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Will Erdoğan Survive Turkey’s Elections?

Turkey elections 2023
Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (left) and incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (right), the protagonists of the general elections in Turkey. Credit: Hilmi Hacaloğlu / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday, May 14, the Turkish general elections will decide whether incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan retains his seat. Erdoğan’s main rival is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the opposition. Political commentators are billing the 2023 election as the greatest threat to Erdoğan’s power he has yet to face.

Although Turkey is no longer beleaguered by the earthquakes which leveled entire cities in February, the political shockwaves are still being felt, and the Turkish government’s response was called into question to such an extent that its continued place in power may be cast into doubt by the electorate.

The results of the elections in Turkey will have wider-reaching international consequences as well, not least for Greece which has serious national security concerns over Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions in the Aegean. Other members of NATO will also be keeping a close eye on the elections, given Ankara’s sometimes ambiguous role within the alliance.

The 2023 Turkish general elections

Turkish citizens will vote for both a president and a parliament, who will serve for a period of five years. In order to become president in the first round of voting, a candidate needs to receive over 50% of the votes cast. If no candidate achieves this, a second round of voting will be held on May 28th between the two top candidates.

In 2017, Turkey held a referendum that narrowly approved the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system, resulting in expanded powers for the presidency. This change led to the elimination of the role of prime minister and the president became the head of the government.

These changes proved beneficial for Erdoğan who was elected as president in 2014. He had previously served as Turkey’s prime minister between 2003 and 2014. The transformation of the Turkish political system allowed him to again wield executive power, this time as president.

This year, Turkish voters will elect 600 members of parliament. In 87 districts, individuals are selected through a proportional representation system that involves party lists. The process is typically monitored by hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country. Each party will also send observers.

The main players in this year’s election are the ruling People’s Alliance coalition and the Nation Alliance in opposition.

The People’s Alliance is comprised of Erdoğan’s  Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Islamist and ultranationalist Great Unity Party, and the Islamist New Welfare Party.

Recently, however, many of the AKP’s allies have abandoned the partnership, forcing Erdoğan to seek partnerships with other smaller parties.

Meanwhile, the opposition coalition consists of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the hard-right nationalist faction Good Party (İYİ), the center-right Democracy and Progress Party, and the Future Party, the latter two of which are led by individuals who defected from the AKP. Additionally, the Democrat Party and the Felicity Party are also part of the representation.

The opposition shares little in common in terms of ideology and are united mostly by political expediency and pragmatism ahead of the Turkish general elections, in which they hope to unseat Erdoğan.

What do the polls say about the elections in Turkey?

Erdoğan and the ruling coalition could be in a precarious position according to some polls.

In the first round of POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, 46% of respondents indicated that they would vote for Erdoğan, whereas 50% said that they would vote for his rival Kılıçdaroğlu, who leads the opposition. In the second round of polling, Kılıçdaroğlu’s lead narrowed to 51% in his favor, with Erdoğan clinching 49% of the prospective vote.

In the leadup to the Turkish elections, analysts have pointed out an array of challenges facing Erdoğan. Turkey’s economy has been in a state of crisis since 2018, characterized by soaring inflation and a collapsing currency.

Moreover, the political aftershocks of the earthquakes which struck Turkey this February. The earthquakes impacted 11 provinces which produced widely differentiating results in the previous presidential election.

According to an analysis of the official data by the Financial Times, nearly a sixth of all voters in Turkey live in the zones impacted by the earthquakes. The perception of the government’s handling of the natural disaster could therefore prove decisive in determining the results of the elections in Turkey.

However, there are also concerns that people displaced by the earthquakes in Turkey will have difficulty voting in the upcoming elections

International implications

The results of the elections will pose far-reaching consequences beyond Turkey itself. This is largely owing to Turkey’s geostrategic importance at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.

Turkey’s position within NATO is probably the most ambitious within the alliance. Ankara has repeatedly frustrated other members of the alliance with its behavior, such as the decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system or its reluctance to accept Sweden and Finland into NATO.

The question therefore arises, will Turkey’s strategic posture change significantly after the elections?

Kılıçdaroğlu has made overtures towards both NATO and the European Union, saying that he would implement certain measures to improve relations if he wins the election. This would include an unfreezing of Turkey’s ascension talks with the European Union, as well as measures to improve Turkey’s democratic checks and balances.

On the issue of Turkey’s ties to Russia, Kılıçdaroğlu has also indicated that he would adopt a more pro-Western stance, saying that Turkey would no longer help Russia dodge sanctions.

However, some analysts have cast doubts on the idea that an electoral defeat for Erdoğan would lead to significant changes in Ankara’s strategic posture. Merve Tahiroglu of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy has assessed that Kılıçdaroğlu would not stray far from Turkey’s preestablished orientation on key issues, “widely agreed upon by the Turkish population as Turkey’s genuine national interests.”

Implications for Greece

In recent years, bilateral relations between Athens and Ankara have deteriorated sharply, with a military confrontation in the Aegean and an unlikely but not altogether impossible scenario.

Erdoğan has threatened Greece several times, once implying that Turkey could strike Athens with missiles and another time warning Greece to “Behave smartly or you will see the march of crazy Turks”.

However, Greece’s disaster relief efforts during the earthquakes suffered by Turkey in February helped alleviate tensions and relations have tentatively improved over the past couple of months leading to hope for a longer-term period of rapprochement between the two feeding countries.

Recently, the leaders of Turkey and Greece exchanged positive messages in the runup to elections to be held on May 14 and May 21 respectively.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he will extend “a hand of friendship” to the winner of the upcoming elections in Turkey, whereas Erdoğan said that the elections in Greece and Türkiye will mark the “beginning of a new era.”

“I would hope that the next Turkish government would overall reconsider its approach toward the West, not just toward Greece, toward Europe, toward NATO and toward the United States,” Mitsotakis said.

According to Evangelos Areteos, a research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, if Kılıçdaroğlu is elected, “Ankara’s fixed positions will not change but the atmosphere and climate in Greek-Turkish will change, which, as previous experiences have shown, has the potential to be a very good start.”

In other words, in Areteos’ estimation,  the main points of disagreement between Athens and Ankara are unlikely to dramatically change, but Kılıçdaroğlu is more likely to seek a diplomatic resolution than his rival Erdoğan.

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