Türkiye Nears Referendum on Erdogan’s Two-Decade Rule

A handout photograph taken and released on April 29, 2023 by the Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye, shows Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan (R), waving to citizens upon his arrival on stage for an electoral rally at Gundogdu Square in Izmir, on April 29, 2023. (Photo by Handout / Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye / AFP)
A handout photograph taken and released on April 29, 2023 by the Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye, shows Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan (R), waving to citizens upon his arrival on stage for an electoral rally at Gundogdu Square in Izmir, on April 29, 2023. (Photo by Handout / Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye / AFP)
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Türkiye Nears Referendum on Erdogan’s Two-Decade Rule

A handout photograph taken and released on April 29, 2023 by the Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye, shows Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan (R), waving to citizens upon his arrival on stage for an electoral rally at Gundogdu Square in Izmir, on April 29, 2023. (Photo by Handout / Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye / AFP)
A handout photograph taken and released on April 29, 2023 by the Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye, shows Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan (R), waving to citizens upon his arrival on stage for an electoral rally at Gundogdu Square in Izmir, on April 29, 2023. (Photo by Handout / Press Office of the Presidency of Türkiye / AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dives Sunday into the final two-week stretch before a momentous election that has turned into a referendum on his two decades of divisive but transformative rule.

The 69-year-old leader looked fighting fit as he strutted back on stage after a three-day illness and tossed flowers to rapturous crowds at an Istanbul aviation fest on Saturday.

It was the perfect venue for reminding Turks of all they had gained since his Islamic-rooted party ended years of secular rule and launched an era of economic revival and military might.

He was flanked by the president of Azerbaijan and the Ankara-backed premier of Libya -- two countries where drones built by his son-in-law's company helped swing the outcome of wars.

Istanbul itself has become a modern and chaotic megalopolis that has nearly doubled in size since Erdogan came to power in 2003.

But hiding beneath the surface are a more recent economic crisis and fierce social divisions that have given the May 14 parliamentary and presidential polls a powder keg feel.

'Political coup attempt'

The nation of 85 million appears as splintered as ever about whether Erdogan has done more harm than good in the only Muslim-majority country of the NATO defense bloc.

Polls show him running neck-and-neck against secular opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his alliance of six disparate parties.

The entry of two minor candidates means that Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu will likely face each other again in a runoff on May 28.

But some of Erdogan's more hawkish ministers are sounding warnings about Washington leading Western efforts to undermine Türkiye’s might through the polls.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu referred Friday to US President Joe Biden's 2019 suggestion that Washington should embolden the opposition "to take on and defeat Erdogan".

"July 15 was their actual coup attempt," Soylu said of a failed 2016 military putsch that Erdogan blamed on a US-based Muslim preacher.

"And May 14 is their political coup attempt."

Splintered society

Erdogan continues to be lionized across more conservative swathes of Türkiye for unshackling religious restrictions and bringing modern homes and jobs to millions of people through construction and state investment.

Türkiye is now filled with hospitals and interconnected with airports and highways that stimulate trade and give the vast country a more inclusive feel.

He empowered conservative women by enabling them to stay veiled in school and in civil service -- a right that did not exist in the secular state created from the Ottoman Empire's ashes in 1923.

And he won early support from Türkiye’s long-repressed Kurdish minority by seeking a political solution to their armed struggle for an independent state that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

But his equally passionate detractors point to a more authoritarian streak that emerged with the violent clampdown on protests in 2013 -- and became even more apparent with sweeping purges he unleashed after the failed 2016 coup attempt.

Erdogan turned against the Kurds and jailed or stripped tens of thousands of people of their state jobs on oblique "terror" charges that sent chills through Turkish society.

His penchant for campaigning and gift for public speaking enabled him to keep winning at the polls.

But the current vote is turning into his toughest because of a huge economic crisis that erupted in late 2021.

Democratic traditions

Erdogan's biggest problems started when he decided to defy the rules of economics by slashing interest rates to fight inflation.

The lira lost more than half its value and inflation hit an eye-popping 85 percent since his experiment began.

Millions lost their savings and fell into deep debt.

Polls show the economy worrying Turks more than any other issue -- a point not lost on Kilicdaroglu.

The 74-year-old former civil servant pledges to restore economic order and bring in vast sums from Western investors who fled the chaos of Erdogan's more recent rule.

Kilicdaroglu's party will send out 300,000 monitors to Türkiye’s 50,000 polling stations to guarantee a fair outcome on election day.

Opposition security pointman Oguz Kaan Salici sounded certain about a smooth transition should Erdogan lose.

"Power will change hands the way it did in 2002," he said of the year Erdogan's party first won.

A Western diplomatic source pointed to Türkiye’s strong tradition of respecting election results.

Erdogan's own supporters turned against him when the Turkish leader tried to annul the opposition's victory in 2019 mayoral elections in Istanbul.

But the source observed a note of worry among Erdogan's rank and file.

"For the first time, (ruling party) deputies are openly evoking the possibility of defeat," the source said.



A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
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A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)

On a lazy summer weekend a year ago, Russia was jolted by the stunning news of an armed uprising. The swaggering chief of a Kremlin-sponsored mercenary army seized a military headquarters in the south and began marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry’s leaders, accusing them of starving his force of ammunition in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and his soldiers-for-hire called off their "march of justice" only hours later, but the rebellion dealt a blow to President Vladimir Putin, the most serious challenge to his rule in nearly a quarter-century in power.

