2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. Established by Ataturk, the country has never been further away from the secular blueprint it was built on due to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, the AKP. Many young individuals, including myself, have grown up in a Turkey where we have no memory of Erdoğan not being in power. No other Turkish leader in the past century has had the same control over Turkish politics, the executive branch, and the judicial system as Erdoğan. However, his reign of power will be tested on the 14th of May with the presidential and parliamentary elections, just months after the deadly earthquake. This election will determine who leads the country, how it is run, and whether the long-awaited ‘change’ in the government will happen. Yet, the implications of this election do not stop at the borders of Turkey. They will also influence the direction of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Kurdish question, the tensions with NATO, and the overly-discussed EU-Turkey relationship. Its position at the nexus between Europe and Asia, directly south of Ukraine, bordering the EU, and north of Syria, makes it of great geopolitical and strategic importance, thereby making this election not just bite Turkish but global nails.
How did Erdoğan start? The climb
69-year-old Erdoğan took his first steps on the ladder to ultimate power in 1994 as mayor of Istanbul. After founding the AKP in 2001, he was elected prime minister from 2003 to 2014, where he presided over a time of economic expansion, social reforms, and negotiations to join the EU. Still, he came under fire for his authoritarian tendencies, claims of corruption, and crackdowns on the opposition. In 2014 with a 52% majority vote, Erdoğan’s reign of power solidified when he became president, moving from the head of government to the head of state. To maintain this authority, he changed the constitution in a controversial referendum in 2017, removing the position of prime minister and elevating himself to the executive head of state and getting to the top of the ladder.
While the first decade of Erdoğan's rule was characterised by rapid economic expansion, since 2014, he has seen a drop in economic success and decreased public support. He has faced several challenges since his rise to the head of government as president. These have included a failed coup attempt in 2016, a currency crisis in 2018, increased public dissatisfaction on human rights issues and government responses to the pandemic, and, most recently, an earthquake tragedy. Starting off as a reformist, lifting citizens out of poverty and guiding economic growth, his approach to governing soon became a symbol of declining democracy and set Turkey's direction towards an authoritarian rule. Over the past ten years, a loss of connection with the youth and urban masses hurt his popularity in progressive circles. Add to this a decline in support from conservatives due to the economic downturn since 2018. Everything begins to point to the fact that the beginning of the end for Erdoğan has already started.
What do the elections look like, and who are the key players?
Turkish citizens will be able to vote for two main coalitions, both for the presidential and parliamentary elections. While they are equally important, the presidential election preoccupies most minds because of the president's increased powers and responsibilities under the new presidential system. The president is directly elected by a two-round system with a simple majority (50% and one extra vote). Candidates running for the presidency must be at least 40 years old and must have obtained a higher education diploma. Although Erdoğan claims to have graduated from Marmara University in 1981, many have questioned the validity of his degree and accused him of forging it. Erdoğan has disputed the claims as a smear campaign by his rivals, and there is insufficient evidence to support or refute his assertion definitively. Even the requirements, something so elemental and basic in the elections, have been contested, showing the incapacity of the institution's ability to defend against politicians.
The two leading candidates running for the presidency are Erdoğan and Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Still, they are followed by smaller candidates Muharrem Ince, leader of the Homeland Party (MP), and Sinan Oğan, supported by the Ancestral Alliance. As a majority is needed, parties have formed alliances, of which the two major ones are the People’s Alliance, consisting of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Nation Alliance, which consists of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the nationalist Good Party (IYI), as well as four other, primarily conservative groups. The Nation Alliance, which is only united by its opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has come together around a promise to reinstate a parliamentary style of government within two years if elected.
