Stakes high in Turkish election, for Erdogan and the country

NEW YORK — Turks will head to the polls Sunday to elect a new president and Parliament, and the stakes will be high for both the country and its leader.

Two months ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to have both votes locked up. But thanks to a tanking economy and an unexpectedly spirited performance by the opposition, the race is proving tighter than expected both for him and his Justice and Development Party.

The presidential race could be close if Erdogan does not win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, which would prompt a second round, on July 8.


If that happens, most of the main opposition candidates have indicated they will rally around his remaining challenger, who might have enough support for a narrow victory.

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For a decade and a half, Erdogan has increasingly governed as a strongman, first as prime minister and then, since 2014, as head of state. In that time, he has transformed the country into a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle East, while eroding much of its internal democratic infrastructure.

In the international arena, Turkey has become a major actor in the Syrian war, a crucial player in the attempts to curb the European migration crisis, and an unreliable ally to the United States and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Until now, Erdogan has been a ceremonial head of state, exerting his will on Turkey through force of personality rather than constitutional right. But if he retakes the presidency, he will be formally granted sweeping new executive powers, effectively codifying into law the authoritarian way in which he has informally governed Turkey.

On Sunday, Turkey will turn from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential one, because of a constitutional referendum that passed narrowly last year amid accusations of vote-rigging.


The new system will abolish the post of prime minister and transfer executive power to the president, give the newly empowered president the right to issue decrees and exert far greater influence over the judiciary and the civil service.

The new version of the Parliament will have some ability to curb the president’s actions. But if Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party win both the presidential and parliamentary elections, power will be centralized in an manner unprecedented in Turkey’s democratic history.

“We’re moving in full force into a new system — some would call it a new regime,” said Soli Ozel, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

Turkey has been under a state of emergency for almost two years, since a failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016. And that has allowed the government to tilt the playing field in his favor.

One presidential candidate — Selahattin Demirtas, of the pro-Kurdish opposition group, the Peoples’ Democratic Party — has had to run his campaign from jail. He has been imprisoned on politicized charges for nearly two years, along with several of his lawmakers and dozens of his party’s local officials.


Under the state of emergency, political intimidation has become routine, government opponents have been accused of terrorism, and press freedom and the right to protest have been significantly curtailed.