ANKARA — If civil servants in Ankara are an accurate barometer of shifting fronts in Turkey’s national politics, then the country’s longest serving leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, really could be in trouble in May’s election.
The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), says bureaucrats are already sending in their resumes in preparation for a new order, sensing that this could be the end of Erdoğan’s more-than-two-decade dominance over the state.
That would be a relief to many in the West, who are increasingly frustrated by the Islamist populist’s confrontational statesmanship in a strategic heavyweight of 85 million people. In the past months alone, Turkey has quietly provided Russia with clandestine trade routes to beat sanctions, imposed a veto on Sweden’s entry into NATO and engaged Greece in high-risk brinkmanship with fighter jets over the Aegean.
But is the CHP reading too much into the flurry of CVs? Are the functionaries simply hedging their bets?
Possibly, but their behavior is a clear reflection of increased nervousness in the corridors of power. The state machinery is bracing for a shock. And after the worst earthquake in almost a century — as well as years of economic mismanagement — there’s a feverish anticipation of change in parliament and party headquarters.
For years, the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has exuded confidence ahead of elections — and justifiably so. In an almost uninterrupted sequence, Erdoğan has won two presidential contests, three referendums to amend the constitution and five parliamentary elections. But today, things are different. Now, even the Turkish president’s supporters acknowledge that, after over 20 years in power, Erdoğan’s appeal is waning. And although he romped to victory 2018, it is significant that the CHP won the crucial mayoral elections in the big cities of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir the following year.
“It’s 50-50,” said a senior member of the administration. “People feel change is coming.”
Polling in Turkey can be a murky business, with parties conducting private surveys that often produce convenient results for their campaigns. Still, recent polls put the opposition more than 10 points ahead, though Team Erdoğan argues it will still have the edge come May.
Yet, a senior AKP insider said that at a high-level meeting, held soon after February’s devastating earthquake in which over 48,000 died in Turkey, several party officials were so unnerved that they called for the election to be postponed, only to be overruled by Erdoğan.
His detractors say May’s elections, which will also select the parliament, is a last chance to salvage Turkish democracy. Their fear is that Erdoğan has his eye on the vote as a historic opportunity — exactly 100 years after the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular republic — to steer the country in a more religiously conservative direction, with even greater powers for himself and his clique. While supporters call the 1.85-meter president “the tall man,” his opponents have dubbed him “the only man” because of his near-regal concentration of individual might.
But the AKP faithful retort that, if he wins, Erdoğan will seek to put the state at the people’s service — pushing ahead with the lavish welfare and construction projects that have won him support.
All about the earthquake
Many government and party figures have been ordered to keep silent in the sensitive run-up to the elections and will talk only on condition of anonymity — as is also the case for some opposition figures worried about reprisals by the state. POLITICO spoke to some of these senior officials, politicians and government insiders about Erdoğan’s plans for the election and after, both at home and abroad.
Unsurprisingly, one topic stands to dominate.
“From now on, the elections mean the earthquake” said the senior AKP insider.
Erdoğan’s critics attack him for his handling of the disaster. His party is widely criticized for being too close to the shoddy construction companies whose gimcrack buildings increased the death toll. His opponents have also long blamed him for what they say are years of authoritarianism — as prime minister between 2003 and 2014, and as president ever since — while institutions decayed and political opponents were jailed.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP, was the first party leader to visit the earthquake zone. “If there is anyone responsible for this process, it is Erdoğan. It is this ruling party that has not prepared the country for an earthquake for 20 years,” he said in a video message a day after the disaster.
Still, Erdoğan is carefully tailoring his campaign to the sober national mood. Unusually for him, he is — so far — reining in the showmanship and invective. A politician close to the president said the election campaign would be “solemn, determined and unifying,” focusing on the relief and reparation work in the region hit by the earthquake. He added that over two-thirds of the AKP’s almost 300 MPs headed to the area in the first week after the disaster, and that more than 100 were active in the region at present.
Always keen to project himself as a man of action, Erdoğan also wants to be seen making headway on reconstruction before the vote. With 1.5 million people left homeless and at least 500,000 new homes needed, according to the U.N., the president has promised rebuilding will be completed within a year. Erdoğan’s urban affairs minister has already announced the start of construction for 72,000 homes in Kahramanmaraş — the epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake — while around 50 companies, some of them close to the AKP, have begun competing for tenders to rebuild the region.
