Erdogan has set the election date for May 14 as he seeks to extend his rule

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday officially set the country’s parliamentary and presidential elections for May 14 – a month earlier than planned, despite the devastating February 6 earthquake that killed around 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria.

These may be the most significant elections in the country in recent decades. Erdogan is seeking to extend his two-decade rule, and the vote will decide whether Turkey continues on the increasingly authoritarian path set by the powerful politician.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister, and since 2014 as president. The upcoming elections may present the toughest electoral challenges.

Turkey is struggling with a troubled economy, soaring inflation and the aftermath of the Feb. 6 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands of people in tents or temporary shelters in 11 Turkish provinces.

On Friday, Erdogan raised the number of earthquake victims in his country to more than 47,000.

Many have criticized his government’s response to the earthquake, accusing him of failing to prepare the earthquake-prone country for the disaster ahead.

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Experts have identified lax enforcement of building codes as the main reason why the earthquake was so deadly.

Earlier this week, Turkey’s various opposition parties, including nationalists, Islamists and conservatives, ended a month of uncertainty that frustrated supporters of the anti-Erdogan bloc by fielding a joint candidate against Erdogan.

The six opposition parties, which have pledged to curb the erosion of rights and freedoms, have rallied behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, secular Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“Our decision to renew the elections should be beneficial for our country, our nation, the Turkish Grand National Assembly and our political parties,” Erdogan said after signing the decision confirming the election date, which was then published in the Official Gazette. .

Now the Supreme Electoral Council determines the election calendar. The second round of the presidential election would be held on May 28 if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote.

Presidential and parliamentary elections were due to be held on June 18, but the government moved them forward to avoid coinciding with the Hajj pilgrimage, university entrance exams and the start of the summer vacation season.

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Erdogan has signaled that he will base his election campaign on rebuilding the earthquake-hit provinces, trying to convince voters that only his government, which has been behind a construction boom that has fueled economic growth, can rebuild lives.

“We are launching the election calendar, even as we focus all our attention on healing the wounds of the earthquake, rebuilding and restoring our cities, and ensuring that our people have homes as soon as possible,” Erdogan said.

“We must implement a program that will heal the wounds of unprecedented devastation with unprecedented speed,” he said. “The only way to overcome the direct and indirect effects of the earthquake and to normalize the situation of the region and our country as soon as possible is to implement the decisions with a strong political will.”

The Turkish leader acknowledged his government’s lack of response in the early stages of the earthquake, but said rescue efforts were hampered by winter weather and the destruction of infrastructure. He promised that tens of thousands of houses would be rebuilt within a year.

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The six-party opposition, known as the League of Nations, has vowed to restore parliamentary democracy in Turkey if Erdogan is ousted, ending the presidential system he imposed. Opponents say the system, narrowly approved in a 2017 referendum and introduced after the 2018 election, amounted to “one-man rule” without checks and balances.

The opposition alliance is joined by Kilicdaroglu’s CHP and the nationalist Jópárt of Meral Aksener; Temel Karamollaoglu’s conservative Felicity Party; Gultekin Uysal’s Democratic Party; Party of Democracy and Progress led by Ali Babacan; and the Future Party chaired by Ahmet Davutoglu.

Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, has indicated it is ready to negotiate with the opposition alliance on extending Kilicdaroglu’s support.