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Turkey's presidential election is expected to seal Erdogan's political fate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On Sunday, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face the biggest challenge to his grip on power since first taking the reins as prime minister two decades ago. In those 20 years, he's morphed from a Democratic figure favored by the West into what people call Turkey's new autocrat. And Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, says this election will seal Erdogan's political fate.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Either two decades of rule by President Erdogan will come to an end and Turkey will revert back to democracy and rule of law. Or Erdogan will win, and he'll stay at Turkey's helm while he's alive as Turkey's new sultan.

FADEL: Erdogan's neck and neck at the polls with his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. So he's campaigning around the country in advance of the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN")

DJ PEDRO: (Singing) Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

FADEL: Suzy Hansen is a journalist who's covered much of Erdogan's time in office.

SUZY HANSEN: In the first 10 years, Erdogan was not a member or part of longtime political parties. He didn't have his own wealthy business class.

FADEL: So he built it, taking contracts away from the old secular business class and giving that business to his allies.

HANSEN: His party was also siphoning off funds from all of this largesse. He was also distributing money through these charity networks that he had. So he was also building up loyalty within the lower classes or the middle class. You know, we often talk about authoritarian leaders. And they repress civil society. But I think that the question always is, well, how did they get away with repressing civil society? And it was in part because the rest of the country that was voting for him didn't really seem to mind because they were benefiting so much from his power.

FADEL: He was empowering a part of the country that had long felt ignored, people like him. Again, Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute.

CAGAPTAY: Having written his biography, I have concluded that Erdogan always felt second class because he was on the other side of the tracks. He was from a poor family. He was also on the other side of the tracks because he was from a conservative family that wanted to wear religion on their sleeves. At the time, Turkey was secularist. And that meant that religion had no space in public policy, education or government. People like Erdogan and his family felt othered.

FADEL: And so Erdogan became what journalist Hansen describes as a genuine politician.

HANSEN: Erdogan was a community organizer. His election in 1994 as the mayor of Istanbul and then again in 2002, 2003 as prime minister was a democratic revolution. Now, he got lucky. There was a massive earthquake in Istanbul in 1999. And there was a massive financial crisis. So those two events had discredited all the previous political parties.

FADEL: Erdogan and his party were elected as the alternative. And Cagaptay says, while empowering himself and his party, he was also delivering on some of those voter demands.

CAGAPTAY: He has delivered growth, improved access to the services such as health care. And he has lifted so many people out of poverty that he genuinely has a base that loves him.

FADEL: But in the second decade of his time in office, Erdogan became a very different ruling figure.

HANSEN: He started facing a lot of threats, both from within his own party and from the opposition. And that was when he started centralizing power around his own person - changing the laws, changing the legal system, transforming the state - and then eventually changing the parliamentary system into this kind of super-presidency in which the entire state was organized around him.

FADEL: So was it his paranoia that led him to this place? I mean, what would you say is the watershed moment?

HANSEN: I think the first time he was genuinely afraid for his own power was the 2013 Gezi protests, in which thousands of people objected to the building of a mall on a park in Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

HANSEN: And the protests spread to 70 cities around the country. And essentially, this was an uprising against overdevelopment and corruption. And the second was definitely the military coup in 2016.

(SHOUTING)

FADEL: That's when a faction of Turkey's military tried and failed to overthrow Erdogan. He called citizens into the streets to stop the military. Some 300 people died in clashes. And when his position was secured, he began a series of purges and mass arrests in the ranks of the military, the government, civil servants. And today, he's repressing his critics, jailing journalists, critics on social media, among others. Then came an economic downturn, and this year, earthquakes that have left Turks devastated.

(SHOUTING)

FADEL: Buildings collapsed and buried people alive. Tens of thousands died and millions more were made homeless. And many Turks blamed Erdogan for shoddy construction because he's accused of allowing developers to skirt safety rules. So it was an earthquake and a demand by voters that someone clean up corruption that brought Erdogan to power. And on Sunday, that same dynamic may sweep him out of power. But even before this, Erdogan was facing growing discontent.

HANSEN: People are hungry. People cannot afford meat. They can't afford food. They can't afford diapers. They can't afford, you know, basic things, the basic vegetables for the Turkish diet. You know, they're really struggling. I mean, 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. They see this contradiction. And I heard from so many people that they were going to change their vote this time.

FADEL: Erdogan has what looks like the advantage in this election. He still has a loyal base of support. He controls much of the media. He has almost full control of every branch of government. But that power has also united his opponents in a deeply polarized Turkey.

HANSEN: Six different parties are aligned against him. Those voters range from secularists to right-wing nationalists, to Kurds, which is a very unusual alliance. And so for him, we're looking at the possibility that after over 20 years in power that he will lose. But very few people think that he will go easily or quietly. If he loses, he would be facing at least half of the country that has been very angry at him for a long time.

FADEL: That was Suzy Hansen, a journalist who's covered Turkey for over a decade, and Soner Cagaptay. He's the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. On Sunday, if no one gets more than half the vote, there will be a runoff on May 28.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADVILLAIN AND FOUR TET'S "GREAT DAY (FOUR TET REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.