The Table of Six
The unfair conditions, such as the government’s control over the media, the misuse of state resources, and the executive’s extensive control over the judiciary increase, force the opposition to act upon two factors that can lead them to success. The alliances must first come together and support a single candidate for the presidency. Second, they must convince protestors and indecisive voters to vote for their movement, as doing so would send a clear statement about their eagerness to win the election.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu would not have been the optimal candidate a few years ago, as he represents a secular social democratic party and comes from a minority Alawite background, which is not usually supported by conservatives. However, the united opposition deemed the ‘Table of Six’, stemming from six parties having dinners around a table, forced a strong unity between them. The Table of Six consists of Islamists, former Erdoğan lieutenants, nationalists, and parties with various ideologies, united by the main purpose of restoring democracy, re-establishing the parliamentary system, and overthrowing Erdoğan to ensure the separation of power. Kılıçdaroğlu has portrayed himself as the unifier as he promises not to be the leader of the alliance nor rule the country for the upcoming two decades due to his old age of 74. Thus, he seems to be the middle ground for the opposition where the middle class, and the Kurds, representing 18% of the vote, can support and trust him. The unity of a usually fragmented opposition has given hope to most, where a Turkey without Erdoğan seems in near sight.
Why the opposition could win.
Day by day, as election day has gotten closer, the non-charismatic Kılıçdaroğlu seems to be rising in the polls. He has even surpassed Erdoğan by ten percentage points, highlighting the unity and success of the opposition. Moreover, it seems more and more likely that the National Alliance will grab more seats than the AKP and MHP in parliament. Despite the margins not being major and Erdoğan still having a major support base, it seems difficult for him to close the gap after last month’s devastating earthquake. The government's poor urban planning and deficient rescue plan led to the death of 50,000 citizens, sparking major unrest and decreasing the overall trust and faith in the current government. The earthquake did not have been so deadly if it wasn't for poor construction regulations and corruption, allowing contractors and state officials to ignore building codes. The same happened in 1999 when a huge earthquake hit Izmit and then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was condemned for failing to manage the crisis effectively. Back then, this led to AKP’s win in the next elections. Today, the opposition hopes to replicate it once again, as the earthquake might have been the last drop in the bucket for some.
The earthquake also shone a light on the ineffectiveness of the presidential system. People were promised that a presidential government would be more efficient and the country be better governed. Yet, one man deciding who rescues who, what, and where is proven unsuccessful for a disaster of this scale. Hence, the government's failed response to the earthquake has shown citizens that devolution, decentralisation of power, and governance actually result in better governance.
Additionally, the economic miracle that Erdoğan had cast slowly seems to be fading and coming to an end with the multiple economic crises since 2018. The rapid economic growth that Turkey had seen vastly halted with soaring inflation as a result of unorthodox monetary policy. Last November, inflation hit 85%, setting a 24-year record, however, it has since dropped to 55%. The Turkish Lira has also lost 60% of its value against the US dollar since the beginning of 2021. Moreover, Turkey reported a record-high current account deficit and a 38% increase in the trade deficit. The flying increase in living expenses has displaced the middle class from a lifestyle they expected and has driven the poor deeper into hopelessness. It is, therefore, natural to imagine that Erdoğan is not scoring high in the polls before the election. This distrust in the government is further encouraged by thoughts from abroad that Western financial institutions and investors will support the Turkish economy more if Erdoğan is removed from power. Many hope these few but incredibly significant reasons should be enough to see someone else govern in the future.
Why Erdoğan could still win
With Turkey running into more and more problems, an inevitable switch seems likely, but Erdoğan and the AKP do have clear advantages as the big bully. Foremost, everything stated above would lower the chances of the current government if the election was taken on a fair playing field. By weakening the parliamentary-based system and enforcing a presidential one, Erdoğan has essentially transformed Turkey into a one-man rule by becoming Turkey’s modern-day sultan. The media is completely in the hands of the government, as Erdoğan monopolises public broadcasts and the media is controlled by individuals close to him. The government's Directorate of Communications is headed by former professor Fahrettin Altun, who coordinates strict hierarchical editorial control from the top down by supervising the directives given to newsrooms. Medyascope and Halk TV seem to be the only independent news outlets for the opposition. Restriction on media does not stop here; the parliament passed even more restrictive legislation in October where Turkish authorities can control and restrict online free speech. Threats of imprisonment based on unclear charges of defamation or insulting the president have put many journalists in jail. Erdoğan has filled the courts, law enforcement agencies, civil services, intelligence agencies, and the officer cadre of the armed forces with loyalists. Furthermore, Erdoğan is able to use public resources for his campaigns and election monitoring for the opposition is incredibly difficult.
