The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facing toughest election in years, Turkey’s Erdogan lashes out

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Friday. (Dilara Senkaya/Reuters)
6 min

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unleashed a barrage of negative messaging in the weeks and days before Turkish elections, accusing his opponents of ties to “terrorist” groups and unnamed Western powers that he says are trying to divide the country.

His rhetoric, more rancorous than any he has used in the past, reflects the pressures and peril of an election unlike any other he has faced during his two decades at Turkey’s helm, observers said.

His opponents say Erdogan’s language simply shows he is losing the race against his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Others have framed the campaign tactics, along with a flurry of financial enticements to the public and naked appeals to national pride, as signs of desperation.

All anyone can say for sure is that the race is too close to call, according to multiple polls. This raises the question of how Erdogan — a politician with generational political gifts and blessed with every advantage, from a loyal constituency to command over the country’s institutions and news media — could look so vulnerable ahead of Sunday’s vote.

One answer lies in his decision to formalize one-man rule during a referendum Erdogan called in 2017 that changed Turkey’s government from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The change allowed Erdogan, then prime minister, to stay in office longer and granted him expansive powers. But it had unintended consequences for the president, observers said.

It ensured that Erdogan received the lion’s share of blame for national crises, including a years-long economic downturn that voters now say is their primary concern. And it helped unite a previously divided and moribund opposition movement that banded together in alarm at Erdogan’s accumulation of power.

Turkey elections: Erdogan’s challenger vows to end ‘authoritarian rule’

“He changed the nature of the political regime,” said Mesut Yegen, a researcher at the Reform Institute, an Istanbul think tank. “Except for military interventions, it’s the first time we passed through such an anti-democratic regime.” The opposition realized that “if he is not stopped, Turkey would end up” like other dictatorial countries, he said.

“It was a cardinal political error,” said Soner Cagaptay, the author of several books on Erdogan, referring to the president’s decision to become Turkey’s “executive president.” “Before, he was blessed with an opposition who hated each other more than they hated Erdogan,” Cagaptay said. Since then, “he helped the opposition bridge every fault line of Turkish politics — secular, Kurdish, Turkish, right and left,”

Erdogan called the 2017 referendum less than a year after he survived an attempted coup. In the aftermath, his government carried out a massive purge of government institutions, along with a sweeping campaign of arrests that targeted the coup plotters but also opposition members, journalists and dissidents.

Erdogan won the referendum by a narrow margin, amid allegations by the opposition and European observers that irregularities had marred the vote.

Opposition groups demanded that the vote be annulled, a demand Erdogan easily dismissed. “Debate about this issue is now over,” he said a day after the referendum.

In divided Turkey, president defends victory in referendum granting new powers

Today, Turkey’s opposition is stronger, more cohesive and harder to dismiss. Kilicdaroglu, the head of the centrist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, is formally allied with five other parties, including a center-right nationalist party and two parties headed by former allies of Erdogan. Another large opposition party — the Kurdish-led Peoples Democratic Party, or HDP — is also supporting Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan has seized on the HDP’s support for his challenger, which could deliver millions of votes to Kilicdaroglu, to accuse the opposition of links to a banned Kurdish group.

“Those who have an alliance with terrorism cannot have an alliance with the nation,” Erdogan said in the southeastern city of Mardin on Wednesday, in comments that have become a staple of his stump speech. “We have never allowed any power other than our nation to attempt to divide our geography of destiny and to use terror as a means to this.”

To shore up support among religious conservatives, Erdogan and his allies have also accused the opposition of supporting LGBTQ people.

“The thing called LGBT is a poison, once introduced into the family institution,” Erdogan said Thursday during a televised town hall meeting with young people after a question about whether he was using “divisive or polarizing language” in his campaign.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister and later as president. Until a little more than a decade ago, his campaign rhetoric was largely positive, but that started to change after the coup attempt, Yegen said, when he started to run “mixed campaigns” that attacked opponents.

His current bid for reelection has leaned on blistering assaults, tarring the opposition as backed by terrorists or “Western imperialists,” Yegen said. The only positive note was Erdogan’s rhetoric about a “new century” in Turkey defined by its self-reliance, as exhibited by its domestic defense and car industry. But that appeal was “vague, abstract,” Yegen said.

“What is important for many people — much more important for many people — are the prices in the market, of onions, of cheese, of milk,” Yegen said. “These are high. And since the pandemic, he has been unsuccessful in reducing the prices.”

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

Some voters who had supported Erdogan in the past have said in recent weeks that their yes vote in the 2017 referendum, granting him executive powers, was a mistake, based on his handling of the economy, which has suffered from soaring inflation and the collapse of the local currency.

Erdogan has tried to address such concerns with a wave of public spending in the months before the election and the announcement of populist measures in recent weeks, including significant pay raises for public workers and the provision of free gas.

The moves suggested panic, analysts said, and may not be enough to shift the public mood in his favor. “He criticized populist governments before him,” Yegen said. “What’s important is that people are not ready to buy it anymore.”

It has not helped that Erdogan’s recent attempt to restore credibility to his economic policies — by reportedly recruiting a well-regarded former economic minister to his team — failed when the former minister refused to come aboard. The refusal highlighted the criticism that the president’s authoritarian policies had frozen talented people out of government and left him listening to few voices but his own.

At the town hall meeting Thursday — an attempt to show that Erdogan was addressing the concerns of young people, an important voting bloc — he was asked about criticism that there was a “shadow” over the independence of Turkey’s judiciary, one of the institutions that fell further under the president’s sway after the referendum.

“My sister, it is not possible for me to agree with this,” he said to his questioner. “Those who say that the law has become politicized are obliged to prove the claim in law.”

“Especially that Mr. Kemal,” he added, referring to Kilicdaroglu, his opponent. “He lies, morning until night.”