Economic hardship, the war in Ukraine and his reaction to a devastating recent earthquake could mean victory is far from certain for the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The 69-year-old increasingly authoritarian leader has ruled Turkey for the past 20 years after his Islamic-inspired party took power in the traditionally secular country. Erdogan has long been on top of Turkish politics, first as prime minister and later as president, and he is seeking a third consecutive presidential term in elections on May 14.
The leader started as a reformist who expanded rights and freedoms, allowing his majority Muslim country to start European Union membership negotiations.
But he later reversed course, cracking down on dissent, stifling the media and passing measures that eroded democracy, including the controversial crime of “insulting the president”. The presidential and parliamentary elections could be Erdogan’s most challenging yet.
They will be held amid economic turmoil and high inflation, and just three months after a devastating earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people.
Erdogan’s government was criticised for its poor response to the disaster and for allowing poor building regulations that left many crushed inside their homes.
In a rally before thousands of supporters Erdogan’s main rival in the election, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), praised democracy.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, is backed by a six-party opposition alliance and in a recent interview with the BBC he said: “The youth want democracy, they don’t want the police to come to their doors early in the morning just because they tweeted.”
Kilicdaroglu said he plans to abolish article 299 of Turkish law that says it is illegal to “insult” the president. Anyone found guilty can of the crime can be jailed for up to four years and since Erdogan took office as president thousands of people have been investigated and sentenced.
Opinion polls suggests that Kilicdaroglu will win the presidency but that the president’s alliance is ahead in the race for parliament.
Erdogan has waged a bitter election campaign, lashing out at Kilicdaroglu and other opponents, who he accused of colluding with what he calls terrorists. This year, he has also tried to disparage the opposition by saying it supported “deviant” LGBTQ+ rights that he says threaten Turkey’s “sacred family structure.”
On Monday, he portrayed the election as a “choice between two futures.”
He said: “Either we will elect those who take care of the family institution, which is the main pillar of society, or those who have the support of deviant minds that are hostile to the family.”
He has expanded his alliance with two nationalist parties to include two small Islamist parties that call for amendments to a law protecting women against violence, arguing it encourages divorce.
Opposition parties again are complaining of an uneven playing field during the campaign, accusing Erdogan of using state resources as well as his government’s overwhelming control over the media.
Some also are questioning whether Erdogan would agree to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose. In 2019, Erdogan challenged the results of a local election in Istanbul after his ruling party lost the mayoral seat there, only to suffer an even more embarrassing defeat in a second balloting.