A Turkish woman casts her ballot in Yayladagi, near the Syrian border. (Vadim Ghirda, Associated…)
Reporting from Istanbul — Millions of Turkish voters headed to the polls Sunday for critical parliamentary elections that will likely shape the country's constitution, its conflict with a restive Kurdish ethnic minority and its definition of citizenship.
But judging from the gigantic billboards looming from highways and buildings throughout the country, the elections are really about whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be crowned Turkey's leader for the next 12 years.
"Ready 2023," the billboards say, referring to the year marking the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic as well as, coincidentally, how long the ambitious and presumptuous Erdogan may stay in power, if he succeeds in changing Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system.
"You only see his picture," said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist at the newspaper Milliyet. "This omnipresence is a little scary."
In many ways the outcome of Sunday's election is preordained. Few doubt that Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by the acronym AKP, will come in first and form the next government as it rides a wave of popular support for its relatively successful economic policies and appeal to the country's emerging pious middle class.
The liberal Republican People's Party will come in second and serve as a noisy opposition supported by the country's old guard. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party will add to its seats in the country's southeast and begin pressing for autonomy as the country struggles to end a 27-year armed insurrection.
The suspense is whether AKP manages to gain a parliamentary majority, which would enable it to rewrite the constitution much more easily and solidify Erdogan's status as the nation's leader.
Critics say the 57-year-old former Istanbul mayor, a charismatic politician and international figure, has been showing an increasingly authoritarian streak, brooking little criticism, pressing newspapers and television stations to soften coverage of him, and using constitutional changes to the judiciary he championed last year to fill the courts with loyalists.
"We will not be electing the party that will be coming to power for the next four years," said Cuneyt Ulsever, a novelist and journalist who claims he was fired from his job at a newspaper because of his criticisms of Erdogan. "We will be voting for regime change."
Erdogan's supporters are quick to caution that Turkey's pre-election rhetoric tends toward the hyperbolic. "I'm sure on Monday, the leaders of the parties will meet together and shake hands and get down to work," said Murat Mercan, an AKP lawmaker and foreign policy advisor to Erdogan.
Many of the constitutional changes will likely help enshrine the rights of minorities such as the country's Armenians, Greeks, Circassians, Arabs, Alawite Muslims, Jews and especially the Kurds as equal citizens, bringing an end to a highly restrictive definition of Turkishness that legalized chauvinism.
AKP supporters say that the country is returning to its roots as the cosmopolitan and multicultural society they say it was before Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established modern Turkey in 1923.
"The republic was a parenthesis," said Etyen Mahcupyan, an analyst at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a think tank. "That parenthesis is now closing. We are remembering what we were."
That kind of "neo-Ottoman" talk has captured the imagination of Turkish intellectuals critical of Ataturk's brand of secularism, as well as some Western observers.
But critics inside the country are worried about the stifling of voices, charging that Erdogan sometimes encourages allied businessmen to buy up television channels and then soften coverage. Erdogan's strategy for gaining those critical additional seats to rewrite the constitution has also worried many of his critics.
Critics also accuse the prime minister of sowing Sunni Muslim bigotry against the Alawite Muslim minority, and express concern about his appeals to law-and-order voters by speaking of bringing back the death penalty.
Many suspect Erdogan's allies were behind a campaign of leaked videos showing officials in the small right-wing National Movement Party engaged in illicit sex.
If the nationalist party fails to overcome the necessary 10% vote hurdle to enter parliament, it would help Erdogan's party gain as many as 50 seats in the 550-seat body.
Erdogan's supporters dismiss much of the criticism against him as unrealistic and overblown. Lawmaker Mercan, conceding that Erdogan has a habit of suing journalists critical of him, said that even if the prime minister was too sensitive to criticism, it was not evidence of creeping dictatorship.
"It's a personal choice, not an indicator of an authoritarian regime," he said. "Opposition leaders sue journalists as well."
But even some AKP stalwarts have grown leery of some of Erdogan's tactics, especially when it comes to the Alawites. "Privately they blush and they say it's wrong," said one journalist in Istanbul, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "But none of them would dare tell him that."