Long-Ruling Erdogan Faces Biggest Test in 20 Years

Domestic issues could bring down leader with global ambitions
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 12, 2023 10:43 AM CDT
Long-Ruling Erdogan Faces Biggest Test in 20 Years
People attend an election campaign rally of the CHP leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, May 6, 2023.   (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has parlayed his country's NATO membership and location straddling Europe and the Middle East into international influence during two decades in power. But like other world leaders with global ambitions, he finds his tenure imperiled by matters closer to home, the AP reports. Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday are taking place amid rampant inflation and months after a catastrophic earthquake killed over 50,000 people in the country's south. The government has come under criticism for mismanaging the economy and failing to prepare the quake-prone nation for February's natural disaster.

Polls show Erdogan facing the toughest reelection race of his career. A six-party opposition alliance united behind the candidacy of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the social democratic Republican People’s Party, promising to undo democratic backsliding, repatriate Syrian refugees, and to promote the rights of Turkish women. Here’s a look at the main domestic issues shaping the election, and where Erdogan and his challenger stand:

  • Erdogan's economics. Contrary to the mainstream economic theory of interest rate increases helping to keep consumer prices in check, Erdogan maintains that high borrowing rates cause inflation. The Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, under pressure from the president, repeatedly slashed interest rates to boost growth and exports. Instead, the value of the Turkish lira nosedived, and the rate cuts exacerbated a cost of living crisis. Inflation peaked at 85% in October. The official April figure was 44%, although independent groups say they think the actual rate is much higher. The opposition alliance has promised to restore the central bank's independence and a return to orthodox economic policies if Kilicdaroglu becomes president.
  • Disaster recovery. The Turkish leader has centered his election campaign on rebuilding the 11 provinces hit hardest by the February earthquake. Erdogan has pledged to construct 319,000 homes within the year and attended a number of groundbreaking ceremonies, trying to convince voters that only he can rebuild lives and businesses. Kilicdaroglu says his government would give houses to quake victims for free instead of the 20-year repayment plan envisaged by Erdogan’s government
  • Refugees. Refugees, especially those fleeing civil war in neighboring Syria, were once greeted with open arms in Turkey, but anti-migration sentiment is on the rise amid the economic downturn. A shortage of housing and shelters in the quake-hit provinces has increased calls for Syrian refugees to go home. The Kilicdaroglu-led opposition alliance and other opposition parties have vowed to repatriate Syrians within two years.

  • Democracy. The coalition of six parties has declared a commitment to restore Turkey as a parliamentary democracy and to give citizens greater rights and freedoms should their alliance win the elections. Erdogan succeeded in getting a presidential system of governance narrowly approved by referendum in 2017 and introduced in 2018. The new system abolished the office of the prime minister and concentrated a vast amount of powers in the hands of the president. The alliance has outlined plans for a greater separation of powers.
  • Women's, LGBTQ+ rights. Seeking to widen his support from voters, Erdogan has expanded his own political alliance of two nationalist parties to include a small Islamist party and also secured the backing of a radical Kurdish-Islamist party. The parties have Islamic agendas, which have raised fears about the future of women’s rights in Turkey. The Kilicdaroglu-led alliance has vowed to uphold the rights of women and minority communities and to rejoin a European convention that aims to prevent domestic violence. Erdogan removed Turkey from the convention in a nod to religious groups that claimed the treaty encourages divorce and LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Foreign policy. The opposition alliance has signaled it would pursue a more Western-oriented foreign policy and seek to rebuild ties with the United States, the European Union, and NATO allies.
(More Turkey stories.)

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