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Erdogan iron grip on voters loosens

Erdogan at a rally in Istanbul on Saturday. (AFP)

Istanbul: When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called early elections two months ago, he seemed assured of victory. But as Sunday's vote approaches, the man who has transformed Turkey over 15 years in power appears increasingly vulnerable.

The question will be, just how vulnerable is he?

The vote will be watched far beyond Turkey's borders for what it will decide about the direction this country of 80 million - whether it continues down the path of populist authoritarianism with Erdogan, or takes a turn for democratic change.

A skillful politician with a fervent support base, Erdogan still leads in the polls. But dissatisfaction over a sudden downturn in the economy is spreading. So is alarm over Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism, which, if he wins, will be given even freer rein under a newly strengthened presidency.

"A strong Turkey needs a strong leader," Erdogan bellowed to the crowd of several hundred thousand in his final Istanbul campaign rally last Sunday.

"May God let us continue on this path by becoming more powerful."

Whether Erdogan can secure the outright victory he wants by gaining 50 per cent of the vote - avoiding a runoff - may depend on how deeply the wariness and unhappiness with his rule have unsettled his core supporters.

In particular, the collapse of agriculture, a plunge in the value of the lira and a sudden rise in food prices may deliver Erdogan a shock at the polls, Opposition party workers say. Much of the President's base of support has been among conservative rural people.

"I am hesitant this time," said Bulut, who sells fresh juice from a cart near Istanbul's ferry docks. He gave only his first name for fear of repercussions. He said he had voted for the governing party over the past 16 years but complained angrily about the deteriorating economy.

"No jobs," he said. "I am here for 22 years, it became worse gradually. Our money has no value anymore."

If 7 to 8 per cent of formerly loyal voters abandon the president's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the governing party will lose, said Ozer Sencar, who runs the independent Metropoll polling agency.

There are already signs of defections, Sencar said, noting that some of them had voted against Erdogan in last year's referendum to expand the powers of the presidency, which passed only narrowly.

"This is the group that will determine the fate of the election," he said.

Most of the group are conservative extremists among the Kurds who are disappointed that Erdogan failed to keep his promise to make peace with Kurdish separatists, Sencar said.

Four Opposition parties - the Republican People's Party, the Good Party, the Felicity Party and the tiny Peoples' Democratic Party - have formed an alliance to maximise their assault against Erdogan.

New York Times News Service

Opinion

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