Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has parlayed his country’s NATO membership and location straddling Europe and the Middle East into international influence, is favored to win reelection in a presidential runoff Sunday, despite a host of domestic issues.
Erdogan, 69, who has amassed greater powers during his 20 years in office, finished a first-round election on May 14 just short of a victory and also retained a majority in parliament. That came despite rampant inflation and the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake that killed over 50,000 people in the country’s south.
His challenger in the runoff is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the main opposition social democratic Republican People’s Party and the joint candidate of a six-party alliance, who has promised to undo years of democratic backsliding under Erdogan, to repatriate Syrian refugees and promote rights of women.
Here’s a look at the main domestic issues shaping the election, and where Erdogan and his challenger stand:
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.
To offset the impacts of inflation and win back votes, Erdogan has engaged in a public spending spree ahead of the elections, increasing the minimum wage and pension payments.
The opposition alliance has promised to restore the central bank’s independence and a return to orthodox economic policies, if Kilicdaroglu becomes president.
Erdogan reportedly has asked Mehmet Simsek, his internationally respected former finance minister, to return to the position, a sign that a new government may embrace more orthodox policies, if the Turkish leader wins a third presidential term.
On Thursday, Erdogan described Turkey’s economy, banking system and financial system as “sound.” He also said, however, that Gulf states, which he did not name, had “deposited money” in Turkey, providing temporary “relief.”
Recovering from disaster
Turkey is grappling with a difficult recovery from February’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake, the deadliest quake in the country’s modern history. It destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 buildings. Hundreds of thousands of residents are sheltering in temporary accommodation like tents. Some 658,000 people were left jobless, according to the International Labor Organization.
The World Bank estimates that the earthquake caused $34.2 billion in “direct damages” — an amount equivalent to 4% of Turkey’s 2021 gross domestic product. The recovery and reconstruction costs could add up to twice that much, the international financial institution said.
Erdogan’s government, meanwhile, has been accused of setting the stage for the devastation with lax building code enforcement. Some people left homeless or struggling to earn money also found the government’s earthquake response to be slow.
Despite the criticism, in the parliamentary election Erdogan’s alliance won 10 out 11 provinces in areas affected by the quake, signaling that the president’s focus on rebuilding during the campaigning has paid off. Erdogan has pledged to construct 319,000 homes within the year and has attended a number of groundbreaking ceremonies, trying to persuade 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 no longer so welcome
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 soft-mannered Kilicdaroglu had vowed to repatriate Syrians within two years, saying he would seek European Union funds to build homes, schools, hospitals and roads in Syria and encourage Turkish entrepreneurs to open factories and other businesses there. In a bid to woo nationalist voters in the lead up to the runoff race, Kilicdaroglu hardened his tone, saying he would send refugees packing within a year of being elected. He has since also won the backing of an anti-migrant party.
Under mounting public pressure, Erdogan’s government has begun constructing thousands of brick homes in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria to encourage voluntary returns. On Thursday, Erdogan announced in a television interview that Qatar was funding a separate housing project that would help resettle up to a million Syrians.
His government is also seeking reconciliation with Syrian President Bashir Assad to ensure their safe return.
Erdogan said Thursday there are some 4 million refugees in Turkey, including around 3.4 million Syrians, but anti-migrant parties say the figure is closer to 13 million.
A more democratic Turkey?
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, including an increased role for parliament and an independent judiciary.
Kilicdaroglu has also promised to do away with a law that makes insulting the president a criminal offense punishable by prison. He has pledged to abide by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which have called for the release of former pro-Kurdish party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist businessman and human rights activist Osman Kavala from prison.
But lacking a parliamentary majority, Kilicdaroglu would face an uphill battle implementing the democratic reforms even if he is elected.
Will the election affect women’s and LGBTQ+ rights?
Seeking to widen his support from voters, Erdogan has expanded his own political alliance with two nationalist parties to include a small Islamist party and also secured the backing of a radical Kurdish-Islamist party.
The parties newly recruited into Erdogan’s camp have Islamic agendas, which have raised fears about the future of women’s rights in Turkey. They want to scrap laws on alimony and domestic violence protection, arguing they encourage women to leave their husbands and threaten traditional family values.
Erdogan already has removed Turkey from a European convention that aims to prevent domestic violence - a nod to religious groups that claimed the treaty encourages divorce and LGBTQ+ rights. Pandering to his pious and conservative supporters, Erdogan and other members of his ruling party have called LGBTQ+ individuals “deviants.”
The Kilicdaroglu-led alliance has vowed to rejoin the European treaty and to uphold the rights of women and minority communities. Kilicdaroglu has also reached out to conservative women, assuring them they will be able to continue wearing Islamic-style headscarves that were once banned in schools and government offices under Turkey’s secular laws.
What about foreign policy?
Under Erdogan, Turkey has, at times, become a difficult NATO ally, often pursuing its own agenda. It has cultivated close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and blocked the alliance’s expansion. However, it has also emerged as a key mediator between Russia and Ukraine, helping broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and alleviate a food crisis.
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.
The Kilicdaroglu-led opposition says it would work for Turkey’s reinstatement to the U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program, from which the country was ousted following the Erdogan government’s purchase of a Russian-made air defense system.
At the same time, a Kilicdaroglu-led government is expected to try to balance Turkey’s economic ties with Russia.
An opposition win also could result in Turkey ending its veto of Sweden’s request to join NATO. Erdogan’s government has blocked Sweden’s accession into the alliance, pressing the country to crackdown on Kurdish militants and other groups that Turkey regards as terrorist threats.
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