This week, the Turkish people are presented with a choice of two competing visions. On Sunday 14 May, the country will hold presidential and parliamentary elections, heralded by some as the most important election of 2023.
As Türkiye marks its centenary as a modern republic, the outcome of these elections will determine the shape of the nation’s political system, economy, foreign policy, and its democracy for years to come. It is viewed as the most consequential contest since the country held its first free and fair elections in 1950.
The presidential race pits two veteran politicians against each other: long-time incumbent
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—now propped up by the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—who has been in power since 2003, and main opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), recognised as the party of Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. Kılıçdaroğlu, a 74-year-old former civil servant, has been backed by a six-party opposition alliance hailing from different ideological backgrounds. Among the opposition alliance include the former AK Party Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is now leading the newly established centre-right Future Party; former Minister of Economy, Ali Babacan, who is now leading the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA); and the leaders of the centre-right Iyi Party. The largest Kurdish nationalist party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are not part of the ‘Table of Six’ coalition of opposition parties, but are perceived to be backing Kilicdaroglu.
Why this election is important?
The stakes are high. After two decades under the power of President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its increasing consolidation of power under the executive, the country finds itself at a critical juncture.
For the first time in two decades, it is felt by both the general public and even the incumbent AK Party that a disruption of President Erdoğan’s uninterrupted rule is possible. At potential loss is a powerful presidential office where all executive power is consolidated. This upset is possible largely due to the deteriorating economy, which Erdoğan had promised to improve in 2018 when he became President.
What’s more, a large constituency—six million young people who have seen no other leader but President Erdoğan—will vote for the first time. Less attached to ideologies than previous generations, they may be voting for change.
Turkish society has been increasingly polarised. The government’s latest statements appear to be fuelling this polarisation at least until the elections. Illustrating the attempt to divide, is Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ’s remark that, “those who celebrate on the evening of 14 May will either celebrate with champagne [referring to the opposition] or by praying in gratitude.”
Given the stakes, high voter turnout is expected. Over the past week, the Turkish diaspora globally—who have historically leant towards President Erdoğan in places like Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands—have also been voting in significant numbers. In an election this close, even the smallest of margins may make a difference.
President Erdoğan has been criticised for slide towards autocracy, and censorship of free speech in the country has been much reported on in recent years. Of most notable consequence has been the weakening of legislative and judiciary, which has led to overwhelming censorship of free speech and a pervasive culture of fear due to the huge number of prosecutions against social media and press criticism.
The AK Party government also brought a lawsuit to the Constitutional Court to shut down the largest Kurdish Party, HDP. To mitigate the risk of potential closure, the HDP has entered under the banner of the Green Left Party.
Kılıçdaroğlu has promised, if elected, a new path for Türkiye and a roll back of much of President Erdoğan’s legacy. Within one year, he has pledged to dismantle the presidential system imposed by President Erdoğan, meaning that the political system will revert back to a parliamentary democracy with much reduced powers for the President. He has identified free press as a priority, and vowed to remove restrictions on social media, eliminating a controversial law that makes it illegal to “insult the president.”
Over the past few years, the Turkish lira has been battered by record depreciation, with the currency losing over 450 percent of its value over five years; foreign direct investments and portfolio investments have been decreasing in the wake of President Erdoğan’s growth-oriented unorthodox economic policies based on the premise that high interest rates is the cause and not effect of inflation. President Erdoğan has taken the hardline approach of cutting interest rates in the face of high inflation rates. As a result, the Turkish population have been grappling with a spiralling economy and double-digit inflation, hitting pockets hard enough to the point that even some long-time supporters can no longer tolerate. However, the Turkish economy has been growing noticeably despite the deteriorating macroeconomic figures as part of President Erdoğan’s selective economic policies incentivizing various sectors, such as the construction sector to boost economic growth.
If President Erdoğan wins, the unorthodox economic policies and the current unfavourable stance of the foreign portfolio investors towards Türkiye are expected to continue as President Erdoğan has stated on more than one occasion that his economic policies have been successful, and he will continue to decrease interest rates to address inflation.
Under Kılıçdaroğlu, a shift to a more orthodox economic policy mix is expected. Former Finance Minister, Ali Babacan who is one of the masterminds of the impressive Turkish economic growth in the early 2000s and leader of the DEVA party is expected to lead economic policies again. This may lead to a gradual increase in the interest rates, but no significant austerity measures are expected until the local elections in March 2024.
In terms of foreign affairs, while AK Party has since 2021 made advances to restore diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel, alongside ongoing negotiations with Egypt, Armenia and Syria, relations with the West have become increasingly strained. The United States and Türkiye have had conflicting interests in many areas, including relations with Syria and Russia, the Russia-Ukraine war and Türkiye’s purchase of S-400 air defence system from Russia.
If elected, it is expected that a Kılıçdaroğlu government will strengthen the country’s strategic anchor with the West, adopting a more pro-NATO and pro-EU stance. It is expected, for instance, that Sweden’s NATO accession (blocked by President Erdoğan), will be quickly approved. However, it will likely preserve its economic ties with Russia due to its energy dependency and current level of trade.
What to expect and will it be a fair election?
All independent opinion polls in recent weeks have consistently shown Kılıçdaroğlu with a clear lead. Similarly in the parliamentary elections the race is tight for a clear majority for either side.
Yet, despite an opposition ascent in the polls, President Erdoğan remains a charismatic and skilled political operator, holding sway amongst many of his supporters particularly in the Anatolian and Black Sea heartlands, to whom he “speaks the language” of. The opposition’s factionalised outlook also raises doubts in the eyes of constituents who have suffered from the instability of coalition governments of the 1990s. Therefore, President Erdoğan still appears to some as the strongest leader to take the nation into the future.
Given President Erdoğan’s extensive control over the Turkish media, the opposition has been reporting difficulties in representing their views, and as a result it is seen that odds are skewed against the opposition from the start. President Erdoğan has been using this control over the media effectively, and there are worries of a further tightening of media restrictions if he wins again.
However, it is in this tilted landscape that the opposition overcame these odds in 2019 to win control of both Istanbul and Ankara—the nation’s largest cities—in the Mayoral elections.
Due to the tight nature of the race, it is possible that no presidential candidate will secure more than 50 percent of the votes and the election will go to a second round in which the top two leaders of the first round compete.
The question on many lips, and indicative of the level of distrust amongst many Turks, is whether after two decades at the helm, will Erdoğan relinquish power if he loses? With Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu warning that the vote will be “a coup attempt by the West,” fears are mounting that the AK Party may be preparing to discount the result.
Many also recall the annulment of the initial Istanbul mayoral result in 2019, and subsequent re-election in which the opposition won with an even larger majority. However, a government attempt to annul the results from a general election would set the country into unprecedented territory and be unthinkable to many. Will that lever be pulled? All eyes on Türkiye this Sunday.