Turkey elections: Are voters ready to move on from Erdogan?

A faltering economy could spell trouble for Turkey’s president after two decades in power

Pedestrians pass by a banner bearing the face of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in Istanbul on April 26. Turkey will be holding presidential elections on May 14, with incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan potentially facing the biggest challenge yet to his hold on office. (Nicole Tung for The Washington Post)
7 min

ISTANBUL — For Kemal Sen, a locksmith, the two issues that mattered most to him as he prepared to cast his vote in a critical Turkish election were “stability and the economy,” though he seemed most concerned with his wallet.

“Our buying power is less, as it is in most of the world, but I think it’s hurt Turkey more,” he said.

In interviews across Istanbul, many voters expressed similar anxiety about the state of their finances ahead of pivotal presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 that have caught an uneasy country at a moment of colliding calamities — including stubborn economic hardship and the aftermath of deadly earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people and left large parts of the its south in ruins.

In an election being closely watched around the world — one that could have consequences for Turkey’s ties with Europe, the Middle East and the United States, as well as for conflicts from Syria to Ukraine — many voters are preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues. Their concerns have left Turkey’s longtime leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69, facing an unusually unified band of opposition parties and more vulnerable to a challenge than at any time during his two decades in power.

Erdogan had to be defeated, some voters said, citing concerns such as a deficit of freedom and democracy, the influx of refugees or rising violence against women. Even some supporters said he deserved censure, though they were not sure he should be replaced. They were united in their concerns about the economy, marked over the past few years by soaring inflation and the collapse of Turkey’s currency.

Last year, “if you were able to buy 10 kilos of meat, now you can only afford eight kilos,” said Sen, who is 39 and married with four daughters. Goods that were imported at his store had become more expensive because of the exchange rate. Though he criticized Erdogan for the state of the economy, he was “hopeful” that the worst of the crisis had passed.

“I would like for Erdogan to win one more time, even if it is the last time, at least for the country to get back to stability,” he said — a term that for him included Erdogan’s focus on making Turkey a military power that produced its own defense hardware.

Erdogan “does have his issues, but I don’t find his opponent to be a real opponent,” he said, referring to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year old, soft-spoken former civil servant who is the chosen candidate of the six opposition parties.

“All they do is criticize what Erdogan does and they don’t say anything productive,” he said.

Duygu Celik, 44, was a homemaker until eight months ago, when high inflation forced her to find work as a cleaner in a stationery shop to provide her family with extra income.

She blamed the faltering economy on “Syrians and other foreigners” who had settled in Turkey. “This is not an issue of racism for me,” she said. “I know that they’ve had a war in their country. But I don’t find it right that they’re here. For example, I can’t pay 14,000 lira in rent,” she said, or about $720 per month. “I earn minimum wage, which is 8,500 lira [per month]. And my husband also works. We have a student in university. We barely make ends meet.”

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Her son, in university, was eligible to travel abroad for an exchange program, “but we can’t afford that,” she said. She was more anguished that her son wanted to leave Turkey for good. “I want him to live here, and add things to our country here.” The reason her son wanted to emigrate, she said, was “Erdogan.”

She had voted for Erdogan in the past but had become dismayed by allegations of government corruption — over the possibility that some were “perhaps putting stuff in their pockets.”

“It’s hard for me to say this as someone who has previously voted for them,” she said. “I am not going to be voting for them again.” Her preferred candidate was Muharrem Ince, a former high school physics teacher who previously ran and lost against Erdogan. His candidacy has caused consternation among other opposition groups, who fear he could split the anti-Erdogan vote.

Celik said she most regretted voting in Erdogan’s favor during a 2017 referendum that granted him broad powers and changed Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential system. “One person should not be running the entire country,” she said.

Hatice Ozaydin, 68, bought a stationery shop in Istanbul’s Sirinevler neighborhood with her son three years ago, as the economy started tumbling. She doubts they would have been able to afford it today. “Everything is so expensive — vegetables, restaurants,” she said.

She didn’t know the reasons for the economic downturn and rising inflation, she said, but “it’s never happened like this before. It was never like it is now.”

As she spoke, the roar of fighter jets could be heard overheard, one of several demonstrations of military strength that Erdogan has used to appeal to voters.

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She had no sympathy for Turkey’s political opposition, claiming they were affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — an apparent reference to support Kilicdaroglu has received from a major pro-Kurdish opposition party. In recent weeks, Erdogan and his allies have relentlessly tried to tar the opposition, accusing them of links to terrorism and sympathy with LGBTQ people.

As for her vote, Ozaydin said, “I am going to give it to Erdogan again, even if the economy is bad.”

In a square in Sirinevler, near the metro-bus station that commuters use to travel to central Istanbul, Nuri Bora Demir, 28, said the election made him think about “the difference, in just a few years, in my living standard.” Demir, who works at a customs company, is married with an infant son.

Turks like him used to plan vacations, he said. “Now I can’t afford to buy anything.”

In Turkey’s current environment, he said, there was a lack of opportunity for people his age. College graduates could only look forward to state jobs, as police officers, or “cashiers at Burger King,” he said. “It all goes back to the economy,” he said. But the election would not necessarily solve anything. “When I look at my age group, I don’t see a candidate for us.”

“If you look at the candidates,” he said, “they are all pretty old.”

The main issue in the election “is actually freedom, for me,” said Yunus Emre Hasbek, 24, as he sat with friends outside Bahcesehir University in the city’s Besiktas neighborhood.

“Press independence,” added his friend Said, 22, who declined to give his last name.

“The economy,” said Ilayda Erdem, 21. “There are issues with nepotism,” she added, saying Turkey was no longer a “meritocracy.”

They had lived all their lives under one leader, and for the sake of their freedom, wanted a change. “You can’t say anything about Erdogan,” Said said.

“Less government control” was Hasbek’s main hope. “Almost no control,” he added.