Recep Tayyip Erdogan stayed home for a third day today (April 28) as he sought to overcome an illness that caused a live TV interview with the Turkish president to be suddenly pulled from air, dealing a blow to his busy election campaign. As the day wore on the 69-year-old’s hopes of re-election took another hit when Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party and its leftist allies announced that they were calling on their voters to back Erdogan’s main rival in the May 14 presidential election, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The strongman populist president of two decades, a dynamic speaker who has always relied on whipping up crowds at endless rallies across the country ahead of key votes, in the past two days has attempted to compensate for his absence from the campaign trail by attending events by video link.
On April 27, a wan Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin made virtual appearances during a ceremony to mark the delivery of the first Russian nuclear fuel at Turkey’s under-construction Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the first phase of which is due to launch in 2024. Today brought an Erdogan appearance via video for the unveiling of a bridge in the southern Turkish city of Adana. News agencies reported him as looking more energised than he did during the online event with Putin and officials said he was preparing to attend a major rally in Ankara in person in two days on Sunday.
With the international media stepping up discussion of whether the Erdogan era is over amid what is the strongest challenge to his rule that he has ever faced, he will be anxious to return to his schedule of personal appearances. His fight is now against the very broad six-party Nation Alliance coalition bloc, spearheaded by 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu, backed, in the presidential contest at least (the parliamentary vote takes place simultaneously), by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The pro-Kurdish party carries some clout. It has the third highest number of lawmakers in Turkey’s parliament, based on taking around 10% of the vote.
When the election results come through on May 14, voters will hear whether Erdogan—said by officials to be suffering from gastroenteritis, a digestive problem that with treatment usually clears up in a few days—has managed to push the contest against Kilicdaroglu to a second-round head to head vote that would take place two weeks later. To do that, he needs to stop Kilicdaroglu from winning more than 50% of votes cast.
As things stand, Erdogan’s inability to go ahead with rallies has created more room for national TV channels to air rallies held by Kilicdaroglu. The usual scenario is the live broadcasting of a succession of events with Erdogan up on stage, with discussions of his speeches then dominating the country’s heavily pro-government media that control most of Turkey's airwaves and print.
The HDP, which last month opted not to field a presidential candidate of its own, had previously strongly hinted it would back Kilicdaroglu without officially endorsing his candidacy. However, both the party’s co-leader, Mithat Sancar, and its leftist electoral alliance issued a joint statement calling on voters to rally around Erdogan’s main opponent.
“In this historic election, we call on the people of Turkey to vote for the Labour and Freedom Alliance in the parliamentary elections and for Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the presidential elections,” the HDP and its allies said in a statement.
Sancar called the upcoming vote “the most crucial in Turkey’s history”. The fear among Erdogan’s opponents is that if he is not removed from the Ankara presidential palace, he will extend his one-man-rule to squeezing the life out of any democratic institutions the country can be said to still have left.
Since the start of the massive Erdogan crackdown that followed the failure of the July 2016 coup attempt, Turkey has jailed thousands of Kurdish and other activists and replaced dozens of elected HDP mayors with state trustees after accusing them of having ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), outlawed as a terrorist group that has fought a war of insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
Erdogan portrays the HDP as the political wing of the PKK, though the party denies any of the alleged “terror” ties. The possibility of the courts banning the party from running candidates in the election has forced the HDP to run its parliamentary candidates under the banner of a new party, the Party of Greens and the Left Future.
“We have two strategic goals,” Sancar added. “The first is to end the one-man regime. And the second is to become the most influential force in the democratic transformation. Our goals coincide with Kilicdaroglu’s on ending the one-man regime,” he said.
The Kilicdaroglu-led alliance is a diverse mix of liberals and nationalists and an ultraconservative party. The breadth of the opposition is said to be a reaction to the descent of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) into oppressive rule. On April 28, AFP published a feature exploring how even many conservative Turkish women could turn their backs on the president on polling day.