Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured, onstage), gathered together hundreds of thousands of supporters in Istanbul last weekend in a show of power ahead of Sunday’s general election. At the same time, in the Anatolian city of Erzurum, Erdogan’s supporters pelted Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s mayor and an influential opposition figure, with stones and water bottles. Over more than 20 years in power, the president has cultivated a fanatical support base that will not countenance his defeat. He has also seized control of nearly every lever of state power. He is expected to try to manipulate or heavily contest the results of the elections if they aren’t in his favour. Erdogan’s opponents are on course to beat him for the first time in a generation: polls show Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition, marginally ahead, though he might not be able to win outright in the first round of voting.
In an example of the sort of tactics being employed, the police did not step in to stop the organised attack at Imamoglu’s rally in Erzurum until the mayor had been forced to retreat into his bus. Nine people were injured, among them children. Suleyman Soylu, the interior minister, then accused Imamoglu of having been the provocateur.
This sort of behaviour is supposed to signify strength but it shows how desperate Erdogan’s campaign team has become. Facing sky-high inflation and in the aftermath of catastrophic earthquakes, the president has little to offer but division. Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, has brought together a broad coalition and is promoting a message of unity – an approach that is playing well with Turkey’s youth, as well as Kurds and other minorities.
When Imamoglu returned to Istanbul from Erzurum, he was met by thousands of people who had rushed to the airport to greet him. “We are winning!” he declared to the ecstatic crowd from the top of a bus. Incredibly, his words might be more than mere rhetoric this time.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is Monocle’s Istanbul correspondent. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.