Erdogan suggested exchanging Brunson for Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who is accused of masterminding the coup attempt. Gulen denies the charge.
Cagaptay believes that if he wins Erdogan will strengthen his push to make Turkey politically Islamist, alienating secularists and increasing instability as the two sides clash over the direction of the country.
“An Erdogan victory actually threatens to throw Turkey into a deep, long-term political crisis,” he said.
That victory isn’t as clear as many first expected.
Erdogan called the snap election, bringing forward a vote that was originally due to be held in November 2019, ahead of a potential financial crisis.
Rapid economic growth has slowed and Turkey’s currency plummeted 25 percent this year. It hit a record low after Erdogan said he would increase his control of financial policy following the election while on a visit to London in May.
“The polls suggest that for the electorate, the economic issues are overtaking security issues,” said Serhat Guvenc, professor at Kadir Has University, to the Associated Press.
That presented an opportunity Erdogan’s rivals have seized upon with unexpectedly engaging campaigns.
The country’s opposition found momentum early on, when four parties announced a surprise alliance for the parliamentary elections.
The alliance includes Meral Aksener’s Good Party, consisting of nationalists and center-right figures. But the main opposition is the CHP, whose candidate Muharrem Ince — a 54-year-old former physics teacher — has tried to appeal to conservative Turks with his oratory skills and by showcasing his practicing Muslim family.
Ince has courted the crucial Kurdish vote by visiting Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned candidate of the pro-Kurdish HDP.
While not in the alliance, HDP’s support could prove crucial for the opposition candidate in a prospective second round and in denying Erdogan’s party a majority in parliament.
Erdogan accuses the HDP of connections to the militant group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S.
Violence has also marred the campaign and with the majority of media outlets under the control of Erdogan and his allies, opposition candidates are struggling to get their voices heard.
Candidates made their final push on Saturday.
Ince’s final rally drew at least a million supporters to Istanbul’s Maltepe district, police said. “There are 5 million people in Maltepe right now but none of the TV channels can show it,” Ince said, highlighting the opposition’s claims of media bias.
That figure could not be independently verified, though images circulating on social media showed vast crowds of people assembled to hear Ince speak.
Braving a summer thunderstorm, Ince’s supporters, in festive mood, sang anthems and waved red and white Turkish flags as their candidate promise to reverse Turkey’s turn towards authoritarian rule under Erdogan.
On the other side of the Bosphorus, the waterway bisecting Istanbul and separating Europe from Asia, thousands filled a road in suburban Istanbul to hear Erdogan talk up his infrastructure projects. The strongman president ask the crowd if they had built a bridge, an airport and improved the country. “Yes we did!” they shouted back.
“He’s the only leader standing for the whole Muslim community and all of Turkey,” said Yakup Kalkan, 22, a textile manager attending the rally. “Yes, the economy is bad, but because of foreign games, especially [from] America.”
Erdogan has remained the front-runner throughout, but after allegations of vote-rigging in last year’s referendum on presidential powers, questions linger among the opposition over what will happen if the vote is as tight as it’s now predicted to be.
The two main opposition leader cast their votes on Sunday and vowed vigilance amid fears of possible fraud.
Aksener told reporters in Istanbul: “I hope these elections are beneficial and truly reflect the free will of the voters.”
About three weeks after calling the election, Erdogan told parliament: “If one day our nation says ‘enough,’ then we will step aside.”
Turkey may get to see if he keeps that promise a lot sooner than anyone expected.