Turkish elections might be Erdogan's biggest power grab

May 19, 2018, Istanbul TURKEY - Hüseyin Dağdelen, a 63-year-old male shoe shiner in Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue, used to vote for President Erdogan's AKP party elections. Now, disappointed with politics and living in poverty, says he will cast a big blank vote in the June 24th elections. (Photo: Sevgi Koç | ARA Network Inc.) ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkish voters will go to the polls June 24 to decide whether to give President Tayyip Recep Erdogan even more control, in what is being called his biggest power grab yet.

And though many Turks said they would vote against Erdogan amid his repression of civil rights, an ailing economy and hostile foreign policy moves that have isolated Turkey – once a key strategic Western partner – from the US and Europe, few believe their president will lose his job.

"You cannot stop a tsunami, and you cannot stop Erdogan either after he has gathered so much power – he is devastating the country like a tsunami," said Ömer Yilmaz, an unemployed 25-year-old from Istanbul. "He won’t leave power even if he loses. He will do anything and everything to win."

"You cannot stop a tsunami, and you cannot stop Erdogan either after he has gathered so much power – he is devastating the country like a tsunami," said Ömer Yilmaz, an unemployed 25-year-old from Istanbul. "He won’t leave power even if he loses. He will do anything and everything to win."

Erdogan called the elections 18 months ahead of schedule, after saying the country needed a stronger executive. Under a referendum that passed narrowly last year, his office gains sweeping new executive powers after this election, including the abolition of the post of prime minister and allowing the president to issue decrees and appoint judges. Before the referendum, the Turkish presidency was a purely ceremonial office.

But Erdogan arguably has already taken control of Turkey. The former prime minister and Istanbul mayor now runs the country under a state of emergency declared in July 2016 after a failed coup attempt. Since then, the president has purged civil society, jailing dissenters and journalists and silencing political opponents.

Many citizens have grown tired of his strongman tactics. Erdogan likely won't muster the 51 percent of votes needed to skip a runoff election for the presidency, said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. His rivals might then have a chance to line up behind an alternative.

A unified opposition coalition also has a good chance of winning back the parliament, creating a potential check on Erdogan’s power and thorn in his side, said Turan.

"The opposition is very energized, unlike earlier when they thought it was a foregone conclusion that Erdogan would win and were demoralized," he said.

One of the most electrifying factors has been inflation and unemployment in the Turkish economy, developments that are hurting his nationalist base.

"I studied business administration. I speak (foreign) languages but I cannot find a decent job.,” said Yilmaz.
“We are now in Ramadan," he added, referring to the Muslim holy month. "How many families can afford to buy Baklava? Can you imagine a Bayram [Ramadan festivity] without Baklava?"

In what used to be one of the Middle East's more secular nations, many other Turks want to pivot away from the fear mongering and conservative Islamic ideals the president has used to rally support. Erdogan has promoted the construction of mosques and madrassahs – or Islamic schools – loosened rules that barred women from wearing headscarves in public sector jobs and restricted alcohol advertisements.

"Freedom of expression is at rock bottom," said Nilgun Yilmaz, 56, an accountant in Istanbul. "If you criticize, you are fired, you are put into prison. There is only freedom to praise Erdoğan.

"I want to recover the secular system," she added. "There is also too much tension going among the people, and that is unsustainable."

Erdogan has also criticized American and European leaders, clashed with US-allied Kurds and sought to improve relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian leaders who are also heavily invested in the future of Turkey's war-torn neighbor, Syria. Currently, relations with the US are strained over Syria and over the US-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, whom Erodgan blames for the attempted coup.

But if an opposition candidate for president was to pull an upset and oust Erdogan, whose has put Turkey at odds with traditional allies, "just the change of rhetoric alone would facilitate communication," said Turan.

"Turkey is now considered an authoritarian state as opposed to a democracy," he added. "I think if the government changes, there would be a restoration of democratic politics."

That could help repair relations with the EU and the US, said Turan. Turkey historically has been opposed to Russian and Iranian meddling in the region, and is also a key NATO ally.

Erdogan's supporters imagine no such scenario, however.

"Our president has done so many good things for the country that I cannot even think to vote for someone else," said Saliha Coskun, a 46-year-old housewife as she strolled through Istanbul with her husband and baby. "If he leaves – I don't even want to think – we will lose all we have won. God willing, he will win again."

Given the way that Erdogan dominates state-controlled airwaves and other political institutions, many of the president’s opponents seem to think the same thing.

"It is hard to digest for me, but I think under these conditions, Tayyip Erdoğan will win again," said Saim Levent, a 26-year-old waiter in a teahouse. "He has created a machine that does not allow any other option. Everything is in his hands, under his control."

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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