Tired of Treading Softly, Turkey’s Erdogan Back on Election Warpath
ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) — Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has gone on the warpath against the main opposition days ahead of a re-run of a mayoral vote in Istanbul, scrapping plans to avoid divisive rhetoric that some officials in his ruling AK Party believed would alienate voters.
Standing atop a bus in Istanbul on Tuesday, Erdogan claimed the opposition’s mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu aligned with coup plotters, without presenting evidence, and later warned of unspecified actors targeting Turkey’s independence.
After weeks of keeping an uncharacteristically low profile, the president re-inserted himself into the campaign with his usual confrontational style.
The switch is a risk for Erdogan and the AK Party (AKP), which suffered a shock defeat in Istanbul in March local elections – a loss that some in his party believed was in part due to the president’s uncompromising style.
The loss marked one of his biggest setbacks in 16 years in power, and the AKP challenged the result.
According to interviews with five party officials, as well as their advisers, Erdogan and his party had decided in recent weeks to effectively air-brush the president from the campaign ahead of the June 23 Istanbul vote, including erasing his face from highway-side billboards and cancelling dozens of planned rallies across the city.
AKP officials had concluded that Erdogan’s uncompromising approach had become a liability with some key voters in Istanbul, especially Kurds and AKP supporters who were turned off by his polarizing rhetoric, the party insiders said.
By laying low, Erdogan also could have distanced himself in the event of another defeat, advisers added.
But things changed earlier this week with internal party polling showing Imamoglu slightly ahead, prompting Ergodan to intervene, according to two of the people.
In recent days, “Erdogan had asked party officials if it is possible to arrange a meeting or a rally to make a speech every day in Istanbul” ahead of the vote, a senior AKP official said. “That’s the new strategy.”
Defeat on Sunday for Erdogan’s hand-picked mayoral candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, would serve as a further embarrassment for the president after the AKP succeeded in annulling the March result.
It would also weaken what only three months ago appeared to be his iron grip on power as Turkey battles recession, jockeys in war-torn Syria, and balances its U.S. and Russian ties.
It may embolden challengers to his rule, although it wouldn’t immediately affect the balance of power in Ankara.
An AKP spokesman declined to comment on the shifting strategy.
In public appearances in recent days, Erdogan urged supporters to help him rally voters this weekend.
“We can’t hand our Istanbul to these liars,” Erdogan said in a speech on Tuesday, referring to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its mayoral candidate Imamoglu.
Imamoglu has denied any links with the coup plotters.
“I know things will be said,” Imamoglu said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT Haber late Tuesday. He added: “These attacks are the attacks of those who cannot digest that we are ready for the task.”