, many seem to anticipate a shared candidate that can appeal to all non-AKP and some AKP voters to be the decisive factor. Obviously, the only person to fit that bill is former President [Abdullah] Gul.”
Mr Gul, also a former Prime Minister and a founding member of Erdogan’s AKP party, has met with opposition parties and on Tuesday met former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was deposed from office in May 2016.
The entrance of a strong opposition candidate could make the election closer than many assume. “If I had to put money on it, I would probably put it on Erdogan. Erdogan will do everything he can not to be beaten but it [would] be very difficult against Abdullah Gul. That is why everyone is now talking about him," said Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish journalist currently based in the US.
“Despite all the state resources and the unlevel playing field we have been observing, if Abdullah Gul can happen, then yes, [Erdogan] can be beaten.”
Mr Gul has previously expressed concern over the concentration of power held by his successor, Erdogan, and has repeatedly declined to dispel rumours that he might run, either for a coalition of opposition parties, or for the Islamist Felicity Party alone. Not only could he attract votes from those who traditionally vote against Erdogan (as a so-called ‘best of a bad bunch’ candidate), but also from disaffected AKP voters too.
Another strong candidate is Meral Aksener, the leader of the Good Party, a party so new there were initial concerns they would not be able to run. They were brought into play with the help of 15 defecting CHP deputies, giving them enough MPs to form a group in parliament.
“[Aksener’s] party has promise," said Mr Tanir. "If we had a normal Turkey, her party would easily be the second party. But today, it’s not established enough to challenge. She is polling at about seven to eight per cent at the moment.”
With Mr Erdogan at 40 per cent in a recent opinion poll, he too has some work for his coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to reach the required 51 per cent.
Other factors may also turn public opinion against Mr Erdogan, chief among them the large number of Syrian migrants packed into often already deprived neighbourhoods, high unemployment, a tanking economy and stagnant wages. The calling of a snap election alone suggests his party is panicked.
Yet for the opposition to have a chance of winning, they will have to do it without the support of the print, television and radio media, which have been almost entirely co-opted by Erdogan and are energetically engaged in an aggressive campaign of disinformation and defamation against the opposition.
“The question is whether all these parties, the Islamists and the letists, will be able to come together and bring a consensus,” concluded Mr Tanir. “And in an election, you never know which candidate can gain momentum.”