Zekine Türkeri, Marga Zambrana and Austin Davis, USA TODAY

Turkish voters head to the polls June 24 to decide whether to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even more control, in what is being called his biggest power grab yet.

Though many said they would vote against Erdogan amid his repression of civil rights, an ailing economy and hostile foreign policy moves, few believe their president will lose his job.

“You cannot stop a tsunami, and you cannot stop Erdogan either after he has gathered so much power – he is devastating the country like a tsunami,” said Ömer Yilmaz, an unemployed 25-year-old from Istanbul. “He won’t leave power even if he loses. He will do anything and everything to win.”

Erdogan called the elections 18 months ahead of schedule, after saying the country needed a stronger executive. Under a referendum that passed narrowly last year, his office gains sweeping new powers after this election, including the abolition of the post of prime minister and allowing the president to issue decrees and appoint judges. Before the referendum, the Turkish presidency was a ceremonial office.

But Erdogan arguably has already taken control of Turkey. The former prime minister and Istanbul mayor now runs the country under a state of emergency declared in July 2016 after a failed coup. Since then, the president has jailed dissenters and journalists and silenced political opponents.

Many citizens have grown tired of Erdogan’s strongman tactics. Erdogan likely won’t muster the 51% of votes needed to skip a runoff election for the presidency, said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. His rivals might then have a chance to line up behind an alternative.

A unified opposition coalition also has a good chance of winning back parliament, creating a potential check on Erdogan’s power, Turan said.

“The opposition is very energized, unlike earlier when they thought it was a foregone conclusion that Erdogan would win and were demoralized,” he said.

One of the most electrifying factors has been inflation and unemployment in the Turkish economy, developments hurting his nationalist base.

“I studied business administration. I speak (foreign) languages but I cannot find a decent job.,” Yilmaz said.

In what used to be one of the Middle East’s more secular nations, many other Turks want to pivot away from the conservative Islamic ideals the president has used to rally support. Erdogan has promoted the construction of mosques and madrassahs – or Islamic schools – loosened rules that barred women from wearing headscarves in public sector jobs and restricted alcohol advertisements.

“Freedom of expression is at rock bottom,” said Nilgun Yilmaz, 56, an accountant in Istanbul. “If you criticize, you are fired, you are put into prison. There is only freedom to praise Erdogan.”

“I want to recover the secular system,” she added. “There is also too much tension going on among the people, and that is unsustainable.”

Erdogan has also criticized Western leaders, clashed with U.S.-allied Kurds and sought to improve relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian leaders who are invested in Turkey’s war-torn neighbor, Syria. Relations with the United States are strained over Syria and over the U.S.-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, whom Erodgan blames for the attempted coup.


“Turkey is now considered an authoritarian state as opposed to a democracy,” Turan said. “I think if the government changes, there would be a restoration of democratic politics.”

Democratic changes could help repair relations with the European Union and the U.S., Turan added. Turkey historically has been opposed to Russian and Iranian meddling in the region and is also a key NATO ally.

But Erdogan’s supporters imagine no such scenario in which the president will be ousted from office.

“Our president has done so many good things for the country that I cannot even think to vote for someone else,” said Saliha Coskun, 46, a housewife. “If he leaves – I don’t even want to think – we will lose all we have won. God willing, he will win again.”

Given the way that Erdogan dominates state-controlled media and other political institutions, many of the president’s opponents seem to think similarly.

“It is hard to digest for me, but I think under these conditions, Tayyip Erdoğan will win again,” said Saim Levent, 26, a waiter. “He has created a machine that does not allow any other option. Everything is in his hands, under his control.”