Turkish elections on May 14, 2023 are expected to be the most contested race in Erdoğan’s 20-year rule as the country grapples with years of economic disorder and the fallout from a devastating earthquake. Erdoğan has been facing the biggest political challenge since his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) came to power in 2002. Opponents have blamed the President’s economic, judiciary, and social policies.
Looking at the economic conditions of Türkiye, Erdoğan commanded aggressive interest rate cuts, which the Central Bank of Türkiye carried out, sending inflation to a 24-year peak of more than 85 percent in October before it dipped to near 50 percent in March. The ensuing cost-of-living crisis has gripped Turkish households and squeezed earnings and savings, bottoming out people’s purchasing power.
Also, Erdoğan’s government has been accused of acting slowly after the earthquake centered on Kahramanmaraş. Millions of Turks were left homeless in the 11 provinces affected by the quakes. Commentators have said that despite his near total control over the country and its institutions, he was not able to mobilise them quick enough after years of erosion. The sale of tents by Red Crescent (Kızılay) to the non-governmental organizations, and AFAD’s lack of coordination also caused the government to be criticized during the earthquake.
Another contemporary issue is that Türkiye hosts nearly 4 million Syrians, so many Turks, combating with a major cost-of-living crisis, are becoming increasingly hostile to asylum-seekers. All opposition blocs have accused Ak Parti of opening the borders and collecting many un-known people without any control and promised to create suitable conditions for the voluntary return of Syrians to their homeland. Opposition is aware of the fact that this would require not only an international burden-sharing, but also establishing dialogue with Damascus. Upon the speech of the Kılıçdaroğlu to meet Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Erdoğan has also been trying to establish a rapprochement with Syria for a while, but Bashar al-Assad remarks that he will only meet the Turkish President when Ankara is ready to completely withdraw its military power from northern part of Syria.
The elections correspond to the 100 years of the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular Republic. In the elections, Erdoğan will face an opposition aligned behind CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, nicknamed the “Turkish Gandhi”, who is promising big changes. According to Reuben Silverman, researcher at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, Kılıçdaroğlu’s broad coalition is necessary because no dominant Turkish political personality has emerged to rival Erdoğan so far. In part, this is Erdoğan’s own doing: exciting politicians like İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have been sidelined by prosecutions and imprisonment.
Apart from Kılıçdaroğlu, Muharrem İnce, the presidential candidate of Homeland Party received 114,657 signatures from the voters while Sinan Oğan, the president candidate of ATA Alliance, received 111,502. Eight other candidates failed to garner enough signatures and New Welfare Party leader Fatih Erbakan withdrew his application to support Erdoğan’s candidacy.
Although most of the surveys show that Kılıçdaroğlu has eked out a lead, Erdoğan is still a hardened election campaigner, with the full might of the state and its institutions at his back. There is widespread belief that he will do whatever it takes to stay in power, using his incumbency advantages to have a narrow victory and to challenge unfavorable results. According to the recent surveys, Erdoğan finds himself 10 percentage points behind his rival ahead of the vote on May 14, seen by many as the most consequential election in Türkiye’s history. Most of polls show that the presidential candidate of opposition side, Kılıçdaroğlu, leading against Erdoğan by more than 10 percentage points. The opposition bloc, called the “Nation Alliance”, is also leading the parliamentary race by at least six points ahead of Erdoğan’s AK Parti and its allies. In addition to that, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) remains comfortably above 10 percent.
Merve Tahiroğlu, Türkiye program director at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, states that the opposition alliance was diverse and each prominent figure within the alliance could appeal to a different segment of Türkiye. She continues her words; “In this specific moment we have more reason to be optimistic about Türkiye’s election delivering an opposition win than we have ever been in the last 20 years” speaking on a panel hosted by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
The election on May 14 is a serious milestone for Europe that has ongoing relationship with Türkiye in terms of security, trade and soft power. There are some different predictions by Western media related to the result of the elections. Anti-Western feeling in Türkiye is very strong across the political spectrum, argued Wolfango Piccoli, co-founder of risk analysis company Teneo, business in the USA. He points out that “Foreign policy will depend on the coherence of the coalition. Nation Alliance is a coalition of parties who have nothing in common apart from the desire to get rid of Erdoğan. They’ve got a very different agenda, and this will have an impact in foreign policy after the elections.” He also adds “The relationship is largely comatose, and has been for some time, so, they will keep it on life support,” pointing that any new government would have so many internal problems to deal with.
BBC News states that if the Kılıçdaroğlu-led Nation Alliance wins, it will be able to restore Türkiye’s parliamentary system and reform the presidency, removing the head of state’s right to veto legislation, cutting the post’s ties to political parties and making it electable every seven years. The six parties also will catch the opportunity to kickstart Türkiye’s decades-long bid to join the European Union and restore “mutual trust” with the U.S., after years of fractious relations during the Erdoğan years if they win. After the elections, a moderate atmosphere may occur in Türkiye; however, this will not change relations on full membership with the EU too much. To be honest, the EU does not want Türkiye to become a member in the near future, even if it meets all the requirements for membership.
English broadsheet newspaper Daily Telegraph draws up that anti-immigration sentiment threatens to topple Erdoğan ahead of Turkish elections. They took attention to resentment over the issue of migration has been building for years. Opinion polls regularly identify immigration as among the most urgent problems facing the nation. Erdoğan – who has allowed millions of Syrian refugees to come to Türkiye – has struggled to quell the anger but Kılıçdaroğlu’s speeches on border security and sending Syrians to their homeland has made oppositions’ vote higher on the contrary to Erdoğan.
In the case of loss of elections, there will be a difficult process in terms of Erdoğan. Ihor Semivolos, Director of the Association of Middle East Studies, remarks that it is not certain that the current President will step down in the case of a possible defeat. To his evaluation, what will be the situation of Erdoğan if he loses the election? This is a question that probably has no specific answer for Turkish society. The risk is high because, as we know from Türkiye’s past, many people will demand investigations to be launched about the repression and unfair trials following the failed military coup in 2016. Therefore, Erdoğan’s loss of power will probably bring some troubles. That’s exactly why so many people think “he will not just give up power“.
Looking at the report published by Stiftung Wissenschaft un Politik, centered in Berlin, if current opinion polls are to be trusted, Erdoğan is expected to lose against CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. However, losing the presidency would be a huge blow for Erdoğan, who would be deprived of access to public resources to run the AK Parti machine. Given his frail health and advanced age, Erdoğan might not be able to muster the strength to lead his party in opposition for long.
Eventhough it is a weak possibility to win the elections for Erdoğan by Western media, according to Nektaria Stamouli, the researcher in Politico, if Erdoğan wins the elections, he will be empowered to put even more of his stamp on the trajectory of a geostrategic heavyweight of 85 million people in Türkiye. The concern in the West is that he will see this as his moment to push toward an increasingly religiously conservative model, characterized by regional confrontationalism, with greater political powers centered around himself. At this point, it may be meant that Türkiye might move away from the West and get closer to Russia and the Middle East countries. Furthermore, in the eyes of the West, AK Parti may consolidate its conservative side more, being far from liberal values after the elections.
To sum up, general opinion in the western media, the Nation Alliance has a strong possibility to win the May 14 elections. They emphasize if the opposition bloc wins, a different atmosphere might be created in both domestic and foreign policy in Türkiye, more moderate relations might be established with the West, and Erdoğan is able to face a difficult situation in his political career in the future. To conclude, whoever wins the elections, as a Turkish citizen, we wish for a strong Türkiye in terms of economy, foreign policy, social policies, security and the other areas.
Assoc. Prof. Eren Alper YILMAZ