politics

Why Erdogan’s Election Has Gone From Shoo-In to Nail-Biter

In the east, Kurds, Turks, Azeris search for a political home as Erdogan alliance hollows out the middle
Erdogan Tightens His Grip on Turkey

In the shadow of the former Soviet republics at Turkey’s eastern edge, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign is fighting to overcome the hurdles that have turned his election from a first-round lock into a nail-biter.

The city of Kars, which served as a NATO listening post during the Cold War, is divided among the country’s main ethnic groups -- Kurds, Turks and Azeris -- making it something of a microcosm of the national vote. The city of 300,000 last year backed Erdogan’s demand to establish an executive presidency by a percentage point -- about the same margin as the country overall.

Buildings sit on the city skyline in Kars.
Photographer: Onur Ant/Bloomberg

Since then, though, the president’s alliance with nationalist hardliners has given both ethnic Kurds and moderates a reason to abandon his governing coalition. A poll commissioned by Bloomberg showed Erdogan winning in the first round with 50.8 percent -- within the 3.5 percentage point margin of error -- underscoring his need to keep his base intact with both the presidency and control of parliament at stake.

Voters like Ali Ihsan Alinak reflect the risk to the former Islamist firebrand who has led Turkey since 2003. A Kurdish architect who runs a fusion restaurant in the city center dominated by century-old, single-story Russian-style buildings, Alinak says Erdogan has antagonized his ethnic group by cracking down on its political leaders.

“Kurds were the ones that enabled him to govern,” Alinak said. "If he’s going to lose that mandate, that’s also going to happen because of Kurds.”

Alinak is now leaning towards HDP, a pro-Kurdish party from which Erdogan broke after his AK Party’s electoral flop in 2015. After a fruitless peace process that included dialogue with militant rebel group PKK for the first time in decades failed to yield a political bonus, Erdogan flip-flopped and took on the HDP.

Election billboards sit in Kars.
Photographer: Onur Ant/Bloomberg

HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas and about a dozen of its lawmakers have been thrown in jail since and almost 100 of its mayors in the East were replaced by state-backed officials. Demirtas is campaigning for president from his cell in the western province of Edirne.

In the meantime, the president has deepened his partnership with the Nationalist Movement Party, known by its Turkish initials, MHP. Anticipating the loss of Kurdish support, Erdogan escalated his nationalist rhetoric and forged a formal coalition with MHP. But in the process, he also lost some mainstream support.

“The MHP is seen as a racist party in this area,” said Savas Dalasli, a volunteer at the AKP party’s local campaign bureau in Digor, a predominantly Kurdish town 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside the Kars city center. “In fact, I don’t like the idea of voting for MHP either but how can I avoid that if I want to be able to vote for AKP?”

Even Selahattin Beyribey, AKP’s lawmaker form Kars who wasn’t nominated as a party candidate for the upcoming election, said the coalition with MHP wasn’t adding much to support for AKP in the city.

“The coalition idea is supposed to result in a two-party competition on the national level” in the long term, much like the race between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., Beyribey said. “But on the local level, there isn’t much to gain.”

Source: Bloomberg

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has rebuffed concerns that the coalition could unravel immediately after the June 24 vote. Without the support from MHP and its leader Devlet Bahceli, the parliament wouldn’t be able to complete the constitutional changes needed to put into place last year’s referendum that shifted political power to the presidency.

Even those compromises have muddied the electoral waters.

Meral Aksener, a former interior minister, broke away from MHP to found the center-right IYI Party after a primary she won to replace Bahceli was nullified by courts. Aksener’s IYI has emerged as a popular destination for those rebelling against the governing alliance.

“People have left the MHP because it turned into a satellite of the AKP after so many years of opposition,” said Cenk Akbaba on Saturday as he got off from the campaign bus he was driving with loud speakers at full blast urging support from voters.

Akbaba says he and his father, Yuksel, represent the voters who have abandoned Erdogan’s coalition. They abandoned MHP for IYI, with the elder Akbaba now running for office. Most of his support is coming from the former MHP base, his son said.

Those dissenters make election calculus more problematic for Erdogan since there are two races: for president and parliament. Complicating the picture is the prospect Erdogan wouldn't work with a hung parliament and instead call an election do-over if the results were not to his liking. 

And the forces that could result in a hung parliament with Erdogan as president are all too obvious in the streets of Kars. Some of AKP’s Kurdish voters might back Erdogan while voting HDP for parliament, HDP Kars MP Ayhan Bilgen said.

“Some Kurdish voters might still support Erdogan in the presidential election instead of HDP,” said Bilgen, the party’s own candidate. “Some of them just want a strong state, a strong leader. Some others think that if there is ever to be another peace process, that’s going to be launched by Erdogan.”

Stories from Turkey’s Heartlands
What do Turks want? In the run-up to the elections, Bloomberg reporters traveled around the country to find out. See all their stories here

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE