Gulen factor looms over Turkey’s election as Erdogan faces tough challenge

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As Turkey prepares for its crucial presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, the shadow of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric and former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hangs over the political landscape.

Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey since 2003, accuses Gulen of masterminding a failed coup attempt in 2016 that killed more than 250 people and wounded thousands. He has launched a massive crackdown on Gulen’s followers, whom he calls “terrorists”, arresting tens of thousands of people and purging hundreds of thousands from public sector jobs.

Gulen, who leads a global network of schools, charities and media outlets, denies any involvement in the coup and says he is the victim of a witch-hunt. He has also criticized Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and his policies towards the Kurdish minority, the economy and foreign affairs.

The election is widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s rule, which has polarized the country and strained its relations with its Western allies. Erdogan faces a united opposition led by Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul who defeated Erdogan’s candidate in a rerun election in 2019.

Imamoglu has promised to restore democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Turkey, as well as to revive the economy, which has been hit by high inflation, unemployment and currency depreciation. He has also vowed to end the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt and to release political prisoners, including journalists, academics and civil society activists.

The opposition has also tried to appeal to Gulen’s supporters, who are estimated to number in the millions, by offering them reconciliation and justice. Some opposition candidates have visited Gulen’s family members in Turkey and expressed sympathy for their plight. Imamoglu has said he would respect the judicial process and not interfere in Gulen’s extradition case if he becomes president.

However, Erdogan has warned that voting for the opposition would mean supporting Gulen. He has also claimed that Gulen is behind some of the opposition parties and candidates, without providing any evidence. He has vowed to continue his fight against Gulen until he is extradited from the United States and brought to justice in Turkey.

The election is expected to be tight, with some polls showing Erdogan and Imamoglu neck-and-neck in the presidential race and the AK Party and its allies losing their majority in parliament. The outcome could have significant implications for Turkey’s future direction and its role in the region and the world.

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