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How Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Turkey's most powerful leader

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen here in September, is facing a united opposition in Sunday's election that threatens his grip on power.
Andrej Isakovic
/
AFP via Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen here in September, is facing a united opposition in Sunday's election that threatens his grip on power.

When Turkish citizens head to the polls on Sunday, they will vote in one of the most pivotal elections in their country's 100-year history. That's because for the first time in 20 years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a united opposition threatening his grip on power.

Turkey, a NATO ally on the border between Europe and Asia, has experienced a decade of democratic backsliding as Erdogan has methodically consolidated all branches of government under his authority. Experts say Sunday's election will determine whether Turkey can return to democratic rule or will continue its path toward an autocracy.

"Erdogan is the inventor of nativist, populist politics globally, and his defeat would mean something globally," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

This year's earthquakes took a political toll on Erdogan

The threat to Erdogan's reign comes amid an economic and financial crisis that has been compounded by deadly earthquakes this year. Erdogan and his ruling AK Party have received much of the blame for the economic situation.

Furthermore, alleged corruption and negligence that led to building code and safety violations may have contributed to higher death tolls from the earthquakes, according to apreliminary report from scientists at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

"Had the earthquake not happened, Erdogan would probably be leading in the polls today," Cagaptay said.

The irony that an earthquake and economic crisis could bring down Erdogan is not lost on those who have followed his political rise. It was a 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000 peoplethat helped elevate his profile and catapulted him and his party to victory in the 2002 general election.

"It's a parallel that almost every Turkish person made in the first days after this earthquake in February," said journalist and writer Suzy Hansen, who lived and reported from Turkey for over a decade. "He was going to fix the economy, and he was going to eradicate corruption."

Erdogan is credited with expanding the Turkish middle class by making credit more easily available to those families. His government also embarked on massive infrastructure projects that provided lots of jobs. Gross domestic product per capita more than tripled during his first decade in office, from $3,600 in 2002 to $11,700 in 2012. He delivered growth, lifted people out of poverty and improved access to government services, such as health care.

Economic troubles have eroded his standing

Those successes over his first 10 years in power allowed him to build a loyal base of followers. But that base is starting to abandon Erdogan now as more and more middle-class families are struggling to make ends meet in today's Turkey. Runaway inflation and a currency devaluation have seen prices surge in recent years. In April, food prices increased 54% year on year.

"People are hungry in Turkey," Hansen said. "People cannot afford meat. They can't afford food. They can't afford diapers. They are really struggling."

Inflation has come down since reaching a high of more than 85% in October. The Turkish lira has lost 76% of its value during Erdogan's second term as president.

"People are angry," Hansen said. "I had one young man say to me, 'If you watch the Turkish news, which is controlled by Erdogan, all they're telling us is that life is great. And meanwhile, I can't afford onions.'"

His stance on religion has also played a role

But it's not just economic challenges that threaten Erdogan. It's also the political and cultural changes that he undertook during his second decade in power. Erdogan, who grew up in a poor conservative Muslim family in the Anatolian hinterland, always felt like a second-class citizen in Turkey's secular society, according to Cagaptay.

His rise to power in the early 2000s also led to the rise of political Islam in the country. Many in the majority-Muslim country remain loyal to Erdogan for making religion a bigger part of Turkish politics and society. At the same time, it alienated more progressive parts of society and those secularists who want to keep religion out of politics.

"Erdogan has demonized so many groups from secularists to Kurdish nationalists to liberals to social democrats to leftists," Cagaptay said. "When you add them up, that makes up about half of Turkey's population."

And those groups for the first time are now united in their opposition to Erdogan.

Similar to other authoritarian rulers, Erdogan has attempted to hold on to power by going after his opponents. He also started to centralize the government around himself. In 2017, Turkey transformed from a parliamentary system to a presidential one after 51% of voters approved the change in a public referendum.

This change came less than a year after a failed military coup in July 2016. More than 300 people died in the clashes between the military and Erdogan supporters during the coup attempt. Erdogan responded to the attempted overthrow of his government with mass arrests and large purges across the military, government and civil service.

"He became head of state, head of government, head of ruling party, head of the national police and head of the military as chief of staff. He became all powerful as Turkey's new sultan," Cagaptay said.

The change to this new presidential system means that for the first time, Erdogan has to win 50% of the vote. Going into Sunday's election, Erdogan and his main opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, are neck and neck in the polls.

Should none of the candidates win more than 50% of the vote, then there will be a runoff election on May 28 between the top two candidates.

Cagaptay and Hansen both believe Erdogan won't go quietly if he loses the election.

He might even take a page out of former President Donald Trump's playbook and call on his supporters to stop any transfer of power.

"You could very well see the repeat of Jan. 6 in Turkey after the elections, if this is a closely contested race," Cagaptay said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.