Now the date is set; Türkiye (Turkey) will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, 2023. As a country that has always been struggling to embrace full democracy in the last 70 years, the elections will be decisive in terms of choosing a future for the country. At one side, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his right-wing conservative party coming from Islamist origins AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) leads the People Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) bloc, on the other hand, pro-secular CHP (Republican People’s Party) and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu leads the Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı) bloc. Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are both presidential candidates and it is certain that the presidential election will be a race between these two. While Erdoğan’s bloc represents hyper-presidentialism and a more authoritarian country leaning towards becoming a regional power, the opposition bloc defends parliamentary democratic regime and a return to Türkiye’s classical Western-oriented foreign policy. In this piece, I am going to analyze 2023 Turkish elections and summarize recent political developments within the country.
Opposition finally chooses a presidential candidate: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu
Turkey’s main opposition bloc, the Nation Alliance is a loose electoral coalition between six parties. The bloc is led by CHP, the political party that has established the Republic of Türkiye in 1923 under the leadership of its first chair and the heroic founding father of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Although CHP was a revolutionary republican and a radical modernist party in the 1920s and the 1930s, it had eventually transformed into an authoritarian state party afterwards and lost its popular support especially among the pious (Islamist) and Kurdish voters. The party lost the first free and fair election in the country in 1950, on May 14 and stayed away from the government for a decade, but began to make a new political opening in the 1960s and 1970s under İsmet İnönü and Bülent Ecevit’s leaderships by transforming itself into a populist leftist party appealing to working population and especially to workers and urban poor.
CHP was closed down in 1980 by the military regime, but was reestablished in 1992. This new CHP was more bourgeois-centered; defending free-market and especially focusing on protecting the secular regime and the unitary state structure against rising Islamist and Kurdish movements. The party could not become very successful in the elections during Deniz Baykal’s leadership, but eventually has become the second biggest and the main opposition party in Türkiye since 2002. In 2010, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected the party’s new chair following a sex tape scandal. Coming from Alevi faith, Kılıçdaroğlu has tried to open the party to different groups within the Turkish society by bringing center-right, Islamist, and liberal figures to the old party structure and cadre. Although Kılıçdaroğlu increased the party’s votes by 5 % compared to Baykal period, he still seemed to have no chance to defeat Erdoğan until recently.
However, starting from his Justice March in 2017, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has showed his strength of purpose to defeat Erdoğan and began to implement a new strategy. By using cleavages within the governing bloc and the pro-government MHP (Nationalist Action Party), he helped the flourishing of new right-wing parties that embraced anti-Erdoğanism. So, first the Good Party (İYİ Parti) was established by Meral Akşener and his friends, by splitting from MHP, with the help and active support of CHP. Later, Gültekin Uysal’s center-right Democrat Party (DP) and Temel Karamollaoğlu’s Islamist but anti-government Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi-SP) began to support Kılıçdaroğlu and his newly established bloc, the Nation Alliance. However, this was not enough for the opposition to defeat Erdoğan in 2018 when Muharrem İnce lost the presidential election against Erdoğan in the first round. Kılıçdaroğlu did not give up and continued to develop this new strategy. In the end, he saw the joining of two new right-wing parties to his electoral bloc; Ali Babacan’s DEVA and Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party (Gelecek Partisi-GP), both splitting from the governing AK Parti. Kılıçdaroğlu also maintained his friendly relations with the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and tried to embrace everyone without making any discrimination. Moreover, he was successful in managing the “sextet chair” (altılı masa) and solved a recent crisis with Akşener to confirm his candidacy in a way that showed his strong leadership abilities. Now, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have a real chance to win the presidential election and almost all polls show that he could win the election with 55-56 % votes to Erdoğan’s 44-45 % in a potential head-to-head second round. Especially if HDP decides to support Kılıçdaroğlu in the first or at least in the second round, his chance would be extremely high for winning the presidential race.
