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Lackluster Erdogan Campaign Faces Rejuvenated Opposition in Turkey


A supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen at a rally in Istanbul’s Uskudar district. (D. Jones/VOA)

Ahead of the general and presidential elections set for June 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged his ruling AKP could lose its parliamentary majority. The rare admission comes as missteps and a perceived lackluster performance have beset Erdogan's campaign.

Last Sunday, Erdogan mobilized more than a million supporters for his main Istanbul rally. The mass turnout was a rare high point in the president’s campaign. Attendance at Erdogan meetings has been much lower than in previous campaigns.

According to reports, several Erdogan meetings were delayed because of the poor turnout, a claim denied by the AKP. Erdogan is reported to have at times reprimanded those who turned up for their lack of enthusiasm.

“The AKP performance has been strangely below what we have seen in past elections; that may be due to election fatigue,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based Edam research group. “It may also be due to the centralization of power (in the party), so everything is expected from the top. And the grass roost dynamism which we used to see is far less visible.”

Party reorganization

Just months before calling snap elections, Erdogan instigated a major overhaul of his party, purging hundreds of officials.

“The new (party) organization is mostly chosen for loyalty to Erdogan. Their synergy with the remaining remembers and grassroots is yet to be established,” analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said.

The party overhaul removed many popular officials, especially in central Turkey’s provincial towns and cities, known as Anatolia. The region provides Erdogan with many of his most loyal supporters, who supported the president last year in narrowly passing a referendum to extend his powers.

With opinion polls indicating the elections have become too close to call, another strong turn out in Anatolia will be vital to Erdogan’s success. But that may not be guaranteed. “People in Anatolia see that the AKP is not working too hard. In general, the AKP is demoralized, which is encouraging the (opposition) CHP,” Yesilada said.

A supporter of Muharrem Ince, pictured left, the presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, waves a Turkish flag prior to one of his rallies, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 16, 2018.
A supporter of Muharrem Ince, pictured left, the presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, waves a Turkish flag prior to one of his rallies, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 16, 2018.

In scenes reminiscent of the 1970s, the main opposition center-left CHP presidential challenger, Muharrem Ince, has drawn large crowds in rallies across central Turkey, in some cases surpassing Erdogan.

Low energy

Analysts say Erdogan’s performance has also been lackluster, in contrast to previous elections that he dominated; but, a series of uncharacteristic stumbles, including on more than one occasion appearing not to know where he was while addressing a crowd, and failure to ad lib when his teleprompter stopped working has been exploited by the opposition as signs of a failing leader.

Erdogan’s campaign has struggled to develop a coherent message. In one speech, the president declared people have prospered because the number who own refrigerators is now more than when he came to power. With a failing economy dominating the election, the opposition hit back, claiming many people can no longer afford to fill those refigerators.

Erdogan has found himself on the defensive against an invigorated opposition. Much of the president’s campaign has seen him reacting, rather than setting, the agenda.

“The opposition has been uncharacteristically successful and intelligent in how it orchestrates its campaign. And the opposition is more diverse, which makes it difficult for Erdogan,” analyst Ulgen said. Erdogan for the first time is campaigning against four strong candidates representing Turkey's entire political spectrum.

Adding to Erdogan’s woes, he is fighting his first election without the guiding hand of Erol Olcok, who masterminded numerous successful electoral victories for Erdogan. But Olcok and his 16-year-old son, Abdullah Tayyip Olcok, died resisting a failed coup in 2016.

Observers point out AKP voters are remarkably loyal. With more than half the electorate under the age of 30, many voters have only supported Erdogan.

But the growing fear in Erdogan’s camp, is his voters failing to vote. “The elections results we will see on June 24, may directly be determined by voter turnout,” wrote columnist Mehmet Acer in the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak newspaper. Ominously Acer went on to warn of the danger of chaos if Erdogan fails to win.

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