Weeks before Turkish elections, why is Erdogan hinting at defeat?

Even a new foray into Syria may not be enough for Erdogan and the AKP in the face of stubbornly high unemployment and a lack of enthusiasm among their own base.

As Turkey’s election campaign gathers steam before snap polls in June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted that he might face defeat, giving an additional boost to an already invigorated opposition.

Erdogan called the elections for parliament and the presidency about 17 months early to get a head start on the opposition and to cement a change towards a system that would give the president wide-ranging executive powers. He controls Turkey’s state apparatus and most of the media, while a state of emergency in place for almost two years is putting pressure on dissidents.

However, what had looked like an easy race for the 64-year-old leader in theory is turning into a nail-biter. Some polls indicate that Erdogan could lose his parliamentary majority, the presidency, or both, developments that would usher in a new era for a NATO country and a Middle Eastern player at a geostrategic juncture between East and West.

In a surprise to both supporters and critics, Erdogan, who has won almost every election since 2002, appeared to contemplate the possibility of defeat. “If one day our nation says ‘enough,’ we will withdraw to the sidelines,” he said on May 8.

Opposition politicians and other Erdogan foes immediately picked up on the theme and made “tamam” — the Turkish word for “enough” that was used by Erdogan — their rallying cry. The word trended on Twitter with 500,000 tweets within hours.

“This is the closest he’s come to losing and there is more discontent within his party than ever before,” said Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations and European studies at Johns Hopkins University. Rusen Cakir, a veteran Turkish journalist who has watched Erdogan’s career closely since the 1990s, also said the president is “more concerned and nervous than before elections in the past.”

As Turks prepare to choose a new parliament and a new president in the June 24 election, Erdogan publicly chided voters who consider splitting their ballot, voting for him as president but not for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the parliamentary election, as “troublemakers.”

Speaking on the Medyascope internet TV platform, Cakir said Erdogan’s campaign had no positive message to offer, only “fear” of alleged foreign political and economic machinations against Turkey. “This is the most difficult election for Erdogan in 20 years,” Cakir said.

One of the reasons for Erdogan’s predicament is that Turkey’s opposition is unusually combative. Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), is challenging Erdogan by portraying himself as a leader who can bring people together, instead of dividing them.

A central message of Ince’s election platform is that it is time to heal social wounds after years of polarisation under Erdogan. “I want to bring peace to Turks and Kurds, to Alevi and Sunni, that’s what I’m all about,” Ince wrote on Twitter.

Ince, a 54-year-old former teacher, has electrified the CHP. Some polls see an opposition alliance by the CHP and three other parties head to head with the AKP and its partners, the right-wing National Movement Party (MHP) and the smaller nationalist Great Unity Party.

In the presidential vote, several pollsters say Erdogan could be forced into a run-off on July 8. Cakir said Erdogan is concerned that a loss for the AKP in the June 24 parliamentary election could add motivation to the opposition in a presidential run-off.

Another strong opposition candidate is nationalist Meral Aksener, who could attract disgruntled AKP or MHP voters.

Turkey’s legal pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, is fielding its former chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, who is in pre-trial detention under charges of lending support to militant Kurdish separatists. Demirtas scored about 10% in Turkey’s presidential election in 2014, a similar showing this time could deny Erdogan a victory in the first round of the presidential vote. Ince has called for Demirtas’s release for the duration of the election campaign but there is no sign the government intends to act on the request.

Erdogan has hinted he could send the Turkish Army into Syria for another military intervention, following Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January. The latter resulted in a “rally ‘round the flag” moment with up to 80% of Turks polled expressing support for the cross-border action against a Kurdish militia in Syria. “Turkey will launch additional offensives like Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations to clear its border of terror organisations in the new era,” Erdogan said in a speech May 6.

Even a new foray into Syria may not be enough for Erdogan and the AKP in the face of stubbornly high unemployment and a lack of enthusiasm among their own base, visible during the roll-out of the president’s election manifesto on May 6, observers say. “Even Erdogan‘s own supporters seemed bored by his speech,” Hintz said via e-mail.

Hintz, however, warned that opposition to Erdogan alone did not amount to a political programme for Erdogan’s political adversaries. “Precedent shows that it’s much easier to unite around what you’re against than what you’re for,” she wrote.

Some critics, pointing to widespread reports of irregularities during a referendum last year that produced a paper-thin majority for Erdogan’s plans for a presidential system, said they are concerned the government could resort to manipulation if things go wrong on June 24. Ince has called on lawyers in Turkey to be ready on polling day to file protests at the electoral commission in Ankara.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.