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Turkey's historic election - what's on the voters' minds?

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at an election rally in Istanbul on Saturday Reuters

Turkey faces historic elections for both its parliament and its presidency on Sunday. If President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reelected, the constitutional changes agreed in a referendum last year will come into effect, putting an official seal on his already predominant role in the nation’s politics.


But the incumbent has faced an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP) and could be forced to fight a second round on 8 July.

Ince has held huge rallies in the secular stronghold of Izmir and the capital, Ankara, and was due to address another in Istanbul on Saturday.

Erdogan toured the city on the same day.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which combines a pro-Islam agenda with free-market economic policies, could lose its majority in parliament, as it did in June 2015, only to win it back in a rerun in November. 

So what are the main issues in this tightly run contest?

  • The economy: The AKP won a reputation for good economic management when it came to power 16 years ago. It boosted growth, which is still at a healthy 7.4 percent.

But unemployment remains high and the growth has been fuelled by massive public spending, which critics claim has enriched Erdogan’s cronies, destroyed green spaces in cities and contributed to other problems. Inflation has now soared to over 12 percent and the currency, the lira, has plunged on the money markets. The current account deficit has also ballooned, which will lead to more problems in the near future, economists warn.

That is all bad news for consumers and for businesses and, although many AKP supporters accept Erdogan’s claim that the crisis is due to a foreign plot to unseat him, appears to be the main reason for the party losing support in opinion polls.

  • Authoritarianism: The constitutional changes, which were passed by a wafer-thin majority with the opposition claiming widespread vote fraud, change the presidency from a theoretically ceremonial post to the head of the government, abolishing the post of prime minister and parliament’s right to pass a vote of no confidence in a minister. The president will also have the right to issue decrees, within certain constitutional limits, and declare a state of emergency.

Turkey is, in fact, still under the state of emergency enacted after the 2016 coup attempt. Tens of thousands of people have been jailed or fired from their jobs for alleged links to the coup plotters or to “terrorists”, usually the separatist guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They include several MPs and other activists from the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including its presidential candidate, Selahattin Dermitas.

A clampdown on independent media started even before the coup, with newspapers and radio stations closed or bought up by government supporters and journalists arrested on terror or coup-plotting charges. That has affected the election campaign with Erdogan hogging the coverage. Ince claims that state-run broadcaster TRT has devoted 181 hours to the incumbent and just 15 to him. Demirtas has received even less coverage and has had to communicate with voters via social media postings on his wife’s and his lawyers’ cellphones.

Although all this enrages Erdogan’s opponents, his supporters consider him a democrat, who has risen from humble beginnings, survived a coup attempt and reaped the just rewards of a brilliant career.

  • Syrian refugees: The 3.5 million refugees in Turkey have become a campaign issue. Thirty thousand of them have been granted Turkish citizenship and will have the right to vote. One of them, Muhammed al-Sheikhouni, has changed his name to Erdogan and is standing as an AKP candidate.

Erdogan (the president) reached a deal with the European Union to keep the Syrians in return for three billion euros in aid, giving him a certain amount of leverage in Brussels.

But many voters have expressed resentment of the cash and housing provided to the refugees, leading opposition candidates to promise to send them home. Right-wing nationalist Meral Aksener has said she would send them all back. At Thursday’s rally in Izmir, Ince said he would restore ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and appoint an ambassador to Damascus within 10 days of being elected.

“With peace policies we will send four million Syrians to Syria with the sound of drums and pipes,” he said.

Erdogan has also taken up the question, saying that 200,000 have already returned to areas that Turkey has captured from anti-Assad Kurdish militias and pledging to continue the military campaign.

“Right after the election we aim to make all Syrian lands safe, starting from areas near our border, and to facilitate the return home of all our guests,” he said in a speech in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep, which is near the Syrian border.