Prigozhin’s motives are still hotly debated, and the suspicious crash of the private jet that killed him and his top lieutenants exactly two months after the rebellion remains mired in mystery.

A look at the mutiny and its impact:

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin? Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg where Putin took foreign leaders. That earned Prigozhin the nicknamed of "Putin’s chef." Those ties won him lucrative government contracts, including catering for Kremlin events and providing meals and services to the military.

He founded the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in 2014, using it to advance Russia's political interests and clout by deploying mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Wagner fighters provided security for African leaders or warlords, often in exchange for a share of gold mines or other natural resources.

Prigozhin gained attention in the US, where he and a dozen other Russians were indicted by the Justice Department for creating the Internet Research Agency — a "troll farm" that focused on interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. The case was later dropped.

What was Wagner's role in Ukraine? After Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Wagner emerged as one of the most capable of Moscow’s fighting forces. It played a key role in capturing the eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Prigozhin was allowed by the Kremlin to swell Wagner's ranks with convicts, who were offered amnesty after serving six months on the front line. He said 50,000 were recruited, and 10,000 of them died in the ferocious battle for Bakhmut.

The war added to Wagner's reputation for brutality. In a video that surfaced in November 2022, a former Wagner mercenary who allegedly defected to the Ukrainian side but later was captured by Russia, was shown being beaten to death with a sledgehammer, the mercenary group's symbol.

What led to the uprising? For months in 2023, Prigozhin complained bitterly about the military brass denying his forces the needed ammunition in Ukraine. In open political infighting, he blasted then-Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov in profane rants on social media, blaming them for military setbacks and accusing them of corruption.

The Defense Ministry's order for Wagner to sign contracts with the regular military appeared to be the final trigger for Prigozhin's extraordinary rebellion on June 23-24.

His mercenaries swiftly took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, reportedly hoping to capture Shoigu and Gerasimov. But they weren't there.

Prigozhin ordered his forces to roll toward Moscow, saying it wasn't a military coup but a "march of justice" to unseat his foes. The mercenaries downed several military aircraft en route, killing over a dozen pilots. Security forces in Moscow went on alert and checkpoints were set up on the southern outskirts.

At the height of the crisis, Putin went on TV and called the rebellion by his onetime protege a "betrayal" and "treason." He vowed to punish those behind it.

But Prigozhin abruptly aborted the march hours later in an amnesty deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The mercenary forces were offered a choice of moving to Belarus, retiring from service or signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin later said he launched the uprising after he "lost his temper" in the infighting with his foes. Some commentators said he apparently hoped to persuade Putin to take his side against the military brass — a grave miscalculation.

What was Prigozhin's fate? On Aug. 23, two months to the day after the rebellion, a business jet carrying Prigozhin, 62, and his top associates crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all seven passengers and a crew of three.

State investigators have yet to say what caused the crash.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded there was an intentional explosion on board. Western officials pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated.

The Kremlin has denied involvement and rejected Western allegations that Putin was behind it as an "absolute lie."

Prigozhin was buried in his hometown of St. Petersburg in a private ceremony.

What has happened to Wagner? Several thousand Wagner mercenaries moved to a camp in Belarus after the mutiny. Soon after Prigozhin's death, most left that country to sign contracts with the Russian military to redeploy to Africa or return to fighting in Ukraine. Only a handful stayed in Belarus to train its military.

Russian authorities formed a Wagner successor, Africa Corps, using it to expand military cooperation with countries there. Moscow has emerged as the security partner of choice for a number of African governments, displacing traditional allies like France and the United States.

Elements of Wagner and other private security companies continue to operate in Ukraine under the control of the Defense Ministry and the Russian National Guard.

"Despite the spectacular demise of Prigozhin himself and the problems that Wagner got itself into as a result of that, the model — the idea of a private company profiting from this war — is one that is attractive to a lot of people in Russia," said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

How has Putin responded since the uprising? Prigozhin’s demise sent a chilling message to Russia's elites, helping Putin contain the damage to his authority inflicted by the rebellion.

A crackdown continued on his political foes, with many either fleeing the country or ending up in prison. His biggest opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony in February.

In a stage-managed election in March, Putin won another six-year term. In a subsequent Cabinet shakeup, Putin dismissed Prigozhin’s archfoe, Shoigu, as defense minister, replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economics expert. Shoigu, who had personal ties with Putin, was given the high-profile post of secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

"If Shoigu’s new job had been too junior, it would have been humiliating, and could have triggered such criticism of the outgoing minister as to highlight the army’s weaknesses: something to be avoided in wartime," Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in a commentary.

At the same time, Shoigu's entourage faced purges. A longtime associate and deputy, Timur Ivanov, and several other senior military officers were arrested on corruption charges, and other senior Defense Ministry officials lost their jobs.

Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff and another Prigozhin foe, has kept his job so far.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine and given a ceremonial position. Surovikin, credited with creating the multilayered defensive lines and fortifications that blunted Ukraine’s offensive a year ago, wasn’t dismissed altogether, and some observers suggest he could eventually be given a new military post.