Around the world, Turks are flying home to vote in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary election. That might seem like a pointless exercise since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who arrived to power in 2003, long ago abandoned efforts to build a model Muslim democracy in favor of a personality-driven authoritarian government with an increasingly conservative religious cast.
But because the election will shift even more power to the president, there has been a surge in voting interest. While Mr. Erdogan has the upper hand, he faces his most serious competition ever and is, experts say, running scared. That is a good sign for Turkish democracy, no matter who wins.
The weakness and danger of Mr. Erdogan’s continued rule has become more apparent, as an economic and development boom that won him broad support has waned. He has fostered corruption, eroded the rule of law and alienated the United States and other NATO allies while inching closer to Russia and Iran. There is little foreign investment coming in, and Turkish capital is flowing out, seeking better returns in more stable political environments elsewhere.
The fact that the election, originally set for 2019, was brought forward 18 months hints at Mr. Erdogan’s sense of vulnerability and determination to stay in power. He has been shaken by his Justice and Development Party’s loss of a parliamentary election in 2015, by an abortive coup in 2016 and by allegations of corruption against himself and his family.
Now, with Turkey’s economy in trouble, the value of its lira plummeting and declining support among members of his base, including urban, middle-class and young voters, he’s hoping to secure another presidential term before conditions worsen and his popularity weakens further. Most local polls show him with no more than 51 percent support.
There is much for Mr. Erdogan, who recently built himself an extravagant mega-palace and a gigantic new mosque, to lose. The election is poised to cement a power grab he set in motion with constitutional changes that were narrowly approved last year in a referendum. Under the changes, a cabinet of ministers, now all elected members of Parliament, will be replaced by presidentially appointed advisers and deputies. Many fear this will render the next Parliament little more than a rubber stamp, especially if Mr. Erdogan is re-elected and his party retains control.
Given his broad powers, Mr. Erdogan should be a shoo-in. During three terms as prime minister and one as president, he has used force, corruption, government handouts and jingoistic appeals to consolidate control over the Parliament, the military, the judiciary and the news media.
For its part, Turkey’s media is overwhelmingly owned by Mr. Erdogan’s cronies, and it has paid scant attention to his campaign rivals. In Mr. Erdogan’s desperate bid to crush dissent, more than 120 journalists have been detained, and more than 180 media outlets have been closed. Since the attempted coup, some 50,000 other Turks, among them military officers, teachers and political opponents, have been arrested and 110,000 have been dismissed from government jobs, all while a state of emergency, imposed during the coup, remains in place.
Turkey runs a major air base at Incirlik, where tactical nuclear weapons are stationed under American control. Yet Mr. Erdogan feeds nationalistic passions by berating the United States and attacking Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast and their Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq.
But none of that has made Mr. Erdogan feel secure, so he has taken other steps: He has formed an alliance with the country’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party, and threatened the election’s fairness by letting government officials control polling stations, count ballots that lack an official stamp and even relocate polling stations.
Mr. Erdogan is not wrong to be anxious. Of the five candidates competing against him, two — Muharrem Ince of the center-left Republican People’s Party and Meral Aksener, a conservative nationalist with the new Iyi Party (Good Party) — are running on a united ticket, generating considerable enthusiasm and presenting a serious challenge. They have advocated a return to a parliamentary system with a distinct separation of powers and improved relations with Turkey’s allies. Mr. Ince has also promised a more independent judiciary, greater personal freedoms and an end to excessive government spending.
Analysts say that Mr. Ince has the best chance of forcing Mr. Erdogan into a two-person runoff in July, and the united opposition ticket could win a majority in Parliament.
That would require a good showing by the Kurdish party, whose charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is campaigning from prison because Mr. Erdogan jailed him on politically motivated charges to help suppress turnout.
Mr. Erdogan is expected to do whatever is necessary to stay in power. But doing that could fuel a popular backlash, thus further undermining economic and political stability.
What should not be lost is that the Turkish opposition has a chance on Sunday, something that seemed unlikely one year ago. However hard Mr. Erdogan has tried, he has not succeeded in snuffing out political competition. The flame of democracy in one of NATO’s most strategic members has not yet been extinguished in the global tide of populism.