Turkey’s pivotal election: Erdogan’s grip on power

Turkey heads to the polls in a pivotal election that could shape the nation’s future and determine the course of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule. The presidential and parliamentary vote has turned into a referendum on Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted party.

It’s the toughest election Erdogan has faced and polls suggest he might lose. Erdogan has navigated Turkey through a transformative and divisive period that has seen the nation grow into a military and geopolitical heavyweight. It has a presence in conflicts stretching from Syria to Ukraine.

The election is critical for Washington, Brussels, Damascus and Moscow given Turkey’s role in both Europe and the Middle East. Erdogan’s first decade was marked by economic revival and warming relations with Europe.

But his second decade was rife with social and political turmoil that included a failed coup attempt and sweeping purges that caused Turkey to become an uncomfortable partner for the West.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his six-party alliance give foreign allies and Turkish voters a clear alternative. The 74-year-old secular opposition leader is within touching distance of breaking the 50-percent threshold needed to win in the first round, according to polls.

A runoff on May 28 could give Erdogan time to regroup and reframe the debate. Erdogan’s government has faced criticism over its response to Turkey’s most dire economic crisis in his time in power and to a February earthquake that claimed over 50,000 lives.

Erdogan’s campaign has been tailored to his core supporters as election day nears. He has labeled the opposition a “pro-LGBT” lobby that took orders from outlawed Kurdish militants and was bankrolled by the West.

His hawkish interior minister has repeatedly referred back to US President Joe Biden’s suggestion in 2019 as a then-presidential candidate that Washington should embolden the opposition “to take on and defeat Erdogan”. Erdogan’s ministers and pro-government media have referred to a Western “political coup” plot.

Tensions boiled over when Istanbul’s opposition Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu was pelted with rocks and bottles while touring Turkey’s conservative heartland. Kilicdaroglu appeared at two campaign events wearing body armor and protected by men with long guns.

Kilicdaroglu wrapped up his campaign by laying carnations at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who created the secular Turkish state. Erdogan led prayers at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia mosque, which he controversially reconverted into a mosque in 2020, solidifying his hero status among his religious supporters and contributing to growing Western unease with his rule.

The election is expected to feature heavy turnout among the country’s 64 million registered voters. Polls suggest that Erdogan’s right-wing alliance is edging out the opposition bloc in the parliamentary ballot. However, the opposition would win a majority if it secured support from a new leftist alliance that represents the Kurdish vote.

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