The Turkish elections

Karam Said, Tuesday 9 May 2023

With Turkish voters going to the polls to elect a new president and parliament later this month, the position of the incumbent is looking unusually precarious, writes Karam Said

The Turkish elections


The countdown to the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections kicked off with the start of voting for expatriates on 27 April. In Turkey itself, voters will head to the polls on 14 May.

The country’s political parties and campaign teams have stepped up the pace of meetings, speeches, and rallies in order to mobilise their bases and bring out the vote. Tensions are high ahead of what is certain to be a neck-to-neck race in the crucial presidential elections, especially now that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has issued a statement calling on its supporters to vote for the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

This year’s elections are highly charged for a number of reasons, not least being that 2023 marks the centennial of Kemal Ataturk’s establishment of the Turkish Republic. They are also the second set of elections since the controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, which ushered in the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system that enabled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate more power.

Crucially, this is the first time that Erdogan has polled lower than his main rival in many of the opinion polls conducted since the election season officially began in March.

His popularity has been steadily declining in tandem with the deterioration in the economy and standards of living for the vast majority of people. The same thing applies even more to his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Inflation now stands at 79.6 per cent on an annual basis, one of the highest in the world, while the unemployment rate had increased by 9.6 per cent by the end of 2022.

The tragic aftermath of the Kahramanmaraş earthquakes on 6 February brought some economy related issues into closer focus and heightened tensions between the government and opposition. While Erdogan, in a speech on 14 February, vowed to eliminate the effects of what he described as “the worst natural disaster of the 21st century” within a year, opposition forces lashed out, not only against the government’s handling of the aftermath, but also against the negligence and corruption that they said were responsible for the failure to take the precautions that would have spared many lives and much of the destruction.

Before this, the question of Syrian refugees in Turkey had long been a hot-button issue. Much of the public anger, fuelled by worsening economic conditions, had homed in on the refugees, whom many blamed for a number of ills ranging from unemployment to crime.

The resentment and hostility grew particularly intense among right-wing parties such as the Zafer (Victory) and IYI (Good) Parties and among the more conservative wing of the CHP. In the face of pressures calling for the expulsion and repatriation of the refugees, the ruling AKP reversed its open door policy to Syrian refugees, and a year ago Erdogan announced the launch of a project to resettle a million refugees in the northern strip of Syria bordering Turkey.

The relative weight of electoral coalitions, a system introduced ahead of the 2018 elections, will be a main determinant of the results this year. The political map has changed remarkably in the intervening five years, and a number of former Erdogan allies and AKP members have since left the ruling party to form opposition parties of their own.

Ahmet Davutoglu, a former AKP prime minister under Erdogan, has formed the Gelecek (Future) Party (GP), and former economy minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan has founded the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA).

Both parties have joined the six-member Nation Alliance, which also includes the CHP, IYI, the Felicity Party (SAADET or SP), and the Democrat Party (DP). The heads of these parties came together as the so-called Table of Six to agree on a joint presidential candidate to field against Erdogan. After lengthy debate, they agreed on CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan heads the People’s Alliance, which includes, in addition to the AKP, several right-wing parties: the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the far-right Islamist Great Unity Party (BBP), the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP), and the Sunni Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party (HUDA PAR).

There are two other presidential candidates: Muharrem Ince, who broke away from the CHP to found the Homeland Party in 2021, and Sinan Ogan, a former MHP member who is running as the candidate of the right-wing Ancestor (ATA) Alliance that was created this year to compete in the presidential elections.

The parliamentary elections map is a complex weave of political parties and electoral alliances and collaborations. In addition to the right to far-right and Islamist-oriented People’s Alliance and the liberal left to centrist right Nation Alliance, a number of other smaller alliances among various smaller parties of diverse ideologies and orientations are competing in order to improve their members’ chances of passing the parliamentary threshold or to draw support away from the ranks of the main alliances and establishment leaders.

One of these is the above-mentioned ATA Alliance, formed on 11 March 2023 and made up of the Victory Party (ZP), Justice Party (AP), My Country Party (UK) and Turkey Alliance Party (TIP). These all fall on the right of the political spectrum and espouse Kemalist secularist and Turkish nationalist ideology.

But perhaps the most important of the smaller alliances is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Labour and Freedom Alliance, founded in August 2022, includes the progressive HDP, the far-left Workers Party of Turkey (TIP), the Labour Party (EMEP), the Social Freedom Party (TOP), the Labourist Movement Party (EHP), the Federation of Socialist Assemblies (FMS) and the Party of Greens and the Left Future (YSGP).

Against the backdrop of the sharply polarised political climate and the closely contended presidential elections, Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities may prove the kingmakers this year. Alevis make up 10 to 15 per cent of the country’s 84 million people and control around 4.5 million votes, and Kurds make up around 20 per cent of the population and control around six million votes.

Combined, they account for around 18 per cent of the electorate, and the likelihood is that the majority of them will vote for the National Alliance’s candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is himself an Alevi but has expressed his aversion to mixing religion and identity with politics.

According to the polls, younger voters are also more likely to vote for the opposition, especially those from the Millennials and Generation Z who are more in touch with modern IT technology and the online world and are longing for change.

In addition to the country’s economic straits, one of their main grievances is the government’s clampdowns on the media and social networking. They are also likely to vote for Kilicdaroglu as president and for some of the non-mainstream parties on the left in the legislative elections.

Despite the attrition in the People’s Alliance’s support, due primarily to the economic situation, it still controls a large enough base as well as certain institutional instruments to swing the ballot box in its favour. The bulk of conservatives and a large portion of the nationalist right will continue to back Erdogan and the People’s Alliance parties and candidates.

Erdogan’s “strong man” image continues to have widespread appeal, while Kilicdaroglu, in the opinion of many, is too old, is not as powerful a speaker, and generally lacks the same degree of charisma.   

In addition, the ruling party appears to have weathered the criticism over the response to the Kahramanmaras earthquakes through some high-profile rescue and reconstruction activities. Erdogan’s announcement of the beginning of extraction operations in the Sakarya 1 gas fields in the Black Sea, combined with news of the return of Gulf investments to Turkey and the promise by Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn Turkey into a hub for the export of Russian natural gas have kindled hopes for economic improvement.   

On the other hand, the opposition may make considerable inroads in the legislative elections. According to recent polls, the Nation Alliance stands a chance of winning a majority of the 600 seats in the Grand National Assembly.

During the past four years, the alliance and its constituent parties have succeeded in changing the dynamics of the electoral field in their favour due to their ability to capitalise on the widespread discontent and their growing ability to set aside differences in order to work together towards a common aim.

Their successful coordination in the 2019 municipal elections made it possible for the opposition to win governorship posts in the country’s largest municipalities.

There still remains the possibility that the opposition could defeat Erdogan, if not in the first, then in the second round, regardless of his strengths as a candidate. But the race is still too close to call.

 A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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