Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey are shaping up to be a referendum on the long tenure of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the country’s dominant politician over the last two decades.
Mr. Erdogan, 69, has led Turkey since 2003, when he became prime minister. At the start, he was widely hailed as an Islamist democrat who promised to make the predominately Muslim country and NATO member a bridge between the Muslim world and the West. But more recently, critics have accused him of mismanaginga deep economic crisis.
Now, Mr. Erdogan, who has long staved off challengers with a fiery populist style, finds himself in an extremely tight race as he seeks a third five-year term as president.
What’s at stake?
At the top of voters’ concerns is the reeling economy. Inflation, which surpassed 80 percent last year but has since come down, has severely eroded their purchasing power.
The government has also been criticized for its initially slow response to the catastrophic earthquakes in February, which left more than 50,000 people dead. The natural disaster raised questions about whether the government bore responsibility, in part, for a raft of shoddy construction projects across the country in recent years that contributed to the high death toll.
The election could also affect Turkey’s geopolitical position. The country’s relations with the United States and other NATO allies have been strained as Mr. Erdogan has strengthened ties with Russia, even after its invasion of Ukraine last year.
When Mr. Erdogan first became prime minister in 2003, many Turks saw him as a dynamic figure who promised a bright economic future. And for many years, his government delivered. Incomes rose, lifting millions of Turks into the middle class as new airports, roads and hospitals were built across the country. He also reduced the power of the country’s secular elite and tamed the military, which had held great sway since Turkey’s founding in 1923.
But in more recent years, and especially since he became president in 2014, critics have accused Mr. Erdogan of using the democratic process to enhance his powers, pushing the country toward autocracy.
All along, Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party remained a force at the ballot box, winning elections and passing referendums that allowed Mr. Erdogan to seize even more power, largely with the support of poorer, religiously conservative voters.
But economic trouble began around 2014. The value of the national currency eroded, foreign investors fled and, more recently, inflation spiked.
A master of self-preservation, Mr. Erdogan earned a reputation for marginalizing anyone who challenged him. After an attempted coup in 2016, his government jailed tens of thousands of people accused of belonging to the religious movement formerly allied with Mr. Erdogan that the government accused of cooking up the plot to oust him. More than 100,000 others were removed from state jobs.
Today, Turkey is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.
Who is running?
Mr. Erdogan faces stiff competition from a newly unified opposition that has appealed to voters’ disillusionment with his stewardship of the economy and what they call his push for one-man rule. They are backing a joint candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a retired civil servant who has vowed to restore Turkish democracy and the independence of state bodies like the central bank while improving ties with the West.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu is the leader of the Republican People’s Party.
Recent polls suggest a slight edge for Mr. Kilicdaroglu, 74, who is campaigning in opposition not only to Erdogan’s polices, but also to his brash style. He has fashioned himself as a steady Everyman and has pledged to retire after one term to spend time with his grandchildren.
“The opposition has made a pretty good case that Turks have suffered economically because of Mr. Erdogan’s mismanagement,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkey scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Other candidates include Muharrem Ince, who split from the Republican People’s Party to found the Homeland Party. Votes for him and another candidate, Sinan Ogan, could prevent either of the two front-runners from winning an outright majority, which would lead to a runoff on May 28.
Will these elections be free and fair?
As in previous elections, Mr. Erdogan has used his expanded presidential powers to try and tilt the playing field in his favor.
In recent months, he has increased the minimum wage, boosted civil servant salaries, increased assistance to poor families and changed regulations to allow millions of Turks to receive their government pensions earlier, all to insulate voters from the effects of rising prices.
In December, a judge believed to be acting in support of Mr. Erdogan barred the mayor of Istanbul, a potential presidential challenger at the time, from politics after convicting him of insulting public officials. The mayor has remained in office pending appeal.
This would not be the first time that potential opponents of Mr. Erdogan have been sidelined.
Selahattin Demirtas, of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, ran his presidential campaign from prison in 2018. The Turkish authorities have accused him of affiliation with a terrorist organization, but rights organizations have called his imprisonment politically motivated.
Turkey has fought a decades-long battle with Kurdish separatists in the country and considers them terrorists.
Mr. Demirtas’ party, the country’s third largest, has come under pressure from the constitutional court in the lead-up to the election. It is now running its campaign under a different party.
The news media, largely controlled by private companies loyal to the government, have “worked as loyal propaganda machines,” said Ms. Aydintasbas, saying pro-government journalists have downplayed the economic crisis and trumpeted Mr. Erdogan’s response to the earthquake crisis as heroic.
Voters will cast their ballots for the president and Parliament at polls across the country, which will open on Sunday at 8 a.m. local time and close at 5 p.m. Preliminary presidential results are expected later that evening, and parliamentary results on Monday.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes, the election will go to a runoff on May 28.
Gulsin Harman contributed reporting.