Turkey’s Upcoming Elections: A Country at a Crossroads

On May 14, Turkey will be heading to the polls for what many have deemed the most important election of 2023. For the first time in two decades, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not the favorite, and is even slightly behind his main rival, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Erdoğan and the opposition are running on very different platforms and envision very different societies and political systems. In this context, the importance of the election results cannot be overstated. What follows are the most important facts about this highly significant election.

Alliances and Candidates

Turkey switched to a presidential system in 2017, and will hold elections for parliament and the presidency on May 14, after which there will be a second round of presidential elections within two weeks if no candidate wins an outright majority. Three alliances and a number of smaller parties are competing in the parliamentary elections. Erdoğan is the presidential candidate for the People’s Alliance (PA), a coalition between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). His main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is the candidate for the Nation Alliance (NA), the largest opposition coalition. The Labor and Freedom Alliance (LFA), made up of the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party (YSP) and a number of smaller left-wing parties, did not field a candidate, and will support Kilicdaroglu. There are also two presidential candidates, Muharrem Ince and Sinan Ogan, who have essentially no chance of winning; but depending on their vote share, they could prevent a majority win in the first round and thus force the election into a runoff.

Alliances are a relatively new phenomenon in Turkey’s highly fragmented and polarized political environment. One could argue that alliances are an unintended consequence of the presidential system, which, with its requirement that candidates exceed 50 percent of the vote, has forced political actors to come together. However, the two largest alliances, the PA and the NA, have very different characteristics. The PA was formed between MHP and Erdoğan’s own party, AKP, in 2018. This alliance works relatively smoothly. Ever since Erdoğan’s nationalist turn in 2015, both parties have shared a religious-nationalist-statist ideology and converge on almost every political line. They also appeal to the same sociocultural strata, and there is considerable crossover between their voting bases. In this respect, it is possible to say that the PA is an organic alliance. At a later stage, two other small parties joined as well, but they are far-right parties and did not bring any ideological conflict into the alliance.

Alliances are a relatively new phenomenon in Turkey’s highly fragmented and polarized political environment.

In contrast, the NA, often called the Table of Six, referring to the six political parties in the alliance, includes parties of very different political stripes. The largest party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), represents secular Turkish nationalism. The party’s secularism has historically been an assertive secularism bordering on antireligion. However, under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, it is undergoing a process of ideological moderation, especially following the transition to the presidential system in 2017. The second largest party, the Good Party (IYIP), is a breakaway from the MHP and embraces a softer version of Turkish nationalism. The other four parties, which have smaller shares of the vote, are the center-right DP, the Islamist FP, and two parties that broke away from the AKP: the liberal-conservative DEVA and the conservative-nationalist GP. Overall, this is a very eclectic and heterogeneous alliance, one that came together with a common desire to overthrow Erdoğan. In a way, Erdoğan’s increasing dominance over the Turkish political system and his growing authoritarianism paved the way for this largest opposition alliance to emerge, and have kept it intact so far.

The NA is also committed to abolishing the presidential system, which it associates with Turkey’s current governance problems and with authoritarianism, and instead returning to a parliamentary system. It is important to remember that the presidential system in Turkey has its own peculiarities and is often described as “a presidential system a la Turka.” Unlike in the US and other democratic presidential systems, there are few checks and balances on the Turkish presidency, which comes with unlimited executive power. The six parties that make up the NA have also prepared a detailed coalition agreement and an exhaustive roadmap, the result of a year of joint work. While there are serious concerns about the alliance’s ability to stay together and govern effectively in the event of a Kilicdaroglu victory, such detailed preparation raises hopes.

Very Different Profiles

Among the candidates in the presidential race, Erdoğan is well known on the world stage due to his having been at the helm of the country for more than two decades. He started his political career as a Muslim Democrat, but evolved into a religious-nationalist autocrat. In both periods he was a global figure, either as a potential role model for the Muslim world in its quest to reconcile religion and democracy, or as one of the pioneers of autocratic populism. In contrast, Kilicdaroglu is not well known in the international community. But he is not a newcomer to Turkish political life. He has led the main opposition party CHP for the last 13 years, but without much success. Despite several attempts, he has failed to expand the CHP’s voting base beyond its traditional secular-nationalist base. As a result, Erdoğan has consistently defeated him in many elections.

Much of Kilicdaroglu’s appeal stems from the fact that he is the architect of the NA and has managed to hold the alliance together. This difficult task was made possible thanks to Kilicdaroglu’s gentle style of politics based on compromise and consultation. In this and other respects, Kilicdaroglu stands in stark contrast to Erdoğan. He is certainly not a charismatic and dominant personality like Erdoğan. He is not a good orator and cannot excite crowds. He also does not appear to be a shrewd tactician or a skilled manager like Erdoğan is. But he is a calm and conciliatory figure, and he claims to be a team player, in contrast to Erdoğan’s one-man show. He has had a long bureaucratic career and appears to be humble and free of corruption. Because of his unpopularity with the masses, not even his supporters claim that he is an ideal presidential candidate; but they argue that he would be an ideal president. Moreover, concerning the almost unlimited powers vested in the presidency, he appears to be the least likely candidate to abuse those powers.

Kilicdaroglu is also a member of Turkey’s minority Alevi community. Alevis follow a heterodox Islamic tradition that distinguishes them from Sunni and Shia Muslims. Erdoğan’s campaign has been pointing to Kilicdaroglu’s religious identity to persuade the Sunni majority not to vote for him, causing concern among the opposition. Kilicdaroglu, who has tried to distance himself from the issue in the past, recently released a video in which he openly expresses and embraces his Alevi identity and calls on the nation to overcome these divisions. The fact that the video has so far been viewed more than 100 million times suggests that there is a desire, at least among certain segments of Turkish society, to overcome identity-based polarization.

