Sultans rarely give up power voluntarily. This means if Recep Tayyip Erdogan fails to win this weekend’s elections we are likely to see a test of how deep the roots of Turkish democracy are.

Erdogan’s 20-year grip on power is threatened because at last the majority of the bitterly divided opposition parties have agreed on a single candidate to take him on. His main challenger for the presidency is the 74-year-old leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He’s an uncharismatic but sober bureaucrat who has run an intelligent campaign which contrasts with his opponent’s bellicose rhetoric.

The first round of voting is on Sunday. If no one wins outright there will be a run-off two weeks later between the two candidates with the most votes.

The question of whether Erdogan would accept defeat arises because during his rule, he has brought the judiciary, parliament, the universities, most of the media, and the military under his control. He is head of state, head of government, and leader of the ruling party.

A Kilicdaroglu presidency would clean house, leaving the senior echelons of the state institutions fearing for their jobs, and some, given their venal corruption, their freedom.

The President has shown he is not afraid to try and overturn an election result. In 2019, after his AKP party lost the mayoral vote in Istanbul, he strong-armed the Supreme Court to back a flimsy case in order to have the local elections re-run. Public outrage resulted in an increased vote for the opposition.

Erdogan is pulling out all the stops. This week he announced the raising of public sector salaries by 45%, a popular move in a country with inflation at 43 per cent. He’s also allowing young people 10GB of free data a month, although that has sparked the opposition joke that it can’t be used because he’s shut down all the useful internet sites.

There is a darker side to the campaigning. In a historic moment for Turkey, Kilicdaroglu openly declared himself an Alevi in a video release. His faith (an offshoot of Shia Islam) was no secret, but it is extremely rare for a high-profile Alevi to openly state their identity as they fear discrimination in a majority Sunni Muslim state. Alevis are the country’s biggest religious minority (18 per cent) and in the last century suffered several massacres. The video was viewed 100 million times in three days.

Erdogan, who in previous years had tried to draw attention to Kilicdaroglu’s faith, saying he “comes from Alevi culture” now tried to argue he was inciting sectarian politics. A few days later he went in – studs up. Alevis often have a relatively liberal position on gender equality, and homosexuality. Erdogan has called the latter perverted and deviant. In a speech he attacked the opposition saying: “They are against our sacred family structure… May 14 will be the day to teach a lesson to those who support LGBT and violence against women.” His Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, said: “Now Kilicdaroglu says, ‘I am on the true path of Muhammad and Ali’. Then I ask, ‘Is there any LGBT on the path of Muhammed and Ali.'” He has also compared the election to a western “political coup attempt”.

Sunday also sees parliamentary elections which like the presidential race is also a tight race. Here Erdogan has tried to ensure an advantage by moving the goalposts. Last year, anticipating that the opposition might come together, the rules were changed. Previously seats were apportioned via aggregate votes which favoured a coalition of parties. Now the party with the single most votes is favoured, and that party will almost certainly be… Erdogan’s AKP.

His strategy is to ensure the AKP, and its coalition partner the People’s Alliance, maintain control of parliament while he gets enough votes to make it through to the second round of the presidential election. During the run-off campaign his control of media will pump the message that if Kilicdaroglu wins Turkish politics will be gridlocked. His “apres moi – le deluge” narrative will come to the fore as the strongman demonstrates his strength.

The outcome matters both domestically and internationally. If 69-year-old Erdogan wins, he will probably be president for life and the last sparks of a plural open society will be extinguished. The drift from NATO may continue and Sweden’s accession to the alliance will still be in doubt. The sale of US F-16 jets will remain on hold, and Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system will still be a thorn in the side of US-Turkey relations.

If he loses, work can begin to return to the rule of law, reduce the powers of the presidency, and build back the parliamentary system. It would not be a complete change in foreign policy. The arguments with Greece and Cyprus would continue but the tone would be much less hostile, and the rhetoric toned down.

Despite economic mismanagement, the scandal of the earthquake aftermath, and because of the continuing drift to authoritarianism, Erdogan may not be finished. The coming fortnight is likely to be tumultuous.

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