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.
His already difficult challenge at the polls became even tougher on Thursday when one of the race’s other three candidates dropped out, likely pushing more voters toward the president’s main challenger.
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 pushing Turkey toward one-man rule and exacerbating a 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?
The elections will set the future course for Turkey, which is one of the world’s 20 largest economies and a NATO ally of the United States.
Political analysts say that the outcome could echo far beyond Turkey’s borders. They place Mr. Erdogan in a class of leaders with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and former U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who both came to power through elections and then used their time in office to erode democratic institutions.
“This vote is not just going to determine the vote of the country,” Gonul Tol, the director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said this week. Speaking of Mr. Erdogan, she said, “If he loses power via elections, I think that will give people a lot of hope that the autocratic surge can be reversed.”
At the top of voters’ concerns is Turkey’s 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 catastrophic earthquakes in February that 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 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, and hampered the alliance’s efforts to expand.
When Mr. Erdogan 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 after 2013. The value of the national currency eroded, foreign investors fled and, more recently, inflation spiked.
A skillful politician and formidable orator, 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 autocratic tendencies. 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.
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 withdrawal of another candidate, Muharrem Ince, on Thursday will likely mean more votes for Mr. Kilicdaroglu. Mr. Ince is a former member of Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party, and many voters who intended to vote for him will now likely favor Mr. Kilicdaroglu.
That extra support could help Mr. Kilicdaroglu secure an outright majority on Sunday, making him the next president. If no candidate wins in the first round, the top two contenders will compete in a runoff on May 28.
Mr. Ince announced his withdrawal after sex tapes that purported to show him in compromising positions were spread on social media. Although he dismissed the images as fakes on Thursday, he still left the race. He did not endorse another candidate.
Also running is Sinan Ogan, who is not likely to get a large numbers of votes.
Will these elections be free and fair?
As in previous elections, Mr. Erdogan has used his expanded presidential powers to 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. Rights organizations have called his imprisonment politically motivated.
Turkey has fought a decades-long battle with Kurdish militants whom Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider terrorists.
Mr. Demirtas’s party, the country’s third largest, is a legal entity, although many of its members have been jailed and removed from office over the years over accusations of working with the militants.
The Turkish news media, which is largely controlled by private companies close to Mr. Erdogan, has given Mr. Erdogan much more airtime than the other candidates while avoiding cost-of-living issues and trumpeting 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 that evening, and parliamentary results on Monday.