Can the Turkish opposition candidate defeat Erdogan?
Turks will vote on Sunday in the second round of their country’s presidential election, a runoff between secular and pro-Western candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu and authoritarian incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A poll puts Mr Erdogan six points ahead of Mr Kilicdaroglu, who is backed by a broad church of six opposition parties. Politicos Poll of Polls puts the president just two points ahead of his rival.
Mr Erdogan, who has been the dominant force in Turkish politics for the past two decades, is seeking a third term as president of the country of 85 million people.
His supporters praise him for spurring economic growth for most of his tenure in power as prime minister and later as president, and for emboldening Turkey’s status as a regional power.
But he has also steered Turkey toward authoritarian rule, jailing critics and embracing closer economic ties with Russia and the Gulf states.
In the first-round vote two weeks ago, Erdogan fell short of the 50% threshold required to win the election. Mr. Kilicdaroglu obtained 44.9% of the votes.
Strangely, polls before the first round put Mr Kilicdaroglu near the 50% mark, with the president trailing by six points.
Turkey’s three largest polling companies got the first-round result wrong.
Political analyst Professor Cigdem Ustum told RT News that the first round of voting did not appear to reflect the voting intentions of residents of Central Anatolia, a stronghold of Mr Erdogans AK’s party, or nationalist supporters of Sinan. Ogan, who came third.
“Most polling companies have announced that they are going through their methodologies,” said Professor Ustun, secretary general of EDAM, a policy think tank in Istanbul.
Mr Erdogan has mounted an impressive campaign, despite Turkey’s current economic difficulties and criticism over his government’s response to a series of devastating earthquakes in February, which killed more than 50,000 people and left over a million people homeless.
The president promised to control inflation and boost growth, and campaigned on a platform of defending Muslim values, a clear break with the secular roots of the Turkish republic.
Officially, at least, Turkey’s annual inflation rate is 43%.
“I think if it was a 400m relay race, it’s like Erdogan running the last 100m and Kilicdaroglu has to run the full 400m. He came from behind and almost caught Erdogan , but not quite,” Soner Cagaptay, a political analyst who has written three books on Mr. Erdogans’ rule, said.
Mr Cagaptay said Mr Kilicdaroglus’ alliance with centre-right parties had not turned into “a real alliance in the eyes of the electorate”.
He said Mr Erdogans “almost total control of Turkish institutions, from courts to electoral councils”, as well as “his grip on the media” gave the president an edge in the race.
A number of sources, including Chatham House, a London-based political institute, and Reporters Without Borders, estimate that the Turkish government could control up to 90% of the country’s media.
Since 2016, when generals launched a failed coup against Mr Erdogans’ regime, the president has cracked down on dissent, jailing government critics and journalists.
Last year, his AK government passed a law that means those found guilty of spreading false information could face up to three years in prison.
Istanbul’s mayor was also jailed for more than two years last year for allegedly insulting members of Turkey’s electoral council.
It is in this context, which Reporters Without Borders ranks among the worst countries in the world for freedom of the press, that Mr. Erdogan has mounted the defense of his ten years of presidency.
A day before the first-round vote, Ilhan Tasci, a prominent opposition politician and member of Turkey’s media council, tweeted that state news channel TRT had devoted 48 hours of coverage to Turkey’s campaign. Mr. Erdogans.
Mr Kilicdaroglu’s campaign received 32 minutes of coverage, he said.
The ruling AK party rejects opposition claims that state media coverage helped Erdogans’ campaign.
To fight Mr. Erdogan and the AK parties close to mainstream media control, Mr. Kilicdaroglu and his team channeled their messages extensively through social media platforms, including TikTok.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kilicdaroglu took part in a four-hour interview on BaBaLa TVone of Turkey’s most popular YouTube channels, widely watched by young voters.
Sitting in front of a framed photo of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, Mr Kilicdaroglu answered unverified questions from an audience of voters.
The 74-year-old apologized for expressing views against the headscarf in the past, a nod to all AK party voters. The AK party of Islamist origin of Mr. Erdogan supports the wearing of the headscarf by women in Turkey.
On Kurdish separatism, he delivered a nationalist tone, defending Turkey’s current borders and saying “one flag, one state”.
The interview received over 10 million views in the first 24 hours since it was posted.
Mr. Erdogan is never challenged in this way on the airwaves.
Many of the president’s supporters, who are older and live outside major cities, get their news from mainstream TV channels, not YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.
In an effort to win over influential nationalist voters, Mr Kilicdaroglu has gone out of his way to embrace populist and nationalist rhetoric since the first round of voting.
Since the beginning of his campaign, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has promised to repatriate 3.6 million Syrian refugees to Turkey.
But he has now gone further.
“We will not abandon our homeland to this mentality that allowed 10 million irregular refugees to enter our country. The border is our honour,” he said. in a video posted on May 17.
“Nationalism is one of the themes that has increased over the last week and a half,” Prof Ustun said.
Earlier this week, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, who won 5% of the vote in the first round, backed Mr Erdogan. But, it is unclear if all of his supporters agree with him.
Mr Kilicdaroglu’s hardline stance on refugees could tempt some Mr Ogans supporters to vote for him and help reduce the president’s slim lead.
Despite Mr. Erdogans’ leaning towards authoritarian rule, it is clear that the Turks value their democracy.
Voter turnout in the first round was 88%, a figure few European democracies can match.
“If it’s a contested victory, I think Erdogan will feel fragile. Hell will crack down more at home, become more autocratic and rely more on Putin and the Gulf countries for inputs,” Mr. Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute. .
However, Mr Cagaptay said that if Mr Erdogan wins by a small margin, then Turkey is ready for what he calls a “cold Erdogan outcome”, whereby the president is more likely to rebalance relations with the United States and Europe, and to be less autocratic at home.
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