Turkish Elections Offer Consequential Choice on Country’s Direction
In this briefing, Staff Writer Alex Cook looks at the upcoming Turkish presidential election, which could have profound impacts on the country's domestic and international future. This briefing was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).
On 14 May 2023 Turkish voters cast ballots in their country’s presidential and parliamentary elections in what is the biggest test of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s power in two decades. President Erdoğan received 49.5% of votes cast, while his main challenger, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu received 44.9% of the vote. A third candidate, Sinan Oğan, received 5.2% of the vote. Because no candidate earned a majority of the votes cast, Erdoğan and Kiliçdaroğlu will compete in a runoff election on 28 May. Coming only months after an earthquake killed over 45,000 people in Türkiye, and amidst an economic crisis and contentious debates regarding NATO and the European Union, the election offers Turks a chance to shape their country’s domestic and geopolitical direction at a key inflection point.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
President Erdoğan, 69, is seeking an unprecedented third term in the office. Erdoğan, who was first elected president in 2014, previously served as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 until 1998 and as prime minister from 2003 until 2014. Erdoğan is politically conservative with an Islamist political background. His party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is socially conservative and populist.
Erdoğan’s time as prime minister was broadly characterized by pro-Western reform and a robust expansion of the country’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, since 2014, and especially after a failed coup in 2016, Erdoğan has led Türkiye, a NATO member and EU membership candidate, down an increasingly authoritarian path. For instance, his government has restricted access to social media, imprisoned journalists critical of his administration, and stacked the judiciary with loyalists. Erdoğan has also faced criticism for a several domestic problems, notably, the ongoing economic crisis and the horrifically high death toll in the recent earthquake in Southern Türkiye and Syria.
Nonetheless, Erdoğan retains significant domestic support, earning the vote of nearly half of Turkish voters in the first round of the election. To boost his bona fides, Erdoğan has recently introduced several voter-friendly policies including a doubling of the minimum wage, pension increases, and generous energy subsidies. He has also continued his emphasis on developing Türkiye’s infrastructure, including by promising that homes damaged by February’s earthquake will be rebuilt within a year.
Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu (Pronounced Kilitch-daro-lu)
In a rare show of unity, Türkiye’s six main opposition parties (known colloquially as both the Table of Six and the Nation Alliance) coalesced around Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu as the primary challenger to President Erdoğan. Kiliçdaroğlu, is the notoriously soft-spoken leader of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), Türkiye’s largest opposition party and the party of Kemal Ataturk, modern Türkiye’s founder. A 74-year-old former civil servant, he has served as a member of Türkiye’s Grand National Assembly since 2002.
Since Mr. Kiliçdaroğlu took over leadership of the CHP in 2010, the party has been repeatedly trounced in elections by Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP, and Mr. Kiliçdaroğlu personally has been the target of multiple violent attacks. Moreover, President Erdoğan has repeatedly sued Kiliçdaroğlu for violating a Turkish law that prohibits insulting the president, with a maximum punishment of four years in jail, but to date Kiliçdaroğlu has only paid monetary fines.
Kiliçdaroğlu, who views himself as a transitional candidate and has promised to retire after one term, is gambling that he can hold together Türkiye’s notoriously fractious opposition parties. The Nation Alliance, for instance, includes social-democrat, center-right, right-wing, and Islamist parties. Yet Kiliçdaroğlu must also earn the support of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and its left-wing coalition partners without angering his largest ally, the nationalist and conservative Good Party (IP).
Critically for Kiliçdaroğlu, the HDP did not did not nominate a candidate in the election, which would likely have siphoned votes away from him. Because the HDP receives the vote of about half of Türkiye’s Kurds (who constitute 15-20% of the country’s 85 million people), it is widely considered a kingmaker.
As in any presidential contest, the results of Türkiye’s elections have major domestic implications. Should Kiliçdaroğlu prevail, his administration would immediately begin the “normalization process in domestic politics,” according to Ünal Çeviköz, Kiliçdaroğlu’s chief foreign policy advisor. For instance, Kiliçdaroğlu has said that he would return Türkiye to a parliamentary system of government, undoing President Erdoğan’s 2018 transition to a presidential system, in which the president gained considerable new powers by eliminating the position of prime minister.
