Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan faces his biggest political challenge ever when the country votes this month. The opposition sees its best chance so far to end its two-decade rule and roll back its policies.
The presidential and parliamentary elections, on May 14 and possibly on May 28, will determine not only who leads Turkey, but also how the country will be governed, what direction the economy will take and what foreign policy will look like.
Erdogan, the longest-serving leader of modern Turkey, has propagated religious piety and low interest rates domestically, while asserting Turkish influence in the region and easing the NATO member’s ties with the west.
The election comes three months after earthquakes in southeastern Turkey killed more than 50,000 people.
Erdogan’s main challenger is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secularist Republican People’s party (CHP), which has the support of an alliance of six opposition parties.
Erdogan, the most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish Republic a century ago, and his Islamic-leaning AK Party have turned Turkey away from Ataturk’s secular blueprint.
Erdogan has also centralized power around an executive presidency, based in a 1,000-room palace on the outskirts of Ankara, which sets policy on Turkey’s economy, security, domestic and international affairs.
Critics of Erdogan say his government has muzzled dissenters, eroded rights and brought the justice system under its control, a charge denied by officials who say it has protected citizens from unique security threats, including a 2016 coup attempt.
Economists say Erdogan’s calls for low interest rates pushed inflation last year to a high of 85% in 24 years, and the lira has fallen to a tenth of its value against the dollar over the past decade.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has exercised military power in the Middle East and beyond, making four incursions into Syria, launching an offensive against Kurdish militants in Iraq, and sending military support to Libya and Azerbaijan.
Turkey also experienced a series of diplomatic clashes with regional powers Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and a stalemate with Greece and Cyprus over the maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean, until two years ago it reversed course and sought rapprochement with some of its rivals.
Erdogan’s purchase of Russian anti-aircraft defenses led to U.S. arms industry sanctions against Ankara, while his rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin led critics to question Turkey’s involvement in the Western defense alliance NATO. Ankara’s objections to Sweden and Finland’S NATO membership applications have also raised tensions.
However, Turkey has also brokered a deal to export Ukrainian wheat, underscoring the potential role Erdogan has played in efforts to end the war in Ukraine. It is not clear whether a successor would enjoy the same profile as he has created on the world stage, a point that he is likely to highlight in the election campaign.
The two main opposition parties, the secularist CHP and the centre-right nationalist IYI Party, have united with four smaller parties in a platform that reverses many of Erdogan’s signature policies.
They have pledged to restore the independence of the central bank and reverse Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies. They would also dismantle his presidency in favour of the former parliamentary system and return Syrian refugees.
They also want to improve relations with Western allies, including the United States, and return Turkey to the F-35 fighter program, from which it was excluded after the purchase of Russian missile defence equipment.
Analysts believe that the policy promised by the opposition can stimulate foreign investment.
Erdogan supported failed attempts to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, while hosting at least 3.6 million Syrian refugees who are increasingly unwelcome at a time of economic hardship in Turkey.
The opposition has repeated Erdogan’s plans to return a number of refugees to Syria, but neither has indicated how that could be done safely.