Elections in Turkey
The end of the Erdogan era?

As polling day on 14 May approaches, opinion polls put Turkey's opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu ahead of President Erdogan. Could this mean that Erdoğan's time at the helm of the nation is almost over? An analysis by Yasar Aydin

Turkey's election campaign is in full swing. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is tirelessly reminding the electorate of completed infrastructure projects and announcing more major ones. At the same time, he is attacking the opposition: if they win, he says, they will betray vital national interests, disregard the religious sensitivities of large sections of the population and put the fight against terror on the back burner. The president is pursuing a twin strategy: on the one hand, he's pledging prosperity and modernisation; on the other, he's fomenting fear, polarising and stigmatising.

He and his electoral alliance have a great deal to lose. It's quite possible that the Nation Alliance, with its candidate Kemal Kılicdaroglu, could depose Erdogan and capture the parliamentary majority. That would spell the end of the Erdogan era – and quite possibly that of Erdogan's political career as a whole. Should he lose the election, he and his family could also face corruption charges.

With his creative campaign and integrative rhetoric, opposition leader Kemal Kılicdaroglu is reawakening a sense of hope within the population – and finding support beyond moderate leftists, Atatürk devotees and the Alevi community. His interaction with religious-conservative citizens and those with moderate nationalist views is empathetic – something that is being positively received.

Clockwise from top left: Muharrem İnce, the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Sinan Oğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (photos: Emin Sansar/AA/picture alliance; Adem Altan/AFP; Burhan Ozbilici/AP/Picture-alliance)
The four candidates for the Turkish presidency (clockwise from top left): Muharrem Ince (MP), the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AKP), Sinan Ogan (ZP) and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (CHP), who is leading in opinion polls

Currency crisis, inflation and weak leadership 

From the perspective of the governing alliance, Turkey's domestic political situation could hardly be less favourable for the elections on 14 May 2023. The inflation rate has been in double figures since late 2019 and recently stood at over 50 per cent. The jobless rate is currently 10 percent, with youth unemployment at 19.2 percent.

The prolonged currency decline is sending energy prices through the roof, as energy sources have to be imported from abroad. This is further exacerbating inflation; many households are now experiencing both dwindling prosperity and diminishing faith in the government.

The state's poor management of the earthquake catastrophe has also been a source of widespread dismay and anger. For days, the government failed to mobilise sufficient emergency personnel for the disaster zone and took weeks to arrange temporary shelter for all those affected.

Adding to the sense of fury was the revelation that in the first few days after the earthquakes, the Turkish Red Crescent, "Kizilay", sold urgently needed weatherproof tents for €2.3 million to the private aid organisation Ahbap, instead of making them directly available free of charge to those affected by the quakes.  

Economic gloom, weak leadership in the wake of disasters such as these and poor popularity ratings are piling pressure on the president. With every day that passes, the nation's leadership appears more and more nervous.  

Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu poses for a selfie in a crowd (photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
"With his creative campaign and integrative rhetoric, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is reawakening a sense of hope within the population – and finding support beyond moderate leftists, Ataturk devotees and the Alevi community," writes Yasar Aydin

Polls predict no parliamentary majority for the governing bloc

The presidential and parliamentary elections in which 64.2 million Turkish citizens – 3.29 million of whom live abroad – are entitled to vote, will set the country's course for years to come. Their outcome will be crucial not just for the nation's future, the opportunity for democratic change and the prosperity of Turkey. A potential change of government would also impact bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia, the civil war in Syria, tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, the transatlantic alliance and Turkish-European cooperation on refugees.

Four electoral alliances are vying for the parliamentary majority. The opposition Nation Alliance unites six parties, all of which are pro-European. The CHP (Republican People's Party), which was founded by Atatürk, is Kemalist-social democratic; İYİ (the Good Party),  a spin-off from the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), is nationalist-economically liberal in orientation; the DP (Democrat Party) is liberal-conservative; DEVA (the Democracy and Progress Party) and GP (the Future Party) – both AKP spin-offs – are liberal-conservative, and the SP (Felicity Party) is Islamist in orientation. The CHP and the İYİ aim to return to the parliamentary system.

Polls are giving the CHP 27 to 30 percent of the vote; with 10 to 13 percent for the İYİ Party. Deva, GP, SP and DP candidates aren't standing independently, but on the CHP ticket. This means that the opposition parties' alliance could garner 43 percent of the vote in total.

In the event of such an outcome, the Labour and Freedom Alliance would assume the role of kingmaker. This bloc unites five parties: the YSP (the Party of Greens and the Left Future), the successor party to the pro-Kurdish left-wing HDP, has a pro-Kurdish-federalist, left-wing liberal to socialist profile, as well as being critical of NATO and partially separatist in orientation. The socialist or more specifically communist TİP, EMEP, EHP and TÖP parties are all anti-NATO and some are anti-EU.

The People's Alliance, which is led by Erdogan's Islamic-conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party), brings together the far-right ultranationalist MHP, which takes an anti-EU, pan-Turkist line, the Islamist BBP (Great Unity Party), Huda-Par (Free Cause Party) and the YRP (New Welfare Party). Whereas the three splinter parties are anti-EU and pan-Islamic in orientation, the AKP and MHP are Eurosceptic and neo-Ottoman – or more specifically pan-Turkist – in orientation.  

An electronic election poster for Erdoğan promises households free gas for a year (photo: Anne Pollmann/dpa/picture-aliance)
Expensive electoral promises: this election poster for Erdogan is promising households free gas for a year. It is promises like these that indicate the pressure the president is under. "For months now, his popularity ratings have languished well below 50 percent, most recently dipping to just under 44 percent," writes Yasar Aydin

AKP trailing in the polls

Electoral polls give the AKP between 32 and 34 percent and the MHP around seven percent of the vote, which puts the People's Alliance slightly behind the opposition Nation Alliance. 

