Sunday June 3 saw a Turkish election that upended the status quo: a heavyweight leader, boasting two decades of experience and an entourage of supporters and benefactors to match, was voted out of office.
His replacement—arriving by a landslide—was a plucky, youthful insurgent, riding a wave of fragmented, but popular disenchantment with the ancien régime.
The election for the chairmanship of Fenerbahce, one of Istanbul’s oldest and biggest football clubs, was remarkable just in itself.
Aziz Yildirim was a businessman who had been in office so long few could remember anyone else ever being in charge. He embodied the team’s spirit, so much so that he served a prison sentence for it—on charges of match-fixing—only to emerge more bullish and popular.
And yet on Sunday, Yildirim left the election hall without even waiting for the result to be declared. It was an ignoble end to a lengthy reign.
Could it be a case of country following club? The parallels with Turkey’s presidential election, which will be held on June 24, are brazen.
There’s the strongman leader in Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2002 (and, as it happens, a soccer-mad Fenerbahce supporter), whose own earlier stint in prison for reading incendiary poetry did no harm to his popularity. He is someone nobody can truly imagine losing.
There’s the fragmented, popular disenchantment: a vast minority of millions across the country, hailing from different backgrounds, lists opposition to Erdogan as the one sure thing that unites them.
And then there’s not one but five opposing candidates, two with a significant chance of taking this election to a second round in which the single issue could be the president himself.
Make no mistake: this election is still Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s to lose.
The Turkish president has vast resources, controls most of the media and—it must be said—still commands significant personal support among voters. He has dominated newspaper headlines, of course, and his every utterance is still plastered over television news bulletins every evening.
But there’s no disguising his campaign has so far been lacklustre.
His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is fighting the parliamentary side of these elections, as it has done most of this decade, on its substantial record of achievement and delivery in office. It is true that, if you look at just about any objective quality of life measure in Turkey, it will have improved vastly since 2002.
But as the real economy begins to pinch, AKP’s headline pledges to defend Jerusalem for the Palestinians or to bombard Kurdish strongholds in northern Iraq are sounding like foreign adventures that forget the plight of ordinary voters.
The sense that the party is aloof and out of touch is wider than ever before. It was partly demonstrated by the president himself when he abruptly halted a televised speech mid-sentence, like a faulty tannoy, and kept his audience waiting as he summoned an aide and chided him. He had no notes in hard copy, nor did he attempt to speak off the cuff. He just stopped; he knew his audience would keep.
If this were an election in a healthy democracy, which it is not, the talk would not be about who could challenge Erdogan in a second round, but whether he could reach that ballot at all.
The talk would also be about his two biggest challengers: Muharrem Ince, nominated by the centre-left secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Meral Aksener, who hails from a more conservative, nationalist background.
Like the Fenerbahce challenger, both are running energetic campaigns that criss-cross the country for rallies and rely heavily on social media to reach voters.
Both say they are the surest bet to defeat Erdogan in a second round, which will take place if no candidate gets 50% of the vote.
Of the two, Ince is likelier to get there. A perennial challenger for the CHP leadership until he was gifted the party’s presidential nomination in April, he has surprised observers with his assertive campaign and relaxed demeanour.
In his television appearances, far from expressing gratitude at a rare opportunity to appear on screen, he has defiantly taken television interviewers to task for posing questions they would never dare ask the president
It was he who turned Erdogan’s teleprompter mishaps into a campaign issue.
“I don’t need a piece of glass to tell me what to say,” he has taken to telling his supporters.
But Aksener is a keen campaigner too and, after a shaky start, has shaped into the very plucky insurgent guise adopted by Fenerbahce’s new chairman, the Harrow boarding school and Harvard-educated Ali Koc, the youngest son of Turkey’s richest family.
For her, the greatest struggle has been to find airtime: she has largely been ignored by the newspapers and broadcasters whose owners are loyal to the president.
This is part of Erdogan’s attempt to shape this as a campaign between himself and Ince—as right versus left, traditionalism against socialism.
The conservative Aksener, too close to his home turf, has barely ever been named by the president. She says this makes her the likelier to attract disenchanted Erdogan supporters in a second round.
But Ince is elbowing in on that ground too, making much of his mosque-visiting tendencies and his humble Anatolian upbringing.
There is still nothing to suggest for sure that Turkey will be forced to a second round of voting a fortnight after June 24—but it is more likely than anyone thought it would be.
Koc’s Fenerbahce victory has shown that insurgents can at least hope of triumph.
Michael Daventry is a journalist who runs the Turkish political analysis website JamesInTurkey.com