Early in his political career, a devastating earthquake and economic troubles helped propel Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power in Turkiye. Two decades later, similar circumstances are putting his leadership at risk.
The highly divisive and populist Erdogan is seeking a third consecutive term as president on May 14, after three stints as prime minister, which would extend his rule into a third decade. He already is Turkiye’s longest-serving leader.
The presidential and parliamentary elections could be the most challenging yet for the 69-year-old Erdogan. Most opinion polls point to a slight lead by his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the secular, centre-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP. The outcome of the presidential race could well be determined in a runoff vote May 28.
Erdogan is facing a tough test in this election because of public outrage over rising inflation and his handling of the February 6 earthquake in southern Turkiye that killed over 50,000 people, levelled cities and left millions without homes. His political adversaries say the government was slow to respond and that its failure to enforce building codes is to blame for the high death toll.
Some even point to government malfeasance after a 1999 earthquake in northwestern Turkiye near the city of Izmit that killed about 18,000 people, saying that taxes imposed from that disaster were misspent and worsened the effects of this year’s quake.
The political party founded by Erdogan in 2001 came to power amid an economic crisis and the Izmit quake. His Justice and Development Party, or AKP, capitalised on public anger over government mishandling of the disaster, and Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and has never relinquished leadership of the country. Still, even with resentment directed toward Erdogan over his handling of the February quake and the economy, analysts caution against underestimating him, pointing to his enduring appeal among working- and middle-class religious voters who had long felt alienated by Turkiye’s former secular and Western-leaning elites. Erdogan’s nationalist policies, often confrontational stance against the West and moves that have raised Islam’s profile in the country continue to resonate among conservative supporters. They point to an economic boom in the first half of his rule that lifted many people out of poverty, adding that his past successes are proof of his ability to turn things around. “There is an economic crisis in Turkiye, we can’t deny it. And yes, this economic crisis has had a huge impact on us,” said Sabit Celik, a 38-year-old shop owner selling cleaning products in Istanbul. “But still, I don’t think anyone else (but Erdogan) can come and fix this.”