One way to look at parliamentary elections that are to take place in Turkey on Sunday is as an attempt by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate the kind of populist, ideologically founded personal rule that such “isms” imply. It is what his party’s campaign posters mean when they say “New Turkey, New Power”.

This “new” Turkey is a revamped version of Kemal Ataturk’s Republic. It is to be more religious, more conservative, more rooted in the Middle East and less bound to the West. It will be, above all, guided by a new and charismatic founding father, who rules less in the style of a European prime minister (Hungary’s Viktor Orban excepted), and more in that of a populist Eastern strongman. This new Turkey has, in part, already arrived, and a substantial segment of the population is enthusiastic.

“About 30 to 35 per cent of the population is Tayyipist,” says the political analyst and columnist Soli Ozel. Having hollowed out institutions that might limit his power, Erdogan is at war even with some of his fellow party members, appealing over their heads and directly to his most ardent supporters, says Ozel.

Looking at Turkey’s election through this lens helps explain a few things, including why Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, has agreed to focus on Erdogan’s drive to secure a new constitution that would turn Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. It isn’t obvious why they should. The tactic is likely to lose them votes, and Erdogan himself is not even standing for election.

A February opinion poll by the agency Metropoll found that only 32 per cent of Turks supported a presidential system (roughly coinciding with Ozel’s Tayyipists), while 55 per cent opposed it as too authoritarian. This at a time when the AKP has already been ruling the country for 13 years, inviting voter fatigue, and Turkey’s extended economic boom has hit the buffers. Another Metropoll survey, in April, found net satisfaction with the way the economy is being run at minus 23.5 per cent, down from close to a zero balance last August.

Nevertheless, the AKP has now fallen in with Tayyipism and is fearful of the consequences should it break ranks.

This week Erdogan visited Sultanbeyli, a conservative Istanbul suburb, to pitch to his home crowd. Officials separate it into women’s and men’s sections. Among perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 women, you could count on your hands the number with uncovered hair. One woman waved her flag among the mannequins in a shop window, where a hand-written sign read: “Allah, take the years from my life and give them to Tayyip. I love the tall man.”

“You didn’t just support me, you made it possible to open a new era in Turkey,” Erdogan shouted from the stage. “Didn’t Sultanbeyli suffer in the old Turkey?”

The crowd shouted back that they did. The women began a chant in Arabic, something I never heard in the similar Erdogan rallies I attended before the last elections, just four years ago.

Erdogan attacked Aydin Dogan, the head of a secular media group, alleging that Dogan tried to bend Erdogan to his will as he had done with previous Turkish prime ministers. “But I am not one of them,” Erdogan thundered. “I am Tayyip, from Kasimpasa,” the conservative Istanbul neighbourhood where he grew up.

This audience did not care about the corruption allegations that were laid against Erdogan and his government earlier this year, and why should they? The previous, secular governments were corrupt, too. But they didn’t build anything for the Tayyipists in Sultanbeyli, which grew up late in the great migration from the countryside that has multiplied this city’s population tenfold since the 1950s, to an estimated 15 million.

“We had no electricity or running water until we had an AKP municipality in charge,” said Saliha Coban, one of several women perched on the base of the Ataturk statue at the other end of Sultanbeyli’s main square to watch Erdogan speak. “Now we even have natural gas. Let God allow him to stay with us.”

In secular areas of Istanbul, such as Kadikoy on the Bosporus, parents have been protesting plans to turn their Kemalist schools into religious ones, called Imam Hatips. In Sultanbeyli, though, people are delighted with the new schools, and Erdogan warns from the stage that, if the other parties win, they will shut down the Imam Hatips.

It is as though he is reversing the social engineering the Kemalists practiced when they spread secular schools, where headscarves were banned, across the country. At the universities — where Erdogan told the crowd he could not send his daughters because they were not allowed in with headscarves — he is building mosques.

This new Turkey will not just be more religious: “We will be big! We will be brothers!” he says. What he means by big isn’t clear, but you can get an idea from the massive construction projects and Erdogan’s ambitions to lead in the old Ottoman Empire’s provinces of the Middle East. This week he defended the purchase of a limousine for the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, estimated by Turkish news media to cost $380,000 (Dh1.39 million). Erdogan said Turkey’s top religious official should have a private plane, too, because the pope does. The Vatican actually charters an Alitalia plane, but in a TV interview Erdogan seemed mainly interested in putting Turkey’s top religious figure on level footing with the pope:

“Mehmet Grmez is not only Turkey’s religious leader. He is an esteemed religious leader of this region and the Islamic world. One should look at the issue from this angle.”

Tayyipism looks like a further attempt to force a particular identity on Turkey, much as Ataturk did when he switched the nation from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet and banned the fez.

The transformation is far from complete and the coming election is about consolidating control of critical institutions in Erdogan’s hands so that he can finish the job.

The AKP will almost certainly win, but the electoral arithmetic is so finely balanced that a few percentage points may make the difference between securing the 330 seats needed to push through Erdogan’s constitution and, for the first time since 2002, failing to get the 276 seats required to form a single-party government.

“Only if Erdogan trips will Tayyipism fail,” says Ozel, “and tripping means we get a four-party parliament” — with no clear majority for the AKP. There may be other ways he can stumble, though. The only mistake Erdogan has made, said the women in Sultanbeyli, was to let at least 1.6 million Syrian refugees into the country, driving up rents and making work scarce. Equally, if the hot money funding Turkey’s still-large current account deficit dries up, the country could see a hard stop on the economy, making Erdogan’s grandiose plans an unaffordable liability.

Turkey’s formidable president is, however, fighting tirelessly in this election to ensure that he doesn’t trip, and that Tayyipism succeeds.

— Washington Post

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.