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Rivals challenge Erdogan’s iron grip on eve of Turkey’s election

Even though Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has acquired a fervent voter base since he became prime minister in 2003 and then president in 2014, opponents ahead of the election on Sunday are proving that his victory is no longer a sure thing. Soner Cagaptay, author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” talks to Hari Sreenivasan about growing resistance to the regime.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tomorrow, voters in Turkey will decide whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not only be reelected but also gains sweeping new powers. Campaigning today, Erdogan once led the country's presidents since 2014, and before that as prime minister since 2003, said he will bring stability to Turkey. Erdogan faces five opponents in a tight race. Opposition parties claim Erdogan is trying to establish one man rule. Joining us now from Washington D.C. is Soner Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, a nonprofit research organization. Thanks for joining us. First, two things that voters are being asked to do tomorrow — we're looking at parliamentary elections and then we're looking at the kind of increased powers of the presidency. Let's talk about the second.

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    Sure thing. So voters are casting two ballots tomorrow, second for the presidency Mr. Erdogan who's already running Turkey for the last 16 years passed an amendment to the constitution last year, which increases is executive powers. So, if he wins the ballot tomorrow, he will become head of state, head of government, head of the police ,which is a national force in Turkey, head of military and head of ruling party. He will become the most powerful Turkish politician in recent memory, if not since when Turkey was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 at the end of World War One.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what happens to all the people that are getting elected into that parliament? Will they have any sort of a check or a balance on the presidency?

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    The Parliament does provide a check but executive powers are invested in the authority of Mr Erdogan and he also will control the legislative. if his party, Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins the elections, he will control the parliament. It will effectively turn into a rubber stamp parliament. I think the problem here is that he has delivered economic growth and built a base that loves him, a base of mostly conservatives. But he's also demonized and cracked down on demographics that are unlikely to vote for him from liberals to leftists. When you add these constituencies up, they make half of Turkey. So his challenge is that he might win the elections by a narrow margin or so but he faces a very divided electorate where half of the country adores him and the other half of the country loathes him.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are there any specific issues that are driving people to the polls is it about the economy or about education or about how Turkey is perceived in the world?

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    So Turkey used to have traditional fault lines — Left versus Right or Turkish nationalists versus Kurdish nationalists. I think the campaign showed to us that all of these are really meaningless in a Turkish context. Now there is only one fault line that trumps everything else and that is being pro or against Erdogan. And that is why his opposition was able to unite and that's why he faces really stiff competition. And at the same time the Opposition has raised not one but two or three perhaps really competent leaders who are challenging him starting with Mr. Ince was the leader the candidate for the main opposition party as well as the auctioneer who leads good party known as party in Turkish. And these are both significant competent candidates so he might win the elections. But the good news for Turkish democracy is that, the silver lining of the cloud rather, is that Mr Erdogan is going to face two very competent candidates coming from the right. And that's very significant because Turkey is basically a right wing country. So the fact that Mr. Erdogan challenges previously came from the left allowed him easily to defeat them. Now he faces Mrs. Aksener who comes from the right and Mr. Ince although his party's leftist politics is very right-wing in the Turkish context, he's conservative and pious. So I think Mr. Erdogan may win but he faces number one, a united opposition. And number two, very competent candidates who are going to challenge him going forward.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Will be interesting to watch tomorrow. Soner Cagaptay, thanks so much.

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    It's my pleasure. Thank you.

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