By Dogan Tiliç and Antonio Sánchez Solís
Ankara/İstanbul, May 10 (EFE).- Despite Turkey’s worsening economic outlook, a steady erosion of personal freedoms and the wear and tear of 20 years in power, conservative and Islamist incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan is poised to garner much support in Sunday’s presidential elections.
Erdogan rose to power in 2003 when he became prime minister.
He has been Turkey’s president since 2014, a post that following constitutional reforms in 2017 gave him legislative powers that made him Turkey’s most powerful head of state in modern history.
Until 2015, Erdogan and his party, the AKP, enjoyed a solid majority in parliament, bolstered by a prosperous economy and growth that was driven by government spending and soaring public debt.
In the June 2015 elections, the AKP lost its majority but held onto its parliamentary power thanks to a run-off five months later.
Three years on, support for Erdogan’s AKP slumped to 42.5% during parliamentary elections and the party sought to strengthen its position by forming an alliance with the ultranationalist MHP party.
Erdogan held on to his position at the 2018 presidential elections.
Now, however, for the first time in 20 years, even the most favorable polls give him less than 50% of the vote.
This would mean a defeat for Erdogan, at least in the first round, against opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party.
The difference is so slim though, any forecasts should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Despite spiraling inflation, currently at 43% (15 points more than in 2002), and high unemployment levels that stand at 22% (13 points higher), Erdogan has held onto his image as a “strongman” that has catapulted Turkey onto the international stage.
Under his leadership, Turkey has intervened in the wars in Syria, Libya and Armenia.
Istanbul has also partnered with the European Union on migration policy and become a key ally in keeping migrants at bay on the bloc’s border.
More recently Turkey was a key player in the mediation process to unblock Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea.
Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy, particularly with his strategy to clamp down on Kurdish PKK militants in Iraq and Syria, has strengthened his image as a leader willing to defend the country’s sovereignty against internal and external enemies.
One of his campaign posters presents him as a leader who works like a man and “is not in the kitchen like a woman,” in a nod to the electoral videos by Kiliçdaroglu which were recorded from his kitchen.
But Erdogan’s time in power has also seen a steady decline of freedoms and rights that have been the target of his government since 2002.
Tight control over media outlets, banning independent newspapers, imprisoning journalists and monitoring social media have all helped authorities reinforce the government’s message.
Over the past 10 years, Turkey has shaved off 11 points in the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders.
Religion has also taken on a weightier role in public and political life. The once uber-popular trade union bars where workers convened have started to disappear with mosques filling their gap and taking on a greater role.
“Next to each mosque, there is a cafe where the faithful chat all day,” Ates Ilyas Bassoy, an expert in political communication, told EFE.
“These state-subsidized Islamic venues are the most comfortable (or even the only) place to socialize for an ordinary Turkish citizen,” he adds.
The conversations that take place in these venues more often than not pitch Erdogan as the nation’s savior amid an opposition managed from abroad.
“The United States, the imperialist states and the West do not want Erdogan. Because he took Turkey out of their control,” Yusuf, a plumber from Ankara, told EFE.
Although he acknowledged that the cost of living has increased, he pointed out that Erdogan has built highways and airports and “turned Turkey into a world power.”
All in all, support for Erdogan has dwindled, even in central Anatolia, the AKP’s stronghold where in some towns he has garnered up to 70% of the ballot.
But according to the mayor of a village near Ankara, in some places, Erdogan and Kiliçdaroglu enjoy fairly equal backing, and “support is at 50-50” between both politicians. EFE