ANALYSIS-Turkey's Erdogan, master campaigner, faces toughest contest yet

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By Samia Nakhoul

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -For more than two decades, President Tayyip Erdogan has been the lord of all elections in Turkey.

With Sunday's presidential vote putting him in a tight race with opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, it is hard to believe the feisty politician who has ruled Turkey with a strong arm graciously admitting defeat and quietly bowing out of office.

Uncertainty, anxiety, anticipation and tension over what the results might hold for Europe's second-biggest country of 85 million people can be felt on the streets, where many Turks, including a new generation of voters, are yearning for change.

They have been battered by crippling inflation, a collapsing lira and a sharp decline in living standards, compounded by the devastating February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and left millions homeless.

Polls suggest Kilicdaroglu has an edge but that Erdogan could yet prevail given his strong support base in the devout working-class Anatolian heartland.

Those who have followed Erdogan's rise over the last three decades argue he will fight by all means to retain power, and that he could use state resources to his benefit to snatch a slim victory or to contest any narrow defeat.

"He would contest the results if they aren't in his favour and if the margin is narrow, but he can't do much if the opposition gets a landslide victory. He is at the weakest point in his political career," said columnist Kadri Gursel.

Asked to comment on a possible challenge to the result by Erdogan, a presidency official told Reuters that in the event of irregularities, appeals would be made to the election board, something he said the main CHP opposition party could also do.

"But if the election is lost, saying ‘he will not leave office’ is completely meaningless and baseless," he added.

AMBITION

Under Turkey's voting system, a winner can be selected by gaining more than 50% of the ballots cast or, if no candidate hits that score, by winning a runoff, which is a likely scenario with polls showing Erdogan and his opponent short of a majority.

The most influential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey a century ago, Erdogan has amassed power around an executive presidency, muzzled dissent, jailed critics and opponents and squeezed the media, judiciary and the economy, firing the last three central bank governors in two years.

He has elbowed aside powerful generals and defanged the army, with some trials of officers followed by a crackdown on dissent, sparked by a 2016 coup attempt against him.

In some ways, he and his Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP) shifted Turkey away from Ataturk's secular blueprint towards an Islamist-rooted agenda. His opponents describe him as a Sultan with the ambition of rivaling Ataturk as a historic figure.

"He accumulated power under him, such a system wouldn't but create a crisis, it created a management crisis, an economic crisis and a state crisis," said Gursel.

Most economists attribute sky-rocketing inflation, which touched 85% last year, and a protracted financial crisis to Erdogan's unorthodox policies and mismanagement. He says his low-interest rate economic policy will not reverse if he wins.

COMBATIVE

Three days before voting, a combative Erdogan is still on TV screens and on the campaign trail, reeling off past successes by showcasing defence, gas and industrial mega projects.

"What drives him is power, a sense that he is on a mission. He wants to rival Ataturk," said Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul think tank EDAM.

The tumbling economy and what some critics saw as a feckless response to the quake have hurt Erdogan's fortunes, especially after questions were raised that some builders in the worst-hit areas had been given amnesty despite earlier construction violations, thus increasing buildings' vulnerability to quakes.

"Erdogan came to power on the back of an economic crisis and a disastrous earthquake and will leave the same way," Gursel said, referring to the spiralling inflation of the 1990s following a massive 1999 quake near Istanbul.

Analysts point out that historically inflation and economic crises have brought down every single Turkish government that was seen responsible for mismanaging state affairs.

"It's the economy that lost him popularity," said Ulgen. "It has become an economy which doesn't operate on free and fair principles, but on vested interests."

Many Turks are struggling to pay for food, schools and rent with workers' minimum monthly salaries worth the equivalent of $436 because of the currency devaluation.

When Erdogan came to power in 2003 Turkey was on the economic rebound and seemed an incredible success story and the envy of its neighbours.

The man himself, son of a sea captain, is an instinctive, charismatic politician who electrifies the campaign trail thanks to a natural bond with admiring masses across Anatolia.

Supporters and even critics credit Erdogan and his team for their early accomplishments: improving the lot of the poor by delivering electricity and water supplies, raising per capita income, spreading wealth and healthcare and building new schools, clinics, roads, bridges and airports.

Erdogan, supporters and even liberal critics say, also left his mark by raising the profile of Turkey as a regional power and by lifting a ban on headscarves, which allowed conservative women to work in the public sector and freely attend university.

But to critics, he also created a new class of corrupted "Anatolian Tiger" oligarchs, entrepreneurs and construction tycoons with vested interests who replaced traditional conglomerates from the secularist camp.

Following successive electoral triumphs, Erdogan's tolerance of any defiance of his power eroded and a slide towards autocratic rule grew more flagrant. He hollowed out critical organs of the state. Once close allies joined the opposition.

Sunday's vote could prove a turning point.

An Erdogan defeat could take Turkey back to its more secular, democratic past which Kilicdaroglu promised to revive by liberating institutions from the grasp of the state.

An Erdogan win, critics say, could herald a larger crackdown on political foes and remaining independent institutions.

Asli Aydintasbas, Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution, said the vote was not just about democracy but whether Turkey could return to rules-based governance for all citizens.

"There is a sense that everything depends on the whims of one person — that all decisions are made by President Erdogan, from minutiae to state matters. And people, even those that love him, have come to see this as a governance hazard," she said.

"Whether he barely wins or not, I feel like the Erdogan era is over. Turkish society is ready to move on."

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and William Maclean)