The task Erdoğan needs to endure during his campaign is also relatively easier than the opposition as he has a cohesive voting base and a well-organized party, whilst the opposition needs to unite voting groups with opposing ideologies. Despite the ideological diversity, Kılıçdaroğlu promised to appoint vice presidents from each of the remaining five parties, enforcing involvement in strategy and policy decisions. The country does have a bad history with coalition governments, making it less attractive of an option for some. Support from the Kurdish-oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) might increase the voter base, but also drive off many others who see HDP as a threat due to alleged PKK links, the Kurdish guerilla group. Lastly, his experience in governing seems to be a big asset as it ensures the stability of governance and Kılıçdaroğlu has no record of achievements, making voters wonder whether he is able to take upon the domestic and diplomatic challenges of Turkey.
Just like the cookie monster, Erdoğan has a voracious appetite and will do anything to pull the strings to stay in power. Opposers, the US and the EU should therefore not let hope blind them into thinking that these elections will be different. The calculated switch of having someone close to Erdoğan in all sectors can result in him winning without stuffing the ballot and inaccurate tallying. The system he has put into place can provide him with a win. Even if he loses the upcoming election, many believe he will not retract so gracefully. If loss appears to be in hand, judges and electoral authorities loyal to Erdoğan might nullify the outcomes, as they attempted to do in 2019 with the results of Istanbul's mayoral race. The defeat of Erdoğan should therefore not be celebrated too early, as the hand-over of power is not as easy as it seems.
So, will this be the end, and what does this mean for the future?
The results of the 2023 elections will have a big impact on Turkey’s future, and it is vital for the opposition that the elections are fair. The elections will be watched on a global scale as international relations are on the line. If the AKP remains in power, this could further consolidate Erdoğan’s sultan-like position, and democratic institutions may continue to deteriorate. The AKP administration takes autonomous diplomatic and military actions when its interests diverge from those of the EU and NATO, as it does not hesitate to strengthen its ties with nations like Russia, Iran, and China. Their win could mean a stronger divide within the global political scene with an invigorated, powerful authoritarian. The relations between Europe and Turkey would hold high turbulence, as the EU might formally end Turkey’s process of accession. Moreover, EU-Turkey relations might further erode due to tensions with Greece and Cyprus, which are unlikely to ease. Close ties with Russia and the continued veto of Sweden’s NATO membership could lead to worsening ties with the EU. A new governing elite from a distinct socioeconomic and political background has been introduced to Turkey due to the AKP's two decades in power, radically altering Turkish politics and significantly impacting the economy, culture, and educational system. If the People's Alliance wins, Erdoğan will have five whole years to raise suitable successors who will faithfully carry on the AKP's legacy and maintain the accomplishments made by the conservative Turkish majority over the past two decades.
If the opposition parties triumph, society may move toward becoming more democratic and pluralistic. There will be a new window of opportunity for the EU and Turkey to lay the foundation for a cooperative and stable relationship. A shift towards a more pro-Western foreign policy could be seen. Still, Euroscepticism and anti-Americanism dominate the Turkish public’s judgment. The EU shouldn't anticipate a quick improvement in its relations, but it should be ready for escalated political tension in trade, migration, border protection, and energy. The opposition parties are keen on devoting more time than is now being spent on diplomacy, negotiations, and developing better relations with the EU. Nonetheless, given the opposition’s varied, frequently nationalistic position and public perceptions of the EU’s biased perception of Turkey, it is unlikely to predict a smooth improvement in relations between the two blocs. Kılıçdaroğlu has opposed military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, however, also criticised the open-door policy that Erdoğan had placed. Through increased talks with the Assad regime, Kılıçdaroğlu plans on sending Syrians back which could damage the Turkey-EU deal. A win for the opposition could mean a vengeful retake of power and a process toward strengthening the parliamentary system for a democratic regime, however, could also increase tensions with the EU.
9 whole days until the elections and 9 days in Turkey is a very long time. Anything can happen, and opinions can change instantly in a chaotic country with a polarised society. Tensions are high, people are stressed, and political turmoil is evidently going to happen. Day after day, the sight is getting clearer and hopefully, Turkey will become freer.