Stage is set for Turkey’s election battle: Will Erdoğan win or lose? - Long read / SWP
More than 60 million Turkish voters are geared up for the twin (parliamentary and presidential) elections scheduled to take place in June 2023 the latest. Arguably, these are the most critical elections in the Republic’s history, marking a date for a collective choice as the country celebrates its centennial. The outcome will define the course of Turkey. Whether or not it will continue on its path to a deepened autocracy - an “order of decrees” - under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or return to the path of restoration is an open question. The internal dynamics and balances do not seem to be helpful to rational foresight.
Will Erdoğan come out victorious once more, and, regarding the elections as referendum for his rule, perceive such a result as a new “carte blanche”? Or, will the ballot box turn against him and his allies? What are possible scenarios on Turkey’s tumultuous political stage?
In an extensive essay published by the German think tank SWP, Berk Esen seeks answers to a number of questions. Dr Esen is a PC-Stiftung Mercator Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at SWP.
A shortened version of the article follows.
After nearly 20 years in power, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's rule may seem unassailable to many observers of Turkish politics. However, owing to the economic downturn and rifts in his ruling party, this will be the first election in which Erdoğan is not the clear favourite. Six opposition parties of different ideological origins have come together to pick a joint presidential candidate to stand against Erdoğan and to offer a common platform for restoring parliamentary democracy.
Although the opposition alliance has reasonable chances of defeating Erdoğan's ruling bloc, their victory would not guarantee a smooth process of transition to parliamentary democracy. If the opposition can defeat Erdoğan, the new government would need to undertake the arduous tasks of establishing a meritocratic bureaucracy, restructuring Turkey's diplomatic course and economic policy, and switching back to parliamentary rule. Due to the opposition alliance's diverse composition, accomplishing these goals may be as difficult as winning the elections.
Due to Turkey's growing economic crisis, which has resulted in high inflation and unemployment rates, Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has experienced a sharp fall in opinion polls over the past year. Even with support from the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is part of the People's Alliance with the AKP, Erdoğan seems to have difficulty reaching the 50 per cent of the vote share necessary to win the presidential elections.
By contrast, potential contenders among the opposition camp have begun to surpass Erdoğan in a one-to-one match, according to most opinion polls. More importantly, the opposition camp, led by the centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP), is more united than at any point under Erdoğan's rule. The two splinter parties that broke off from the AKP – the Future Party (GP) of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) of former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan – are acting together with the Nation Alliance, which is composed of the Turkish nationalist Good Party (İYİP), the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), and the centre-right Democrat Party (DP).
Obviously, Erdoğan would not go down without a fight. Due to his control of a large portion of the media, the opposition parties should be ready for a highly polarising contest. The ruling bloc already has access to a disproportionate level of public and private resources and uses bureaucracy as a partisan auxiliary force. To gain support from nationalist voters in the opposition ranks, Erdoğan could resort to a new wave of repression against Kurdish groups, including a ban of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) by the Constitutional Court, and initiate a cross-border military campaign in Syria to rally public opinion behind his candidacy.
Although the opposition bloc has risen in opinion polls, many analysts are worried that Erdoğan may actively manipulate or contest the results on election night.
International observers have already documented electoral irregularities in previous elections that placed the ruling bloc at an advantage over its rivals. In cases where the government lost the election despite such favourable conditions, it relied on partisan decisions of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to reverse the electoral outcomes, as was the case in the repeat of the 2019 Istanbul mayoral race after the pro-government candidate's surprising defeat.
Due to heavy government control over the bureaucracy, judiciary and media, opposition parties will face a skewed playing field against Erdoğan. In such cases, a smooth transfer of power is hardly guaranteed. For Erdoğan, resorting to outright electoral manipulation, which can be easily detected by opposition parties and outside observers, would be a risky, though not unfeasible, strategy.
Electoral fraud would risk further excluding Turkey from Western markets and deepening the economic downturn, which would hit Erdoğan's base severely. Turkey is already confronted with a major currency and debt crisis that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nominal GDP fell to $815 billion in 2021, from its peak of $958 billion in 2013. The economic downturn has limited the regime's ability to finance social assistance programmes for the urban poor – its voter base – and funnel resources to its business allies.
Electoral fraud might – and can – occur in Turkey, where the opposition camp includes a diverse mix of political actors ranging from moderate Islamists and secular parties to Turkish and Kurdish nationalists.