The nationalist Ancestral Alliance, which is led by the right-wing populist ZP (Victory Party, an MHP spin-off), is critical of the EU, pan-Turkist and anti-migration in orientation. The other parties in this bloc, the AP, ÜP and TIP, can be classified as liberal-conservative through to nationalist. Another party entering the race outside of any alliance is the MP (Homeland Party, a CHP spin-off). The Kemalist-social democratic, pro-European party has put up its own candidate for the presidential election.

Who secures a parliamentary majority is important: the Grand National Assembly enacts and amends laws, repeals them, passes the budget, decides on declarations of war, military missions abroad and the ratification of international treaties. With a two-thirds majority, parliament can dissolve itself, thereby triggering parliamentary and presidential elections.

Nevertheless, constitutional amendments in 2017 significantly weakened parliament and shifted greater powers to the executive branch of government. Executive power no longer lies with a cabinet recruited from deputies and confirmed and controlled by parliament, but with the president, who can govern the nation by decree with sweeping powers that bypass parliament.

Battle for the presidency

Four candidates are vying for the post of president: the incumbent Erdoğan (AKP), opposition leader Kilicdaroglu (CHP), Muharrem Ince (MP) and Sinan Ogan (ZP). Erdogan is not the favourite to win; for months now, his popularity ratings have languished well below 50 per cent, most recently dipping to just under 44 per cent.

Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, has managed to build favour among the electorate, from just under 40 percent in March 2023 to 47 percent. If this trend continues, he could finish the race ahead of Erdogan and establish a favourable starting position for the run-off poll.

Muharrem Ince is far behind. It is quite possible that his sympathisers will withdraw their support on election day so as not to play into the hands of the serving president. Ince has already challenged Erdogan; back in 2018, he lost out to him with about 30 percent of the vote in the first round. Opinion polls give the candidate for the right-wing populist Victory Party, Sinan Ogan, around two percent of the vote.

In the event of a win, Kilicdaroglu would be the first Alevi to serve as president of Turkey. He is credited with uniting opposition parties of varied hues in an election alliance. He is also receiving support from the Labour and Freedom Alliance, which isn't fielding a presidential candidate of its own.

This has in turn exposed him to criticism and already soured relations with Meral Aksener, the chairman of the Good Party. This could potentially become a problem, as Erdogan and his ministers are exploiting the conflict between the two parties in the media.

People shopping on a street in Istanbul (photo: Tolga Ildun/ZUMAPRESS/picture-alliance)
How big a role will the cost-of-living crisis and inflation play in making up voter minds? According to Yasar Aydin, inflation has been in double figures since late 2019 and recently stood at over 50 percent. Moreover, unemployment currently stands at 10 percent, while the prolonged currency decline is sending energy prices through the roof

Erdogan cannot be ruled out

An opposition victory will require a high level of mobilisation, unity and acumen. And there are many reasons why Erdogan is by no means trailing far behind and still has a good chance of winning the race in the end.

To date, the incumbent president has managed to win almost all elections he has entered; step by step, he has put in place an autocratic system tailored to his power requirements. He has colonised public institutions, seized control of the judiciary and equipped the presidential office with a large range of powers, enabling him to appoint ministers and bureaucrats and to reorganise institutions and ministries – all without parliamentary approval.  

By controlling the Supreme Election Council and the regulatory authority for radio, television and media, he shapes the public discourse and dominates the election campaign.

As a result, we are seeing neither a fair election campaign, nor a democratic debate about content. Impartial election observation is also not a given: under new electoral legislation (Law No. 7393), any judge selected by lot can sit on the election observation committee. This exposes younger and less experienced judges to greater political pressure. This is particularly important, especially as junior posts in the judiciary have almost exclusively been filled by AKP loyalists. The president is not mentioned in the new law, which means he is not bound by the previous restrictions on the prime ministerial post and can make unfettered use of public funds for his election campaign.

Will Erdogan cede power? 

Dr Yasar Aydin (photo: private)
Dr Yasar Aydin lectures at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg and affiliated senior researcher withf the Foreign Policy Institute at the Middle East Technical University Ankara. His research areas include migration, international relations, geopolitics, German foreign policy and Turkey

In Germany, on the other hand, where 1.5 million people are entitled to vote in the Turkish elections, it is much clearer where voters' sympathies lie. Here, a victory for Erdogan and his People's Alliance is assured.

This is first and foremost due to his advantage as the incumbent president: thanks to the widespread availability of Turkish media in the everyday lives of Turkish people in Germany, the president has a higher profile than his challengers.

Turks in Germany credit Erdogan with the modernisation of the country's infrastructure. At the same time, they are not themselves exposed to the knock-on effect of the nation's economic misery.

However, the media image of German Turks living in a free, democratic society while voting for an autocrat does not do justice to the complexity of a transnational migration society.

An opposition election victory is possible. Elections in Turkey are free, even if they are unfair. Most recently, local elections in 2019 showed that the opposition can win – also thanks to Turkish civil society, which held out against the repression.

Nevertheless, it will be difficult for Erdogan and his entourage to cede power. If he is defeated at the ballot box, Erdogan may face exile or prison; as for those close to him, they are threatened with the loss of power and prestige, or even marginalisation.

If Erdogan is voted out of office – which is conceivable – it would facilitate a political renaissance. However, a democratic transformation won't happen overnight, as the conservative-nationalistic influence in the country's bureaucracy and administration will remain in place in the short and medium term. Any hopes for a breakthrough in relations between Turkey and the EU could also soon be dashed. 

Yasar Aydin

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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