Alarm for Erdoğan and efforts to bring new actors to the governing coalition
Erdoğan is still the leader of AK Parti and People Alliance and his strategy is to expand the governing bloc. Erdoğan has already the support of Devlet Bahçeli’s Turkish nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) and Mustafa Destici’s Islamist-Turkish nationalist BBP (Great Unity Party) parties on his ranks. However, seeing the increasing performance of the opposition, Erdoğan now wants to expand his bloc. For instance, he recently convinced Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party) to join the People Alliance. However, led by Zekeriya Yapıcıoğlu and supported by former Kurdish Hezbollah members and supporters, this party is a very radical political organization both in its approach to secular regime and to the Kurdish Question. Although not defending openly autonomy or independence, the party is very much pro-Kurdish and calls for the constitutional recognition of Kurdish language and identity in addition to the mother tongue education. Although these are in fact basic democratic rights, in semi-democratic regimes like Türkiye, this could create problems in politics. Moreover, the party also openly advocates a Sunni Islamic regime by criminalizing adultery and recognizing religious (Islamic) marriages. It is a fact that Hüda-Par could bring some votes from Kurds, but the real and the main pro-Kurdish political actor in the country will continue to be the HDP.
In addition, Erdoğan and AK Parti are recently in talks with two small parties; the Democratic Left Party (Demokratik Sol Parti-DSP) – former political party of Bülent Ecevit which is not an important political actor anymore and the Motherland Party (ANAP) – a reestablished political party named after Turgut Özal and Mesut Yılmaz’s famous party who ruled Türkiye in the 1980s and 1990s. These two political parties would not bring much votes to Erdoğan, but could improve the psychological situation of the governing bloc. However, if Erdoğan and his team achieve to convince the New Welfare Party (Yeniden Refah Partisi), an Islamist and anti-Western political party led by famous Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan’s son Fatih Erbakan, this could be a real game-changing factor. Although not spoken openly in the media, this party has already 270,000 members and is one of the biggest party in Türkiye in terms of membership size. The party has also approximately 2 % electoral support according to most recent polls. This shows that it might not change the overall picture, but having the New Welfare Party on his ranks could bring Erdoğan more votes. However, Fatih Erbakan could become a presidential candidate independently as well. Lastly, having this party with him or not, Erdoğan needs a small miracle to win this election.
Other presidential candidates
There will be some other candidates contending in the 2023 Türkiye presidential elections. For instance, recently, former MHP deputy and a Turkish nationalist politician having strong ties with Azerbaijan, Sinan Oğan was announced to be the candidate of 7 right-wing and Turkish nationalist parties. Oğan is an influential public figure who has been appearing on televised debates very frequently, but he does not have high chance. Among the political parties who support Oğan -it is called as the “Ata İttifakı” (Patriarch Alliance)-, the only influential political actor is Professor Ümit Özdağ’s Victory Party (Zafer Partisi). Having an anti-immigrant and ultranationalist rhetoric, this party has a real potential among Turkish far-right voters. There are already some opinion polls that suggest that this party could get 1.6-2 % votes in the coming parliamentary elections.
Former CHP deputy and the leader of Homeland Party (Memleket Partisi) Muharrem İnce will become a presidential candidate as well. İnce is an excellent orator, but having lost the presidential election to Erdoğan in 2018 and not supported by his party CHP anymore, İnce and his party could get maximum 2-3 %. Moreover, in order to confirm his candidacy from outside the parliament, İnce needs the signature of 100,000 Turkish citizens.
Veteran left-wing politician and the leader of the Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi) Doğu Perinçek could become a presidential candidate as well with the support and the signature of 100,000 Turkish citizens. Perinçek does not have any real chance to win the election.
Turkish far-left might also declare its presidential candidate soon. Composed of socialist/communist political parties including TİP (Turkish Labor Party), EMEP, and the Left Party (Sol Parti), this bloc is named as the Labor and Freedom Alliance (Emek ve Özgürlük İttifakı). This bloc might eventually decide to endorse Kılıçdaroğlu as well especially in case HDP follows this path.
To conclude, I can say that, 2023 Türkiye elections will be very interesting for political scientists and international observers. It seems like we could witness a democratic transition of power although it is almost unimaginable to think mighty Erdoğan to give his seat to his main rival Kılıçdaroğlu. Polls show that Kılıçdaroğlu could win the election even with a large (5 to 8 %) points difference, but I am sure that Erdoğan will try everything and show an amazing performance before the elections. Let us hope that Turkish people will make the right decision.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