President Erdogan and his Islamic conservative AKP are facing potential losses in Sunday's local elections, largely over Turkey's faltering economy. The vote is now seen by many as a referendum on Erdogan.
It doesn't take long to get an appointment with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He's currently campaigning in the small town of Golcuk, about two hours' drive southeast of Istanbul. Wearing a white shirt and black suit, he shakes hands with supporters as he distributes leaflets, pausing for a photo at the butcher's shop.
But this Recep Tayyip Erdogan is only 20 years old, and new to politics. He's running for the position of muhtar in Turkey's municipal elections — a kind of district leader elected for five years, without any party affiliations.
"When I say my name, many people don't believe me at first and think I'm joking. Then I show them my ID," says Erdogan, pulling out the palm-sized plastic card. He isn't related to the Turkish president, but his father was a big fan of the conservative politician from the very start, when the elder Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul.
Starting out small and one day making it big is also young Erdogan's dream. "It's a great honor that my name is the same as that of our president, because he is respected and loved," he says. "I get a lot of positive reactions. I think the name will help me with these elections."
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to make a difference at the local level — and perhaps follow in the president's footsteps
'Question of survival' for Erdogan
Erdogan's namesake, the president, also clearly hopes his personal popularity will win his Justice and Development Party (AKP) crucial votes. He has been campaigning almost nonstop since the beginning of the year, traveling all over the country and speaking at several major rallies every day, broadcast live by most TV channels. It almost seems as if he, the head of state, is standing for re-election on March 31, and not the local mayors, city councilors and district leaders.
"Erdogan has taken the whole burden of this campaign on his own shoulders. He's an impressive speaker, but you can tell he's nervous," says journalist Ismail Saymaz, who writes for the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
The newspaper was sold to an entrepreneur close to Erdogan in 2018, but Saymaz is seen as one of the outlet's few authors who still dare to comment critically on the president's policies.
"This is no ordinary local election," says Saymaz. "Erdogan himself has declared this vote to be a 'question of survival.' It's essentially about whether voters endorse the new presidential system, or not."
Will recession hurt AKP?
Erdogan's AKP has won every election since it was first founded in 2001, winning support with a credible promise of a better future with good economic growth and improved living standards.
Erdogan himself has risen from the office of Istanbul's mayor to prime minister in 2003, and finally president in 2014. In 2017, a referendum on the new executive presidential system helped him concentrate his hold on power.
But now, for the first time in a long time, Turkey is in a recession. The currency has collapsed, and inflation, unemployment and prices have skyrocketed. An increasing number of companies are filing for bankruptcy. In order to force prices down in the markets, the government has set up its own stalls to sell state-subsidized vegetables, drawing long queues.
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Istanbul the political trophy
The economic slowdown could have an impact on Erdogan's AKP in the upcoming vote. As in the 2018 parliamentary election, the AKP is joining with the right-wing populist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to form the People's Alliance. In many places, the AKP is likely to remain the strongest power, but setbacks are expected — especially in the larger cities.
Mansur Yavas, the candidate of the largest secular opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), is ahead in the polls in the capital, Ankara. The opposition could also win mayoral races in Antalya, Adana, Mersin and possibly even Bursa. And Izmir, on the west coast, has been a CHP stronghold for years.
In Istanbul, the most recent polls put AKP candidate and former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim slightly ahead, but a tight race can't be ruled out. With a population of 15 million, the economic metropolis is considered the most important political trophy. As Erdogan himself has stressed time and again, whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.
'To lose Istanbul would unleash a political earthquake'
On Tuesday, the president held one of his biggest rallies in Istanbul, presenting his achievements and major projects on huge monitors: hospitals, metro lines, housing estates, libraries, sports halls, schools, bridges and the new Istanbul airport. "We work hard and sleep little," Erdogan said to his supporters, many of whom were wearing headbands emblazoned with his name.
"Erdogan is closely associated with Istanbul. This is where his career started. If his AKP were defeated in Istanbul, it would unleash a political earthquake," says Saymaz. "Even if they only lose a few important districts, such as Uskudar or Beyoglu, the AKP would be down for the count."
According to Saymaz, if the opposition wins both Ankara and Istanbul, it would soon lead to talk about fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. In recent weeks there have been rumors of a new political party led by former Erdogan supporters such as ex-President Abdullah Gul and ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Back in Golcuk, the young Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also heard many complaints about the country's bad economic situation. "Too many young people are unemployed, and small business owners are having a hard time," complains the owner of a local teahouse. "Nothing is going well. Nothing at all."
If he becomes district leader, Erdogan says he wants to tackle these problems — at least in Golcuk. But with two opposing candidates, it's still not certain he'll come out on top. Only on election night will it become clear whether an influential name has made the crucial difference — for both Erdogans.