ANKARA, Turkey – Since he took office in 2003, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given a name to each stage in his consolidation of power in Turkey. First he called himself the apprentice; then the journeyman; and latterly the master. Now, he says a new five-year term would elevate him to the role of "grandmaster" and help him make Turkey one of the world's top powers by the time the republic marks its centenary in 2023.
The most powerful and polarizing leader in Turkish history, Erdogan, 64, is standing for re-election in a presidential vote on Sunday that could cement Turkey's switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system, which was narrowly approved in a referendum last year. He would take an office with vastly expanded powers, in a system that critics have compared to one-man rule. His opponents have promised a return to a parliamentary system with a distinct separation of powers.
Opinion polls have put Erdogan several points ahead of his closest competitor in the presidential race. However, he would need to win more than 50 percent of the votes for an outright first-round victory and that looks less likely. Analysts say the outcome could be decided in a second round runoff on July 8.
Erdogan, who has never lost an election, is this time around facing more robust opposition figures and parties cooperating with each other in an anti-Erdogan alliance. For the first time ever, Turkey will elect a new parliament at the same time, but his Justice and Development party's election campaign has appeared a little flat and uninspired, focusing on past achievements and making odd campaign promises such as the creation of neighborhood "reading houses" offering free tea and cakes. Analysts even speak of the possibility of Justice and Development losing its majority in Parliament.
"(Erdogan) remains by far the most popular politician in Turkey," said Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank. "He is still the one that is the most likely to be elected, but it is not a foregone conclusion."
Erdogan called the presidential and parliamentary elections more than a year earlier than scheduled amid signs that the Turkish economy may be heading toward a downturn. Despite strong growth figures, inflation and unemployment have hit double-digit figures while the lira has lost some 20 percent of its value against the dollar since the start of the year.
Additionally, the polls are being held as nationalist sentiment is high following a Turkish military operation into a Syrian border enclave earlier this year that drove away Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey brands as terrorists. Turkey has recently intensified air raids on a suspected Kurdish rebel stronghold in northern Iraq, a move that could further rally votes for Erdogan.
The most powerful leader since the Turkish republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan remains popular in Turkey's conservative and pious heartland. Many see in him a strong leader who stands up to West, who brought stability, oversaw an infrastructure boom, who improved health care and relaxed strict secular laws, for instance allowing women to wear Islamic headscarves in schools and government offices.
His critics say Erdogan, in pursuit of power, is turning the NATO country that once hoped to join the European Union into an increasingly authoritarian state. They accuse him of curtailing democracy and freedom of speech, of jailing opponents, including students, journalists and activists, especially following a failed military coup in 2016. A state of emergency declared after the coup attempt has led to the arrests of some 50,000 and seen more than 110,000 dismissed from government jobs.
"Erdogan is the man to deliver," Erdogan's adviser Ilnur Cevik told The Associated Press in an interview, countering accusations that Erdogan is in pursuit of greater powers.
"Erdogan does not have absolute power — he has the affection of the people..."
The allied opposition — which includes the center-left and pro-secular Republican Peoples' Party, the center-right Good Party and the small Islamic Felicity Party — has vowed to roll back Erdogan's presidential system and to improve relations with allies and the European Union. Also challenging Erdogan is the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, whose charismatic leader is running for president from jail.
Erdogan's AKP has formed an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party. Already in control of a majority of Turkey's media, Erdogan's government has changed electoral rules, raising fears that the elections may not be fair. The changes allow government officials to control ballot stations, for ballot stations to be moved to new locations on security grounds and for ballot papers lacking an official stamp to be counted as valid.
Ismail Buyukcakar, who played soccer alongside Erdogan in the early 1970s in Istanbul's Camialti team, recalls a young man who had leadership qualities and oozed confidence.
"He is a good fortune for Turkey. We need to take advantage of this good fortune," Buyukcakar said. "In my opinion, Turkey needs our president for another 20 years."
Associated Press reporters Ayse Wieting and Mehmet Guzel contributed from Istanbul.