“Turks love stability and strong management,” a person close to Erdoğan said. “There is a feeling that this can only be done by Erdoğan. And he is the only one that can build homes within a year.”
The senior insider agreed: “Construction is what this government is all about. This is the thing they know best.”
When it comes to the question of centralized power, though, the president’s corner argues that his strongman style of leadership is precisely the reason why he is well equipped to take on such calamities.
“The crises humanity has experienced — like pandemic, war, finance, food [shortages] — have demonstrated again the importance of strong and stable political leadership,” Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s communications director, told POLITICO.
Highlighting the international scope of Erdoğan’s ambitions, Altun added that if the president won reelection, the country would not just seek to act as a “stabilizing, effective regional power” but as a “strong global actor” with foreign policy and security solutions of its own.
Nevertheless, the scale of the disaster has traumatized millions of Turks, and that will only compound the challenges that Erdoğan was already facing this year, largely due to Turkey’s economic difficulties, such as rampant inflation and a record trade deficit. An unorthodox economist, Erdoğan is seen as having poured fuel on the flames of price rises by slashing interest rates.
The country’s divided opposition has finally united round a single candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu — the long-serving leader of the main secular opposition party, a man as softly spoken as Erdoğan is brash. And crucially, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party has also said it will not field a candidate, allowing for an even more united voting front against Erdoğan.
Although the opposition feels it has never had such momentum, however, Erdoğan’s camp says the president’s extensive private polling tells a different story. They add that when people are asked who they think is going to win the election — often an accurate predictor of a final result — more than 50 percent say Erdoğan.
“Erdoğan is an election machine,” a CHP official acknowledged. “We don’t take the election for granted . . . We need to know how the ballot boxes and voters’ lists from the earthquake region will be organized.”
Indeed, holding the election so soon after such a disaster — and in a region still subject to emergency rule by Erdoğan — poses a huge logistical challenge and a possible threat to a fair and transparent contest.
The official death toll may still be thousands short, as the grim, backbreaking work of finding bodies under the rubble is dragging on; and of the hundreds of thousands left homeless, many have fled elsewhere in the country, while others try to shelter in tents. Those vagaries, over who is where — and where they are voting — represent a potential advantage for the president.
Opponents have also speculated that Erdoğan’s government could manipulate around 5 percent of the vote, particularly in such confused circumstances — although the AKP has always furiously rejected such insinuations.
“Security of the ballot is the main issue,” said a political researcher who asked to remain anonymous. “Kılıçdaroğlu is not only competing against Erdoğan but also against the state’s security, judiciary and financial apparatus under his control.”
The battle lines of the election are cleanly drawn: Erdoğan will argue that he is uniquely placed to help Turkey overcome the disaster, while his opponents will blame most of the country’s current problems on him. Thus, should Erdoğan triumph, the domestic agenda also seems clear, at least for the first few years: Earthquake relief and the mammoth task of rebuilding will dominate the headlines, even as Erdoğan’s critics allege he is using his power over the state to limit political debate.
For the rest of the world, however, the focus will be on foreign policy, just as the war in Ukraine continues to illustrate what an important strategic player Turkey is, given its role, for instance, in brokering grain deals between Kyiv and Moscow.
Meanwhile, Sweden is waiting for Erdoğan’s say so before it can join NATO — a particularly difficult issue for Stockholm because of differences with Ankara ranging from Kurdish issues to extradition requests and the burning of a Quran outside the Turkish embassy.
Clearly, after all these years of Erdoğan, Turkey has grown used to pulling its weight as an independent actor, and despite its NATO membership, is much more than a subservient follower of a United States-led alliance.
“In 20 years, we brought Turkey to a critical point,” said Akif Çağatay Kılıç, a former minister and current AKP head of the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “The fact that today our opinion is asked about the Middle East, the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Russia shows that Turkey is at the center.”
He added that Turkey would continue as an independent regional actor and decision-maker no matter the result of the election — and much of that is Erdoğan’s legacy.
As the president himself prepares for the most testing election of his time in power, the sense that he has transformed Turkey is just as strong as the signals that, this time, he is battling for his survival.
The fight is fraught, the odds perhaps little more than a coin toss. And even though Erdoğan’s political skills have frayed over two decades in power, the AKP machine is keeping faith.
“He is watching the whole situation coolly,” said the senior AKP insider, before making an unexpected religious comparison. “He’s like a rock, just like St. Peter in Rome.”