The new government would also seek to correct Türkiye’s human rights record by releasing from jail two of President Erdoğan’s most prominent critics, in accordance with decisions issued by the European High Court of Human Rights. By contrast, President Erdoğan has continued to stack courts, law enforcement agencies, the army, and the media with loyalists, while also suffocating dissenting voices, detaining more than 100 people who have criticized his government on social media.
The country’s ongoing economic crisis, compounded by the US$84 billion in damage caused by February’s earthquake, is another key focus of many voters. Erdoğan, an opponent of high borrowing costs, has chosen to lower interest rates despite rising inflation - a policy that caused annualized inflation as high as 85% and led the Turkish Lira to shed 62% of its value relative to the U.S. dollar since the beginning of 2021. The Nation Alliance, by contrast, has vowed to reverse many of President Erdoğan’s monetary policies, promising instead tighter monetary policy and increased central bank independence. The implementation of more conventional monetary policy would also create more favorable conditions for foreign investment, offering a further boost to the economy.
The election will also affect Turkish policy towards migrants, whose numbers have surged as the civil war in Syria wears on. Kiliçdaroğlu recently promised to deport millions of these refugees if he takes office. The firm policy has earned the coalition support from migrant-weary voters, especially given President Erdoğan’s inconsistent statements on the issue. (Erdoğan once stated that Türkiye “will never expel [refugees] from this land,” but has also worked to encourage repatriation.)
Türkiye is an influential regional and geopolitical actor, making the international implications of its election equally consequential. Broadly, should Kiliçdaroğlu prevail, it is likely that Türkiye’s foreign policy will become more Western-oriented. For instance, a new government will likely seek to resume EU accession negotiations, which have been stalled since 2018 due to Türkiye’s democratic backsliding. While Çeviköz noted that Türkiye’s path to EU membership would be neither smooth nor quick, the pivot away from Erdoğan would “create a very serious change in the perception about Türkiye’s position” among European governments.
The election will also likely determine whether Sweden becomes a member of NATO. Because the Nordic nation refusesto extradite certain individuals that Türkiye believes are terrorists, and because an anti-Islam activist in Stockholm burned a Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, President Erdoğan has told Sweden to not “even bother” pursuing membership in the alliance.
However, a Kiliçdaroğlu-led government would likely approve Sweden’s membership application. Çeviköz has arguedthat Swedish membership “will increase and strengthen” NATO, and that letting bilateral problems influence decisions regarding multilateral organizations “create[s] a kind of polarization” that hurts the alliance. While Sweden would still need to earn Hungary’s support to join NATO, a reversal on Türkiye’s steadfast opposition would be a notable step, and an indicator of the reorientation of Turkish foreign policy.
One area of continuity in foreign policy will likely be Türkiye’s relationship with Russia. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 Türkiye has served as a mediator between the two countries, including negotiating a deal that has allowed Ukraine to export millions of tonnes of grain around the world. Under Kiliçdaroğlu’s leadership, Türkiye would continue to act as an intermediary between the warring states, and in doing so attempt to pacify Russia, whose oil provides a large proportion of Türkiye’s imports, according to Çeviköz. Simply put, Turkish policy will likely remain, in the words of one former Turkish diplomat, “pro-Ukraine without being anti-Russia.”
Finally, a change in government would likely result in a reset of Türkiye-Greece relations. Last December, President Erdoğan warned that unless the Greeks “stay calm,” his army could “suddenly one night” invade it. The comments come amidst heightened tensions between the two NATO members, both of which are holding elections this spring. The countries have several bilateral disputes, including over disputed airspace that regularly hosts fighter jet intercepts, conflicting claims over maritime and territorial boundaries in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and a long-standing disagreement regarding Cyprus. Yet while President Erdoğan has recently elevated his confrontational rhetoric, a Kiliçdaroğlu-led government would likely seek to dampen tensions. “Both countries are going to have elections…probably on the same day,” Çeviköz noted. “So, this this will open a new horizon in front of both countries.”
For Türkiye, a Kiliçdaroğlu victory would certainly do just that.