In Turkey election campaign, Erdogan unusually low-key

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely expected to take a lead role in campaigning for the AKP, the political party he helped found, ahead of Sunday’s general election, even though he is meant to remain impartial as president.

But while he is widely acknowledged to be an unmatched campaigner, Erdogan has been keeping a surprisingly low profile.

Erdogan is never more comfortable than when pressing the flesh with voters in the middle of a heated election campaign. He is widely acknowledged at being unmatched in his campaigning skills and rallying the AKP party’s grassroots supporters, and he has gone undefeated in elections since 1994. But the president is taking a back seat in this latest election campaign, despite the fact that the AKP is fighting to re-establish the parliamentary majority it lost in the June poll.

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, says Erdogan has learned from the June polls that such campaigning maybe counterproductive.

“Erdogan is a politician who relies very much on polls. He understood that if he campaigns on behalf of a political party, that does not necessarily help the popularity of the party, given that the constitution asks the president to be impartial,” Ulgen says.

About-face on campaigning

In the June poll, Erdogan drew widespread criticism for openly campaigning for the AKP, holding almost daily rallies and on many occasions, opponents claim, using public funds. But in this election campaign, along with taking a more low key approach, he has also played down his demands to drop Turkey’s current parliamentary system in favor of an executive presidency.

That idea, according to polls, is not a vote winner. Indeed, the claim made by opponents that Erdogan was seeking to turn to Turkey into an authoritarian state apparently struck a chord with large parts of the electorate.

Semih Idiz, a political columnist for Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper, says there was even disquiet within the AKP over Erdogan’s role in the June election.

“I think many AKP strategists and senior AKP members have admitted openly he appeared to be canvassing not for the AKP’s benefit, but for his own benefit, for this leadership plan that he has to change the constitution,” Idiz says.

Even though Erdogan is no longer a member of the AKP, he is widely acknowledged to remain firmly in control of the party. But analysts predict that if the AKP fails to restore its parliamentary majority, tensions with the party over the president’s role could come to the fore.