ISTANBUL -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is headed for an election victory on August 10, with recent polls pegging his support at 55 percent of the vote. His rivals Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, backed by the two main opposition parties, and Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish leftist party HDP, are trailing far behind, scoring somewhere in the mid-30s and around 10 percent, respectively.
Erdogan would become the first directly elected president in the country’s history, under a reform approved in 2007. And he has been clear about wanting to turn the presidency from a largely ceremonial post into an actively political role.
"I'm not leaving you... I'm not going to rest,” Erdogan said at his first campaign rally on July 5, as quoted by the daily Hurriyet. “On the contrary, I'll be nominated to a higher post to better serve you, my country and my nation."
But with corruption scandals hanging over him, a highly polarized Turkish society and an economy heavily dependent on speculative short-term foreign investment, many see this as Erdogan’s desperate last attempt to prolong his power. He is unable to run for a fourth term as prime minister due to the internal rules of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“If he doesn’t become president, if he doesn’t stay in politics, he could probably be arrested,” said Jenny White, a visiting professor at the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University -- the assumption being that a sitting president would not be arrested.
Observers say the vast political apparatus he commands, backed by powerful businesses he has nurtured during his 12 years in power, is working smoothly to fuel his campaign. His images dominate the public space over those of his opponents; posters depicting his face are everywhere in the country and television channels broadcast daily his fiery speeches and publicity stunts.
Erdogan speaks of building a “new Turkey,” a Muslim democracy and an economic powerhouse whose international prestige would equal that of its predecessor, the once-fearsome Ottoman Empire. The grandeur of his vision was on full display June 7, when he kicked off work on what he has termed “the biggest airport in the world,” and again on July 25, when he cut the ribbon on a $4 billion high-speed rail link between Istanbul and the capital Ankara, vowing to make Turkey one of the ten largest economies in the world. (It’s currently number 17, according to rankings by the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.)
Other mega-projects championed by Erdogan, part of a 10-year, $200 billion development spree, include a third bridge over the Bosphorus and a canal to rival, in his words, the Panama and Suez canals, which would turn much of Istanbul, a booming city with a population of some 14 million, into an island.
But Erdogan has had to rely on police force to crush widespread protests during the past year. He then cracked down on that very same police and judiciary, firing or reassigning hundreds of police officers and prosecutors, when they started investigating his allies last December, forcing the resignation of four government ministers. Behind the glamorous facade, say experts, is a vulnerable man whose visions are threatening to come undone, at a steep cost for him and the country.
“In Erdogan’s mind, he may be in command of these projects, which are instrumental to his dream of going down in history as the leader who remade Turkey as the born-again Ottoman powerhouse,” said Murat Somer, a professor of political science at Koc University in Istanbul. “But in reality, it looks like in order to stay in power, he is increasingly becoming hostage to a narrow coalition of bureaucratic and business interests, who are using these projects and Erdogan for their own purposes…. and [are] plundering the environment and world heritage sites in the process.”
The prime minister has responded to accusations of corruption and mismanagement by charging that “a parallel structure within the state” is trying to topple him. When the high-speed rail link broke down just hours after it was launched -- because of a possible electrical malfunction -- pro-government media repeated a line he has used frequently in the past, blaming “sabotage.”
Many citizens are skeptical. “I am afraid to go on the Marmaray and the other recently opened transportation projects, because so many people say the work was finished in a hurry and that they are dangerous,” said Ayse Hasan, 33, referring to a newly-built subway line under the Bosphorus.
Erdogan’s economic vision, lauded by pro-government papers as the “Turkish economic miracle,” is also under duress, with financial analysts now including Turkey among the “Fragile Five” emerging economies, alongside India, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil.
In 2012 and 2013, Turkish economic growth slackened to less than half of what it was in 2010 and 2011, according to World Bank data, while last year the current account deficit grew to 8 percent of GDP. The Turkish lira experienced a steep decline earlier this year following the corruption scandal and remains some 6 percent down from its December 2013 value versus the U.S. dollar, despite a steep interest rate hike which the central central bank decided in January in order to protect it.
“The Turkish economy is growing unsustainable, depending on the capital inflows,” said Cenk Sidar of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory firm.
“A slowdown is unavoidable within the context of increasing political risk in the country and the global economic outlook,” he said, noting that many sources of funding could dry up as interest rates rise in the Eurozone and U.S., making it more attractive for Western capital to stay home.
All this means that Erdogan’s dream of being “an active president” will meet considerable challenges, say experts. Some believe it could even result in a split between his supporters and critics within the ruling AKP, which remains the most powerful and popular political force in Turkey, having swept the local elections in March with some 45 percent of the vote.
“A lot will depend on whether or not the AKP members who are disgruntled now will feel like they still want to be in a party with a weak leader that’s just basically a thumbprint for Erdogan,” White said. “Or whether Erdogan does something that… undermines democracy in such a way that members of parliament really have to take a stance.”
For the time being, at least, the AKP is demonstrating unity behind Erdogan, around half of the population appears to back him enthusiastically, and construction continues at full speed all around the country—though for how long, say analysts, it’s hard to tell.
As Sidar observed, “Most of these mega projects have problems in financing.”