For the first time in 20 years, the Turkish president is at risk of being voted out of power. The fall of Erdogan will have a significant impact on shifting alliances in an increasingly polarised world. Here’s a quick guide to what’s up in Istanbul.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
Remind me about Erdoğan…
The basic deets: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was born in a poor and devoutly religious family. He graduated from an Islamic school and went on to get a degree in management. Erdoğan became active in Islamist circles in the 1970s-80s—and first drew national attention when he became the mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
A man of religion: In a staunchly secular political establishment, Erdoğan became the face of a strident religious nationalism. He was sacked from his job as mayor for reciting an incendiary poem that read: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." But none of this dampened Erdogan’s ambitions. In 2001, he founded a new Islamist party called AKP (Justice and Development Party). By 2003, Erdogan had been elected prime minister—a post he held for three consecutive terms.
A popular PM: Over his three terms, Erdoğan revived Turkey’s fortunes—which went from a “financial basket-case at the turn of the century into one of the world's top 20 economies.” His economic reforms helped expand the middle class and lifted millions of citizens from poverty. The per capita GDP more than tripled during his first decade in office, from $3,600 in 2002 to $11,700 in 2012.
The turning point: In 2014—barred from running again for PM due to term limits—Erdoğan became president, which was a largely ceremonial role. But all of that changed thanks to two key events. One, in 2015, Erdoğan’s party lost its majority in the Parliament—and, therefore, political power. Two, a group of rebel soldiers staged an attempted coup in 2016. But Erdoğan managed to foil the plot—and it made him more powerful than ever:
For the first time since the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923, the people had managed to stand up to the tanks. Over the decades, four coups had succeeded - Erdogan ensured a fifth did not. Millions gathered in nightly rallies, chanting his name and singing his campaign song. Erdogan went from almost losing control of his country to becoming untouchable.
The slide into autocracy: Within a year of the coup, Erdoğan leveraged his popularity to push through a referendum abolishing the parliamentary system—making the president (i.e him) all-powerful. With each success, he became more autocratic. The coup became an excuse for a purge—over 150,000 public servants were sacked and 50,000 citizens detained—including journalists, lawyers, academics and Kurdish leaders. As one expert puts it:
He became head of state, head of government, head of ruling party, head of the national police and head of the military as chief of staff. He became all powerful as Turkey's new sultan.
Erdoğan also became more intolerant: "Erdoğan has demonised so many groups from secularists to Kurdish nationalists to liberals to social democrats to leftists. When you add them up, that makes up about half of Turkey's population."
But, but, but: Despite these excesses, Erdoğan’s personal popularity was relatively untouched: “His tough-guy persona has real appeal, especially when rallying fervour against certain groups he labels terrorists or picking fights with the West.” And devout Muslims are especially grateful because he has mainstreamed Islamist ideas and values. While the urban Turks may oppose Erdoğan, his rural conservative base has remained staunchly loyal.
So why is he going to lose now?
Erdoğan is perched on the edge of losing power—and may still stage a comeback (but more on that later). The reasons for his waning popularity are primarily economic:
Runaway inflation and a currency devaluation have seen prices surge in recent years. In April, food prices increased 54% year on year. "People are hungry in Turkey," [journalist Suzy] Hansen said. "People cannot afford meat. They can't afford food. They can't afford diapers. They are really struggling."
The Turkish lira has lost 76% of its value during Erdoğan's second term as president. Also this: “He’s never entered an electoral campaign where he cannot sell an economic message. As in, he’s never campaigned in a negative economic downturn.”
The great earthquake: In February, a devastating earthquake killed 50,000 people. The government’s response was slow and weak. The AKP’s heartlands—where the party routinely swept at least 70% of the vote—bore the brunt of the devastation. Also this:
Erdoğan presided over a construction boom in the 2010s, and the industry was seen as the jewel and the driver of Turkey’s economic growth. It was also a source of political power for Erdogan, with the ability to dole out contracts and select projects. And now, with buildings flattened in southeastern Turkey, evidence of corner-cutting, and potential corruption, is starting to reveal itself.
But, but, but: Despite the great public rage, the earthquake response may not be a significant factor in the election. It may explain why Erdoğan has outperformed opinion polls in the first round of elections.
Didn’t the election already happen?
Yes, but it delivered a closely divided verdict. Neither candidate—Erdoğan or his rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu—managed to win 50% of the vote. This means there will be a second round to determine the winner on May 28.
Advantage Erdoğan: The odds now favour the strongman—who managed 49.5% to Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.96%. That gives him an advantage of four percentage points. More importantly, the ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan—who got about 5% of the vote—is unlikely to support a liberal, secular Kılıçdaroğlu. If he throws his weight behind Erdoğan, there is little hope of toppling him.
About his rival: Kılıçdaroğlu has run on a pro-democracy platform—vowing to restore Turkey’s parliamentary system—and leads a secular six-party coalition called Republican People's Party (CHP). To put it succinctly, he is the anti-Erdoğan:
He’s been in politics and government for a long time, but even so, he’s largely seen as someone untarnished. “He is not an exciting kind of leader, he’s not a great politician, but he’s to be trusted and he’s the right person for this particular moment,” said Altınordu. He’s frequently described as “soft-spoken.” He’s been called Turkey’s Gandhi or “Gandhi Kemal” because of his manner, but also because he led a hundreds-of-miles-long justice march in Turkey in 2017, protesting the jailing of civil servants and activists.
Even if you can’t understand Turkish, you can get a sense of his professorial demeanour below:
Many Turks worry that if Erdoğan gets another five-year term, he will destroy the last vestiges of democracy in the country. Doing so would provide encouragement to other illiberal leaders around the world and put even greater stress on Turkey’s relations with the West. And then there is the fear that Erdoğan has consolidated power so fully in Turkey already that a democratic victory against him might not be possible.
And there are fears that a narrow victory for Kılıçdaroğlu would spur Erdoğan to incite a Capitol Hill-style insurrection—which may prove more successful in an already fragile democracy.
The bottomline: If Turkey turns into a dictatorship, it will pose a political problem for NATO—since it is a member state. Istanbul has also applied for EU membership—which may become unlikely if Erdoğan scales up his civil rights abuses. And any strain with Europe will push him further into the welcoming arms of Russia—right as the world retreats back into another Cold War. The stakes in this Turkish election are far higher than any other in the past.
BBC News has the best profile of Erdoğan—while The Atlantic offers a view from the ground. Vox has a far more detailed explainer on the election. MoneyControl looks at what it means for India. If you want more on the global impact, New York Times looks at the implications for Russia—while CNN looks at why the election matters to the US. Politico is very good on the European stakes.