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Unusual level of support for President Erdoğan as Turkey goes to the polls

June 22, 2018 at 1:57 pm

Turkish President and the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the crowd during AK Party’s rally in Kahramanmaras, Turkey on 21 June 2018 [Kayhan Özer/Anadolu Agency]

It is by no means certain who will be the occupant of Ankara’s Presidential Palace come Monday morning. There are no predictions by election pundits of a landslide win by one side or the other, but in the absence of an outright victory by one candidate in the first round on Sunday, a second round of polling will be held on 9 July.

Here in Istanbul, billboards of at least three main candidates appear on every highway and street corner. The 64-year old sitting President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), has been photoshopped on every poster to look 20-years younger; his fair-haired rival, 54-year old Muharram İnce, a former science teacher from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), grins in a portrait that makes it look as though he has just heard some good news. The third major candidate is the only female in the race; 61-year old Meral Akşener is the head of the Iyi (“Good”) Party and is portrayed with a slightly more serious demeanour, presumably designed to project authority.

In truth, this election is as much as about the perceptions of candidates as it about their policies. Erdoğan is the “strong leader”; the CHP candidate vows to “Make Turkey Secure”; and Akşener says “Turkey will be good”. The young millennial Turks who listen to Erdoğan’s speeches about growth and a stable economy are generally not old enough to remember the “bad old days” when the CHP’s man governed Istanbul. Erdoğan reminds audiences that rubbish used to lie uncollected in the streets and that the stench of rotting waste was “overpowering”. During a party-political rally in Istanbul’s Yenikapi area, in front of a crowd of about 700,000 people, Erdoğan produced a video illustrating his accomplishments and revealed his plans for a series of major infrastructure projects.

Read: Erdogan and the global conspiracy against him

İnce derides Erdoğan as a “failed politician”. Standing before a partisan crowd estimated at 1.5 to 2 million in the western province of Izmir, alongside a huge poster — the size of a six-storey building — of the father of the nation, Kemal Ataturk, İnce promised to provide special economic packages to farmers, increase financial aid to pensioners, university students and teachers, as well reduce the price of diesel. He also promised to increase the minimum wage.

In almost every restaurant and café, conversations are dominated by “election fever” which has led to high temperatures for some and depression for others, while nobody is really certain about the outcome. Sadly, at least one heated discussion has turned to violence, leaving four people dead and eight injured in the south-east town of Suruc, when supporters of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) — an officially designated terrorist group — argued with an AK Party official.

The Kurdish issue remains a thorny one, with military campaigns against the PKK and it offshoots taking place in Qandil, northern Iraq, following similar offensives in Syria’s Afrin area just two months ago. However, while İnce’s CHP promises to address the problem, Erdoğan’s AK Party appeals to a sense of brotherhood and equality between all Turkish citizens, including the Kurds.

Erdoğan has won every election in the past 16 years but his party is taking nothing for granted. Relentless rallies attracting crowds of hundreds of thousands are being staged across the length and breadth of Turkey. Around 65 million people are registered to vote, including 3 million who will cast their votes in cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and other European capitals.

Read: Syria is an issue in Turkey’s presidential election

The fear is that Erdoğan and his ministers may be blamed for the perceived economic malaise which has resulted in a 5 per cent fall in the value of the Turkish Lira, and raised its benchmark interest rates to 17.75 per cent despite political efforts by the President to resist the increase. Government officials have been quick to point out that the country’s economy grew by 7.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year and tourism to Turkey is set to reach a record high of more than 40 million visitors by the end of 2018.

There are allegations of an international conspiracy with recent polls showing that 65 per cent of AK Party supporters believe that the decline of the lira is due to “an operation against Turkey by foreign powers.” Some are defending the lira enthusiastically by selling dollars, euros and gold. One local mayor gave a week’s holiday to municipal workers who sold more than US$500; a carpet dealer offered free rugs to anyone who exchanged more than $2,000; and a surgeon offered free horse rides to anyone who presented a receipt from currency exchange offices.

One of the enduring ironies of this election is that the opposition CHP’s stance over Israel appears to be even more hard-line than Erdoğan’s. Aside from the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, Ankara has condemned Israel’s killing of at least 62 unarmed protestors in Gaza, with Erdoğan calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “terrorist”. The opposition, meanwhile, has promised to cut Israeli investment in Turkey and to return the compensation paid by Israel following its commando attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” in 2010, in which nine Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara were killed; a tenth died later of his wounds.

Read: Turkey remembers Mavi Marmara victims

Crucially, days after the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey, the AK Party voted down a bill in Parliament that proposed cancelling all previous agreements with the Zionist state and severing economic ties.

It has thus not escaped the notice of the estimated 18-20,000 Jews who live in Turkey, some of whom frequent Istanbul’s Bet Yaakov Central Synagogue, and are eligible to vote that Erdoğan’s party’s policies — despite the President’s rhetoric — are a safer bet for Jewish interests than the proposed policies of the opposition.

The first results are expected around midnight local time (GMT+3) and into Monday morning, with the full extent of the outcome becoming clear or the announcement of a second poll expected around 8am (5am GMT). It promises to be an interesting weekend.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.