The Latest Polls

All reliable polling companies agree that the presidential race is very tight, and in most polls Kilicdaroglu is ahead by a small margin of two to four points. According to the average of the most recent polls, Erdoğan and the PA will have 42.6 percent of the vote, while Kilicdaroglu will have 46.2 percent. In the parliamentary elections, the NA’s vote share is predicted to be 38 percent, while the LFA’s is around 11 percent. Given that Kilicdaroglu is the NA’s candidate and is supported by the LFA, current polls thus point to a considerable voting defection in opposition ranks when it comes to voting for Kilicdaroglu. Kilicdaroglu’s attempts to appeal to the country’s religious and Kurdish voting base have apparently led to a certain backlash among secularists and Turkish nationalists within the opposition. The two less popular presidential candidates are aiming to capture these protest votes. Following the announcement of Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy two months ago, their combined share of the vote surpassed 10 percent, but it has been dropping rapidly as election time approaches and the race looks tight. With this trend continuing, it is not entirely impossible that the elections will be decided in the first round.

While much of the focus is on the presidential race, parliamentary elections are also important. Turkey has a 7 percent threshold and small parties outside the alliances will therefore be unable to enter parliament. Due to the d’Hont method that is used in Turkey’s elections, which favors large parties, the AKP will win more seats than its vote share. Moreover, a new law passed in 2022 changed the seat distribution formula in favor of the AKP and the PA. However, despite these adjustments, the PA may not win a parliamentary majority. In this scenario, there would be a fragmented parliament without a majority. However, if the PA wins a majority, there will be an impact on the possible second round of the presidential race. In such a scenario, Erdoğan would run on the platform that he must be elected in order to avoid chaos and conflict between the president and the parliament.

Election Strategies

Given that Turkey has been in a severe and protracted economic crisis since 2018, with inflation skyrocketing and living standards falling, and given the devastating aftermath of the recent earthquake and the poor government response, it is remarkable that Erdoğan is still in the race. This demonstrates the strength of identity politics in Turkey and the success of Erdoğan’s strategy of polarization along the country’s religious-secular, Sunni-Alevi, and Turkish-Kurdish fault lines. While this has been Erdoğan’s trademark for more than a decade, in the current electoral context his polarization tactics serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, he is seeking to maintain and consolidate his power base, while on the other he is seeking to sow seeds of discord in the ideologically diverse opposition alliance by underscoring such lines.

However, Erdoğan’s success in winning votes can only be partly explained by his use of identity politics. According to polls, Erdoğan’s approval rating has been slowly but steadily declining since 2018, falling to a low of just over 38 percent at the end of 2021. Since then, he has partially recovered using a variety of tactics. He began to implement electoral economics and embarked on a spending spree. He also doubled the country’s minimum wage, allowed two million people to retire early, launched massive housing projects and issued cheap mortgages, and granted tax amnesty to millions of citizens. The government also launched sensational projects to fuel techno-nationalism, such as both the TOGG project to domestically produce the first ever Turkish car and the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Highlighting developments in the defense industry, particularly the success of Turkish drones, is central to this strategy, and is used as evidence of Turkey’s growing strength under Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s success in winning votes can only be partly explained by his use of identity politics.

The opposition’s strategy, meanwhile, is based on two elements: depolarization and reconciliation on the one hand and highlighting deep economic problems, poverty, and the government’s poor response to the earthquake on the other. Kilicdaroglu has promised to reconcile hostile groups in society and is calling for hellaleşme, a Turkish word meaning mutual forgiveness. With its attempts at depolarization and reconciliation, the opposition is also trying to prevent identity politics from dominating the public debate and pushing bread-and-butter issues to the background.

The presence of the Islamist FP and the two AKP breakaway parties is symbolically important for the reconciliation strategy, even if their vote contribution to the alliance is limited and falls short of initial expectations. They are also a safeguard against Erdoğan’s constant threats that if he and the AKP lose the election a radical secularist backlash will undermine the political improvements that religious Turks have experienced under AKP rule.

Electoral Integrity

Given the deepening authoritarianism in Turkey, there are serious questions about the integrity of elections. According to Freedom House’s electoral integrity index, Turkey scores only 33 out of 100. The media is practically under government control and heavily censored. State resources are used to support the government’s election campaign. In rural areas of the predominantly Kurdish southeast, voters are subjected to severe voter suppression under the pretext of security concerns. And the government is instrumentalizing the judiciary to intimidate and suppress its political opponents. Overall, the playing field in the run-up to the elections has been heavily skewed in favor of the government.

But when voters go to the polls on May 14, the likelihood of large-scale electoral fraud is very low. The system is transparent and open to public scrutiny at all levels, and the fact that it is a paper-based system limits questions of cybersecurity. Overall, elections in Turkey are typically unfair, but free of fraud.

Moreover, the Turkish public tends to be highly protective of its right to vote, even if it is not concerned about irregularities on the road to elections and the lack of a fair playing field. Partly due to the lack of grassroots participation in politics and the weakness of civil society, elections are the primary vehicle for citizens’ expression of political views. On May 14, voter turnout is expected to be very high and citizens will be eager to protect the vote. After all, this is probably the most important election in Turkey’s recent history.

The stage is thus set for pivotal parliamentary and presidential elections in one of the Middle East’s most important countries. In fact, this round may very well decide whether Turkey continues on the populist trajectory set forth by its current president or returns to a more democratic path that emphasizes institutional mechanisms of governance capable of meeting the serious economic and political problems the country faces.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/Recep Tayyip Erdoğan