Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a surprise announcement on Tuesday that he would increase the salaries of all public workers, about 700,000 people, by 45 percent, a dramatic move ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.
Erdoğan, who has governed Turkey as president or prime minister uninterrupted for 20 years, is facing one of the most difficult campaigns of his career against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the longtime leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Kılıçdaroğlu has managed to unite much of the Turkish opposition into an anti-Erdoğan coalition and counts on most other major parties choosing not to run candidates, resulting in him leading Erdogan in most recent national election polls. According to a poll by the firm Yöneylem published last week, Kılıçdaroğlu is receiving about 53.9-percent support compared to 46.1 percent for the incumbent. A similar survey by the ORC firm found the CHP candidate with a slightly closer lead, 48 percent to 44.6 percent for Erdoğan. Young voters skew significantly in favor of Kılıçdaroğlu but are traditionally a voting base that is unreliable regarding turnout.
The Turkish presidential race is run on a two-round system. If no candidate receives over 50-percent support in the first round, the top two candidates will proceed to a runoff vote on May 28.
Most international observers do not consider the Turkish presidential election will be free and fair, as Erdogan’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) does little to dissuade supporters from violent attacks on its opponents and largely erased the presence of a free press in the country in the aftermath of the 2016 alleged failed coup. Kılıçdaroğlu has faced years of mob attacks at his events and was forced to cancel campaign appearances last month in eastern Turkey as a result of attacks on his convoy.
Despite his many advantages, Erdoğan made a major play to stymie Kılıçdaroğlu’s rise in the polls on Tuesday with the announcement of a significant pay raise for Turkey’s public workers.
“Within the framework of this collective bargaining agreement, we are raising wages by 45 percent, including the welfare share, thus increasing the minimum wage of public workers to 15,000 lira [currently about $767.68],” Erdoğan announced.
“We will continue to take these steps despite the burden of more than $100 billion that the earthquake disaster put on our economy. Now, thank God, Turkey has reached the strength and size that can handle all these burdens,” Erdoğan said. Among the many issues fueling discontent with the president, a series of devastating earthquakes occurred in eastern Turkey in February that left 45,000 dead. Scientists have noted that the intensity of the quakes should not have necessarily killed so many people; many Turks have blamed Erdoğan for allowing the construction of flimsy buildings, and issuing a real estate developer amnesty to those who violated building codes, for the scale of destruction.
On Wednesday, Erdoğan announced another ambitious project: if elected, he would lead the replacement of the Turkish constitution with a new document, which he branded a “civilian and libertarian” document.
“We want a new civilian and libertarian constitution penned [with the spirit of] national will for Türkiye. If accomplished, this will mean to clear the last clouds on our democracy,” Erdoğan said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. Turkey is formally governed under a parliamentary system, but the Islamist strongman has for years advocated for a shift to a presidential system, claiming it would look more like the federal government in the United States. Erdoğan has managed to push some reforms through the Turkish Parliament, but rather than establishing a fairly distributed set of checks and balances, the AKP has mostly expanded the powers of the executive at the expense of other branches. Erdoğan boasted about this on Wednesday, specifically the limitation of the powers of the judiciary.
“We have raised the standards of our democracy by setting clearer boundaries between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. With this constitutional amendment, we also added the phrase of ‘impartiality’ to the principle of ‘independence,’” Hurriyet quoted the president as saying. “We have thus taken an important step to save the judiciary from the former disputes it used to end up in.”
Erdoğan would need 400 votes in the Turkish Parliament, or two-thirds, to amend the constitution at all. Parliament seats are on the ballot on Sunday along with the presidency.
While most Turks will vote on Sunday, Turkish citizens abroad completed the voting process on Tuesday. The Turkish Supreme Election Council (YSK) reported that 1.7 million had voted already, up from 1.4 million people during the 2018 presidential race, during which Erdoğan imprisoned one of the top candidates, Democratic People’s Party (HDP) then-leader Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş remains behind bars on spurious charges of supporting terrorism and endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu in the current election.
Erdoğan has made scaring his Islamist voter base with the threat that Kılıçdaroğlu would free Demirtaş, accusing him personally of killing dozens of people, a core part of his campaign rhetoric.
“They would take Selo [Demirtaş] out of prison. What did this Selo do? They killed our 51 Kurdish brothers in Diyarbakır,” Erdoğan claimed on Monday, attributing attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist group, to Demirtaş personally. Demirtaş is Kurdish but has encouraged policies to disarm the PKK in the past.
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