Promises of greater democracy, social justice and improved living standards were greeted by cheers as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered his election manifesto to flag-waving supporters on Sunday.
Although scarce on policy detail, his speech outlined a vision for the country beyond the snap parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24.
As he paced the stage at a sports hall in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district, Erdogan told members of his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that he would make Turkey a great world power; tackle corruption and poverty; forge an independent foreign policy; strengthen government; and bolster judicial independence.
He also focused on reining in the current account deficit, double-digit inflation and interest rates.
“The president delivered a speech that was as vigorous and as high tempo as in the first years of his career,” Yasar Bas, a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Akit newspaper, wrote.
Of all the areas covered in the manifesto, the “most important was the concept of justice”, he added.
Turkey heads to the snap polls facing a number of challenges on different fronts.
However, the worsening economy is key and is widely seen as the reason why Erdogan brought forward elections originally scheduled for November 2019.
Ozer Sencar, chief executive of polling agency Metropoll, said Erdogan was targeting AK Party voters disillusioned with his management of the economy.
“Almost 60 percent of AK Party voters are firmly decided on him and will never leave the AK Party, but 30 to 40 percent have some dissatisfaction and 10 to 15 percent of these have said they will not vote for Erdogan in the coming election,” he said.
“He’s trying to convince them to stand behind him. These are people who prioritise a stable government and economy. They are politically conservative, centre-right and in the upper middle-income group. If the economy fails, they have a lot to lose.”
The president is known to pay personal attention to polling data and is said to base his speeches on the outcome of opinion surveys, Sencar said, describing the elections as the “most important Erdogan has faced in his career”.
The election campaign has seen Erdogan team up with a nationalist party, while opposition groups have formed an alliance in a bid to prevent him securing wide-ranging executive powers as Turkey transitions from a parliamentary to presidential system.
Timur Kuran, an economist and political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina, said manifesto promises such as independence for the judiciary echoed opposition concerns about the erosion of the rule of law since a failed coup attempt in 2016, in which 250 people were killed.
More than 160,000 people have been detained and a similar number dismissed from their jobs under a state of emergency introduced after the failed putsch and still in place across Turkey.
“My immediate impression is that he is promising to do many things that the opposition would like him to do and I think the majority of Turks would say he should have been doing for many years,” Kuran said.
“The manifesto speech appeared designed to draw some people back. People who think the curtailment of freedoms, the repression, the centralisation of power in Turkey has gone too far, that Turkey has become too divided. The manifesto itself seems designed to assure them.”
Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003, began his speech by invoking figures from Ottoman history as well as the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“Such references are consistent with Erdogan’s attempts to legitimise Turkey’s role as Sunni Muslim leader in the region … as well as to pay respect to voters from other parties who identify more with their country’s pre-Ottoman roots in Central Asian Turkic tribes,” Lisel Hintz, a Turkey specialist at Washington DC’s John Hopkins University, said.
“The usage of Mustafa Kemal’s chosen surname of Ataturk, which Erdogan eschewed until recently in favour of Turkey’s founder’s religio-military title ‘gazi’, also is in line with recent efforts to reach out to supporters of Ataturk’s party, the main opposition Republican People’s Party.
“Such laudatory language may sound flowery to outsiders, but can serve to stir nationalist sentiment in multiple audiences while also diverting attention away from the lack of a coherent policy package and the looming economic crisis.”
Another focus of Sunday’s speech was the indication that Turkey would launch further cross-border operations. Since August 2016, Turkey has conducted two major campaigns in northern Syria as well as continuing strikes in Iraq on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year war on Turkey.
The most recent campaign in Afrin, northwest Syria, against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which Turkey considers to a “terrorist group” with ties to the PKK – was declared a success and is seen by many as having bolstered the government’s nationalist credentials.
“This is something that the nationalists in the country, some in his camp and others in opposition, like,” Kuran said. “This is the way the campaign in Afrin was presented.”
However, Kuran noted that Turkey’s actions in Syria are limited by the United States and Russia. Success in Afrin was achieved with Russian agreement, while Erdogan has yet to pursue the YPG in Manbij, where they are accompanied by US forces.
A long-standing foreign policy goal that Erdogan reiterated was accession to the EU, which first Turkey applied to join in 1987. Talks are currently on hold amid European concern over the post-coup crackdown.
“Erdogan did a great deal in his early years to put Turkey on the road to candidacy and get talks started,” Kuran said. “He was making adjustments to get Turkey ready for planned EU reforms but it stalled and his rhetoric has turned against Europe.”
Since coming to power in 2002, the AK Party under Erdogan’s leadership has won four general elections and a presidential poll as well as last year’s referendum that saw the country narrowly vote to adopt a presidential model amid claims of voting irregularities.
The party’s slick electioneering, coupled with an often disjointed opposition as well as Erdogan’s personal appeal to a large segment of Turkish society, has largely been responsible for this success.
Under changes ushered in by the referendum, a victory next month would place executive power in the president’s hands and allow him to rule by decree.
“The political tradition Erdogan comes from attributes great significance to elections and electoral victories,” Selim Koru, a policy analyst at Ankara’s TEPAV think tank, said.
“It’s the way he establishes a bond with the people. When he criticises the opposition he says, ‘You’re unpopular, you lose elections’ and ‘I’m popular, I win elections and I deserve to rule’.
“Winning elections is important to him and to win legitimately.”