Will Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually, finally, lose?
That we’re asking the question at all tells you how much Turkish politics have shifted under the Islamist strongman’s feet.
A Bloomberg poll this month found Erdogan clinging to a bare majority ahead of Sunday’s presidential election — but remember: We’re talking about an increasingly authoritarian leader who has found a way to hold on to power and win every election for the last 16 years.
Regardless, something’s happening here — and what it is has become clear.
What else should be expected from people who constantly have their freedoms threatened? Where 73 journalists are behind bars? Where a Turkish doctor was convicted and received a suspended sentence for comparing Erdogan to Gollum from “Lord of the Rings”? Where the students at Boğaziçi University, who protested the Turkish army’s victory in the Syrian town of Afrin, were labeled “terrorists” by the regime?
In April 2007, secularists rallied against Erdogan running for the presidency because of his Islamist background.
In 2013, Erdogan’s riot police used tear gas and water cannons on a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park, where protesters gathered to protest against the government’s plan for a new development on a nearby park.
In July 2016, the military tried to overthrow Erdogan in a coup, resulting in the president consolidating power by declaring a state of emergency and then set about purging thousands of “dissenters” from the military, from politics, from the media, from the universities.
The nearly two decades of Erdogan’s oppression has created the moment for opposition candidates like Muharrem Ince, a 54-year-old representative of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, to rise to the forefront.
As one young Turk, a first-time voter who doesn’t know a life without Erdogan at the helm, told Reuters: “Turkey used to be a more modern and secular country. I would have liked to live then.”
Ince’s campaign promises more of that. And Turks seem to be embracing his message.
As Safak Pavey, a former CHP parliamentarian, wrote in The New York Times: “The shift in the national mood is evident on the streets, on the usually obsequious television networks, in the tea shops across the country. For the first time in almost two decades, Mr. Erdogan no longer seems invincible. A Turkey where every citizen may live without fear finally seems possible.”
The caveat: “Nobody knows which rabbit Mr. Erdogan and his team will pull out of their hats before the polling day,” Pavey said.
One rabbit, however, was calling these elections 18 months early — instead of the scheduled November 2019 — in hopes of surprising opponents and further empowering his office.
For years, Erdogan has argued the need for a stronger executive office. Before he was president, the role was a ceremonial one, with most of the executive power resting with the prime minister. When Erdogan was term-limited out as prime minister and became president, he lobbied for, and won by a narrow margin, a constitutional referendum last year that concentrates more power in the presidency.
After this election, the office of the prime minister will be abolished and the presidency given more powers, like the ability to issue decrees and to appoint judges.
In April, Erdogan claimed the reason for calling the snap elections was Turkey’s need to “overcome uncertainty” thanks to tensions in the region with Iraq and Syria. But really, it allows Erdogan to get ahead of other uncertainties: like whether Turkey’s economic instability or strained diplomatic relations abroad will drain Erdogan’s support.
In May, Turkey’s economy started tanking; the Turkish lira is down about 20 percent against the US dollar. Since Erdogan became president in 2014, the lira has lost 56 percent of its value against the dollar.
And on Monday, the US Senate passed a bill to block or slow the transfer of the F-35 advance warplane to Turkey, a NATO ally, because, the three senators who introduced the bill said Erdogan has embarked on a “path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law.”
The West is catching on, and the opposition is catching up. It’s about time.