Reinvigorated opposition poses a challenge for Turkey's Erdogan

TUR130607AA006BERLIN, Germany — A prolonged state of emergency after a failed coup attempt and a constitutional referendum that delivered Turkey’s president sweeping new powers should deliver strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an easy win in Turkey's June 24 snap elections.

But a reinvigorated opposition cleverly banding together in an attempt to reverse the nation's slide toward authoritarianism is proving more of a challenge to Mr. Erdogan's attempts at all-out control in Turkey than previously anticipated, observers said.

"The opposition seems much more energized, and we're seeing that voters who traditionally supported the government are having second thoughts – the economy isn't doing well, and they're tired of seeing the same man on their TV screens all day, every day," said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University.

It's a far cry from the political situation in Turkey only two years ago.

After a failed coup attempt in 2016, Mr. Erdogan instituted a state of emergency. He then fired or jailed enemies in government institutions, civil society and elsewhere. Thousands of opposition candidates, journalists, teachers and military personnel were ousted from their positions or jailed, giving way to a society completely acquiescent to the president.

Last year, criticism that Mr. Erdogan was eroding democracy in Turkey intensified after a constitutional referendum narrowly passed, transforming Turkey's parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, and giving the once-ceremonial post real power while allowing Erodgan to stay on as de facto chief.

Now, whoever wins this month's presidential elections will enjoy sweeping new executive powers, including the ability to unilaterally pass decrees without parliamentary approval.

But polls indicate that it's still a toss-up whether Mr. Erdogan will be the president to inaugurate the new system.

Mr. Erdogan is leading the race with about 48 percent of the votes in the first round, followed by Muharrem Ince, the candidate from Turkey's largest opposition party, the center-left Republican People's Party, with 25.8 percent of the vote, according to Turkish pollster Gezici.

Former interior minister Meral Aksener, who founded her own nationalist party last year, rounds out the top-three with 14.4 percent of the vote.

Mr. Erdogan has an impressive lead, but even the most optimistic polls indicate he won't secure the 51 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff.

That means his rivals could mount a winning challenge against him. Turkey's opposition candidates have vowed to support whoever stands against Erdogan in the runoff, presenting the greatest challenge to his presidency since he first came to power 15 years ago.

"Mr. Erdogan and his party seem to be quite worried," said Marc Pierini, a Carnegie Europe scholar and a former European Union ambassador to Turkey. "They're not as comfortable as they used to be."

Opposition parties in Turkey span the political spectrum but they've regrouped under turbulent political conditions in order to beat Erdogan at his own game, Mr. Pierini said.

Mr. Ince, a physics teacher and longtime member of parliament with the secularist, center-left Republican People's Party, or CHP, avoids the soft-spoken, technocratic tendencies that opposition parties in Turkey used to employ in favor of a campaign style more reminiscent of Mr. Erdogan himself.

"For the first time in 15 years, we have an opposition candidate that has an appeal to the public and is able to make himself heard," said Mr. Pierini. "Among other things, he uses some of the stunts that the president uses: He's loud, he's populist, and he mingles with the people."

Mr. Ince's mix of popular appeal and promises to restore democracy and secularism in Turkey resonated with voters in Istanbul one recent afternoon.

"I will vote this time for the CHP and Muharrem Ince. He is more democratic compared to the rest of the candidates," said Hazal, a 22-year-old political science student in Istanbul, who declined to give her last name, fearing it would cost her a job in the future.

Meanwhile, many voters more in tune with the president's traditional Islamic ideals and conservative politics are jumping ship to Ms. Aksener's aptly named Good Party, said Mr. Turan with Istanbul Bilgi University.

Founded last year, the party is siphoning support from the president's election partners, the conservative Nationalist Movement, eroding his chances at both a parliamentary and presidential majority.

It's an election strategy Ms. Aksener's nationalist Good Party, along with the nation's other opposition parties in the new electoral block, hope will deliver at least a parliamentary majority.

"It would be a big slam in the face if he gets a parliament where he doesn't dominate," said Mr. Turan. "He may feel quite weakened."

Such a political upset could also help restore harmony to international institutions Mr. Erdogan's nationalist policies have disrupted, said Mr. Pierini.

"You'll have a return to rule of law and a reset of press freedom," he said. That would mean a "big sigh of relief" from the EU and could help "heal the relationship with NATO and the US." Mr. Erdogan damaged those traditional partnerships through his involvement in Syria and cozying up to Iran and Russia.

But with so much on the line, Mr. Erdogan isn't taking any chances.

He's dominating in the media compared to other candidates. And he’s using state coffers to finance flashy campaign events using airplanes and helicopters when inflation and Mr. Erdogan's tight grip on political institutions are driving Turkey into an economic crisis.

Even so, that doesn't seem to concern Mr. Erdogan's supporters.

"After the elections we are expecting a big economic crisis. But how is that the AKP’s fault?" said Erhan Yevsikof, a 40-year-old chef in an Istanbul restaurant, who's voting for Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP. "What they do looks positive and sincere to me."

Observers also worry that fraud might move the needle enough to deliver Mr. Erdogan a win. Electoral inconsistencies were already reported in last year's constitutional referendum.

"The central issue here is the fairness of the election," said Mr. Pierini. "You could see those in power using all possible means to make sure things go their way."

That ultimately means that this election is in no way "in the bag" for the opposition, he added, a sentiment echoed by many in Istanbul, despite their opposition to the president.

"I have the feeling that Erdoğan will win again, even maybe in the first round," said Hazal, the political science student in Istanbul. "See how desperate we are? He has taken from us the right to dream! What a nightmare!"

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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