As Erdogan’s third term as prime minister draws to a close, he is favored to win the presidency comfortably when 50 million Turks go to the polls on August 10 to choose between him and two much lower-profile challengers.
The Turkish presidency is a largely ceremonial role, but Erdogan’s ambitions include moving the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and he is expected to be a much more activist president than has been customary.
Seeking to divert attention from the protests and graft allegations at home, he has focused attention in recent weeks to the situation in the Gaza Strip, galvanizing Turks’ sympathy for the Palestinian cause and doubling down on his harsh criticism of Israel, which he has compared to Nazi Germany.
Addressing the campaign’s biggest rally yet, a gathering of tens of thousands of supporters in Istanbul on Sunday, Erdogan went even further than before, suggesting that Israel was pursuing Nazi-style racial supremacy.
“Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target,” he said. “They kill women so that they will not give birth to Palestinians; they kill babies so that they won’t grow up; they kill men so they can’t defend their country.”
Erdogan predicted that the Israelis will in the end “drown in the blood they shed.”
Less than three years ago President Obama in an interview named Erdogan as one of five world leaders with whom he had been able to forge “friendships and the bonds of trust.” The Turk’s inclusion in the select group with the leaders of Britain, Germany, India and South Korea raised eyebrows, given Erdogan’s embrace of Hamas and policies supportive of both Iran and Syria’s Assad regime (before the latter relationship soured over the civil war).
In recent weeks the Obama administration has both criticized Erdogan for his Israel/Nazi rhetoric and turned to his government for help in getting Hamas to accept a ceasefire in Gaza.
Not long ago, Erdogan’s popularity was soaring in the Middle East, particularly as a result of his populist stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But he also threw his weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, and as the tide turned in Egypt and the military eventually ousted the Morsi administration 13 months ago his support has been waning – not just in Egypt, but also in other Arab countries where anti-Brotherhood sentiment is strong.
Autocratic policies at home aimed at silencing dissent, allegations of official corruption and illicit trade with Iran, and the quashing of street protests – which began with opposition to plans to replace a tree-lined public park in Istanbul with buildings including a shopping mall but quickly spread – have also dented Erdogan’s approval ratings.
A new Pew Research Center poll found that among Turkey and other key Middle Eastern populations, Erdogan’s popularity has dropped significantly from the high levels he enjoyed a year ago.
Not surprisingly, support among Egyptian respondents dropped by 26 percentage points, from 68 to 42 points. Erdogan aligned himself closely with the former Muslim Brotherhood government, called its July 2013 ousting a coup, and does not recognize the new government of President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.
Tellingly, support for Erdogan among Palestinians dropped by 19 percentage points – from 74 to 55 – possibly reflecting an anti-Hamas shift in sentiment in the Palestinian territories.
Among respondents in Jordan, support for Erdogan dropped from 75 points to 60, and in Turkey itself, from 62 percentage points to 51. Smaller declines were also recorded in Lebanon (54 to 49 points) and Tunisia (52 to 49 points).
Pew did not include Saudi Arabia in its poll, but had it done so it’s likely Erdogan would have fared poorly. The Gulf kingdom leads a loose anti-Muslim Brotherhood bloc that includes Egypt, Jordan and Gulf states with the exception of Qatar.
A divided Turkey
Inside Turkey itself, Pew polling found deep divisions in society, with more devout Muslims far more satisfied with Erdogan. Seventy-four percent of Muslims who said they pray five times or more a day agreed that the prime minister was “having a good influence on the way things are going in Turkey,” compared to just 25 percent of those who hardly ever pray.
Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since 2002 and he became prime minister the following year. Should the 60 year-old win Sunday’s election he will remain at the helm for at least five more years, and be eligible to run for a second term thereafter, meaning he could effectively rule Turkey for almost 22 years.
He faces two challengers whose campaigns have received significantly less coverage in Turkish media, especially the state-run broadcaster TRT, which critics have accused of serving as an Erdogan campaign mouthpiece.
The other candidates are Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an academic who served as head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from 2005 until stepping down last year, and Kurdish contender Selahattin Demirtas of the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party.
Ihsanoglu has been nominated by the two main opposition parties, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the party established by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The most recent Turkish polls give Erdogan a double-digit lead over second-placed Ihsanoglu, although if no candidate wins outright on Sunday, a run-off will be held a fortnight later.