Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing both an Islamic and a Secular challenge in the forthcoming elections in June 24.
In laying out his electoral platform in Istanbul on Sunday, President Erdogan made a number of references to the Ottoman Empire, promising to make Turkey worthy of its heritage. These references are not welcome by the electorate as a whole.
While the President casts himself as the resilient leader that has kept conspirators at bay, many see him as an aspirant Sultan whose power is about to be bolstered as the new constitution comes into effect. The referendum he won with a minute margin has left the country divided.
The ensuing polarization means that Erdogan may have created the conditions for a common front that will unite Turkey’s opposition, challenging his aura of invincibility.
The Islamic movement that once stood behind Erdogan – The National View – has fielded its own candidate, Temel Karamollaoglu. Karamollaoglu’s Felicity Party is polling under 10% of the threshold required to enter parliament but it is eroding AKP’s electoral base. Erdogan himself started out his career as a National View supporter before joining the ranks of the more moderate Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.
Karamollaoglu announced his candidacy in a gender-segregated venue on May 1sts. Much like AKP in its first steps, he appeals to devout Kurds and is promising to end the state of emergency – a permanent state of martial law – in Turkey’s southeast. He is also championing the cause of thousands who feel wronged by the mass lustration campaign that followed the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. And one of his chief campaign slogans is the reversal of the constitutional referendum result, which has polarized Turkey.
The former mayor of Sivas is openly criticizing Erdogan, most recently quoted as saying that “palaces and sultanates will one day crumble,” accusing AKP of corruption, bad economic management and despotism. While targeting the President’s morals, he is also opposing Turkish foreign policy, especially in Syria.
But, Karamollaogly is not the only challenge from within. Although Abdullah Gul has made clear he will not challenge Erdogan, the President does have something to fear from within. His former economy minister, Ali Babacan, is said to be putting together his own political movement, which could challenge in the next electoral encounter, whenever that is.
AKP is losing credibility as the economy is plagued by rising inflation, decelerating growth and a widening trade deficit. With an ideological commitment against raising interest rates, President Erdogan does not sound credible in his promise to tame inflation. Moreover, the left is making the case that Turkey is no longer a country with rule of law.
HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas is campaigning from jail, attracting voters of the secularist left as well as ethnic Kurds.
CHP is benefitting from the engaging street appeal of Muharrem Ince, who is energizing secular youth and promises to restore rule of law.
Like Karamollaoglu, Ince is promising to reverse the constitutional referendum results, end the state of emergency in the southeast and set the economy on a different track.
More significantly for Ince, if Erdogan fails to secure his election in the first round, he can expect to become the rallying candidate for a united opposition. Ince gained credibility when he voted against his own party and did not bundle Demirtas with PKK. That move could now yield considerable support in a two-way race.