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Repression, religion and subsidies: Erdogan’s plan to win the presidential election

The countdown has begun for the most important election of 2023. During a speech last Wednesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan released the fateful date of the presidential election in Turkey: it will finally be May 14, and not the June 18 as originally planned. The Turkish president shows that he remains the only master on board, capable of advancing the hands of the clock for the sole purpose of handling symbols. It was on May 14, 1950 that his idol, Adnan Menderes, won the first free elections in Turkish history and ended the 22-year reign of the Kemalist party – that of the founder of modern Turkey Mustapha Kemal Atatürk -, the CHP, main opposition party today.

Erdogan has monopolized the throne for just 20 years, first as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, then as president. But the leader of the AKP has never seemed in such a bad position: the opposition has finally come together under the name of “Table of six”, the polls predict a defeat for the head of state in any case figure and the economy continues to collapse. “Since 2002, President Erdogan has never been so fragile in the political field, believes Adel Bakawan, associate researcher in the Turkey and Middle East Program at Ifri. For the first time, his victory is in doubt and, as he is very worried, he will have to make particularly strong gestures during the campaign.

While Erdogan is accelerating the timetable, the Turkish parties have still not managed to agree on the name of the candidate responsible for confronting him: as the Turkish press has repeated in recent weeks, even if the power in place cannot win the elections, the opposition is quite capable of losing them. “The president still has four or five political levers, and he will activate them all before the vote, warns an influential business leader in Turkey. The risks of legal proceedings are too great for him and his relatives if he is dismissed power, he is ready to do anything to win.” On the shores of the Bosphorus, the coming weeks promise to be stormy.

1 – Repression

To win an election, the easiest way is probably to have no more opponents. The most serious of them, the mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison last December, for having called the officials who invalidated his election in 2019 “idiots”. sentence, is added a period of ineligibility which risks blocking the road to the presidential election: if Imamoglu appealed and does not sleep behind bars, the risks today seem too great for the opposition to invest him candidate against Erdogan.

Turkish justice, purged after the failed coup of 2016, does not intend to stop at the mayor of Istanbul. The left-wing HDP party, pro-Kurdish and which brings together more than 10% of voters, has been in its sights for years. “To convince and gain power, Erdogan must seek out the subjects that frighten Turkish society and prove that he can deal with them, advances Adel Bakawan. The most powerful issue, in the collective memory, is that of the Kurds, especially because the PKK group has been at war with Turkey for 40 years.”

More than 6,000 party members are in prison and its accounts have been frozen, ahead of a possible ban in the coming weeks. “For the people who vote for the HDP or who support it, its ban is not an unimaginable catastrophe, explained to us recently a young Kurdish lawyer from Istanbul. All the Kurdish parties in recent history have been closed and it has been years that all HDP leaders are prosecuted, imprisoned and that HDP mayors are removed from office. The ban will only entrench an already dire situation.”

This electoral campaign is likely to take place in a particularly anxiety-provoking climate: after obtaining the closure of the vast majority of the opposition press, Erdogan passed one of the most repressive laws on freedom of expression last October . Any publication of “false or misleading” information is now punishable by three years in prison in Turkey. This definition, vague enough to encompass any dispute, has put a heavy weight on the words of researchers, journalists and activists. At the slightest word against the power, everyone knows that he now risks prison.

2 – Religion

To stay in power, the one who was nicknamed “Imam Beckenbauer” when he played football in his youth allied himself with the ultranationalists on one side, and the Islamists on the other. But there are many disappointed with the Erdogan doctrine on the religious side. To mobilize them on election day, the AKP plans to combine the presidential vote with a referendum to enshrine the freedom to wear the veil in the Constitution. “The most pious will not let this protection pass and will go to the polls, believes a source on the spot. Erdogan is betting that, as long as they have come to vote, they will slip a ballot for him into the ballot box.”

3 – Grants

During his first ten years in power, the economy was Erdogan’s strong point, with growth close to 10% for a long time and average purchasing power tripled. These auspicious years saw millions of Turks lifted out of poverty. But over the past ten years, GDP per capita has plummeted from $12,600 to $7,500, and inflation stands at 137% year on year, according to the independent group Enag. The economy has become Erdogan’s Achilles’ heel.

To lighten the voter’s bill before voting, the government has been distributing aid and financial boosts in recent weeks. In December, he lowered the retirement age, allowing 2.3 million people to stop working immediately, and raised the minimum wage by 55%. In January, the salaries of civil servants jumped 30%, while Erdogan promised to deliver 30 billion euros in energy aid during the year and to build 500,000 new social housing units in five years.

4 – Invasion?

The war in Ukraine has upset the international image of the Turkish president, unpredictable and indispensable. At the head of NATO’s second army, Ukraine’s leading supplier of drones, Erdogan remains close to Vladimir Putin and has boosted his country’s trade with Russia. Setting itself up as a maker of peace, the stay shines on the international scene and, more than ever, Turkey’s foreign policy is read in the light of its internal issues. “The Russians need Turkey to retain this role of so-called mediator, while continuing to block the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, underlines Fabrice Balanche, specialist in the Middle East and lecturer at the ‘Lyon 2 University. Putin has every interest in keeping Erdogan more or less in his camp, and Turkey benefits economically from the situation.

The Turkish president is also initiating a rapprochement with his old enemy Bashar Al-Assad, in order to send the four million Syrian refugees back to their country and obtain a pass to launch a ground offensive against Kurdish groups in the north of the Syria. “For Erdogan, attacking the Kurds is the ideal way to divide the opposition, which ranges from the Kemalists of the CHP – favorable to such an operation – to the Kurds of the HDP”, points out Fabrice Balanche.

On the other side of the map, in western Turkey, Erdogan is increasing threats against another historical enemy: Greece. After warning Athens that its army could “arrive suddenly at night” on the Greek islands, the Turkish government unveiled in early January a new missile, the Taifun, capable of reaching Greece in eight minutes. Opposite, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis must also face elections in the spring and does not hesitate to raise tensions with Erdogan. Between military maneuvers and undiplomatic insults, the crisis is brewing in the Aegean Sea… Which is never to displease the master of Ankara.


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