AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Officially, Turkey's next presidential election is supposed to be three years away, and opposition parties see a chance to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's expected reelection bid. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, Erdogan could call elections next year to catch his challengers off guard.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It's been 17 years since Erdogan swept into power on a wave of popular support first as prime minister and then as president. How has he stayed in power so long? Thanks to a constitutional referendum in 2017, Erdogan effectively wiped the slate clean and is currently in the middle of a five-year term in office with the option to run for reelection. But as Turkey struggles with some alarming economic warning signs made all the worse by the coronavirus pandemic, opposition politicians are sensing an opportunity.
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KENYON: At a restaurant overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the Istanbul chairwoman of the CHP, the main opposition party, is already thinking about the next election. Canan Kaftancioglu says with Turkey's economy under heavy pressure, Erdogan could well decide to bring the elections forward and try to lock in another term in office. She says whenever the vote is called, the opposition will be ready.
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CANAN KAFTANCIOGLU: (Through interpreter) Because we know the problems that we're facing - one-man regime, economic problems, judicial problems and all the common problems that 83 million are facing - aren't going to change unless we change the mentality that is managing this.
KENYON: Once led by Turkey's modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the CHP dominated the republic's early days as a one-party state. But in this century, it has languished in the opposition as Erdogan rose to power and held onto it. Recently, however, things have been looking up. The CHP now controls the mayoral offices in Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities. Erdogan was said to be especially angered at losing Istanbul, where he himself was once mayor. Another reason for his anger is the well-known ambition of the new CHP mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, to hold national office.
Even some of Erdogan's erstwhile allies are lining up to take him on. Former president Ali Babacan and ex-prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu have both formed new political parties. At his party launching event, Davutoglu wasn't shy about taking aim at his former boss.
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AHMET DAVUTOGLU: (Speaking Turkish).
KENYON: "For the love of God, what are you trying to do," he asked. "We already have an economy in recession," he added, "and the highest unemployment rate in years. And now you want to deliver the final blow with early elections?"
Some analysts say they're not sure Erdogan will be in any rush to call elections before he has to. Can Selcuki with Istanbul Economic Research says whenever the vote happens, the opposition will have a very reachable goal of forcing a runoff between the top two candidates. Selcuki says they could do that by winning over just 5- to 10% of Erdogan's voters.
CAN SELCUKI: If the opposition could lure 5% of Erdogan supporters to their side, then that's already a win for the opposition. And the opposition candidates would win in the second round.
KENYON: Erdogan has clearly noticed the potential challengers, attacking them as representing, quote, "a fascist mentality that longs for a return to military government," a pointed reference to Turkey's history of coups. Analysts say all signs are pointing to a rough campaign season ahead.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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