Some fear that, in response to opposition protests, Erdoğan could mobilise his own base, as he did against the putschist forces during the coup attempt in 2016. Were Erdoğan to adopt this strategy, the ruling bloc could tap into groups that are affiliated with the regime.
The AKP has millions of party members across the country and enjoys strong ties with other popular groups, such as the Ottoman Hearths and a military contractor company (SADAT) established by retired conservative officers. SADAT, which is accused of training paramilitary groups in Libya and Syria, could be used against opposition protesters.
It is not certain that Erdoğan enjoys the full support of the security apparatus, whose unquestioned loyalty would be vital to put down popular protests in the aftermath of the election.
The police forces, whose ranks have expanded dramatically over the past decade, are seen as a partisan body and are tightly controlled by the Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.
Faced with allegations of close ties to organised crime groups, Soylu has a strong incentive to oppose a government turnover, which could pave the way for his prosecution.
Meanwhile, the military's compliance in the event of a massive crackdown is not guaranteed. While post-coup purges have brought the armed forces under tighter civilian control, the Turkish military, as a conscription force, may refrain from clashing directly with citizens.
Any public confrontation involving the armed forces would highlight the importance of the positioning of the defence minister and former chief of general staff Hulusi Akar, who has retained his autonomy under the current regime.
There is a good chance that the ruling bloc will lose its parliamentary majority. Even some pro-government analysts have begun to openly admit the possibility that Erdoğan may win the presidency but face a parliament dominated by opposition parties.
Under the current presidential system, the president does not need parliamentary approval to form a cabinet and could govern the country without strong checks from the legislature.
Should Erdoğan win the presidency, he could co-opt MPs from conservative parties that are currently part of the opposition bloc to hinder the effective functioning of the parliament. Under a continued Erdoğan presidency, the two splinter parties that broke off from the AKP would run the risk of keeping their cadres intact.
In the event of an opposition victory in the presidential elections, some MPs from the AKP and the MHP may likewise decide to switch sides. Under both scenarios, the parliamentary arithmetic is expected to change in the post-election period depending on who wins the presidency.
The composition of the parliament is difficult to predict based on opinion polls. The ruling People's Alliance and the opposition-led Nation Alliance are locked in a fierce electoral competition.
In a close election, the number of seats allocated to these alliances would be determined by the decision of alliance parties to prepare joint lists under the two main parties in it – namely the CHP and İYİP – or contest the elections on their own.
Another factor that will influence the parliamentary composition is the presence of other alliances that can offer viable alternatives.
The HDP, which won 11.7 per cent of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections, maintains its electoral support, according to most opinion polls. With the help of a third alliance with smaller left-wing parties, the HDP could thus emerge as the key party that holds the balance among the two large blocs in a hung parliament.
Also, against the backdrop of rising anti-refugee sentiment, the far-right populist Victory Party (ZP) would spoil the opposition vote if it attracts opposition voters, but the party fails to muster the 7 per cent necessary to cross the parliamentary threshold.
A more worrisome scenario for Erdoğan would be to lose the presidency to a candidate endorsed by the Nation Alliance. If current opinion polls are to be trusted, Erdoğan is expected to lose against all three of the opposition's potential joint candidates, namely CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş.
Losing the presidency would be a huge blow for Erdoğan, who would be deprived of access to public resources to run the AKP 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.
Although his party has commanded strong electoral support, even at the height of the economic crisis, its future after Erdoğan is uncertain.
The ruling party has recently become a personalistic movement with very weak institutions. Although predictions of its demise are premature, the AKP would have a difficult time keeping its base intact in opposition.
If Erdoğan is defeated in the upcoming elections, his successor will face a set of severe challenges. The opposition bloc has campaigned on a democratisation platform that envisions a speedy return to the parliamentary system and the restoration of the rule of law.
Although details have not yet been fully formulated, the six parties have pledged to transfer the extensive powers of the presidency to the parliament. Whoever is picked as their joint candidate will be expected to sign this pledge and refrain from fully exercising his or her powers, if elected.
However, the new government's most pressing problem will be to pull Turkey out of its current economic predicament and put the country on a trajectory of sustainable development. The six opposition parties have already announced their commitment to macroeconomic stability, central bank independence, and tight monetary policy. Each of these parties has an impressive line-up of economists who could form a strong recovery team.
İYİP recruited Bilge Yılmaz, professor of finance from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently unveiled a comprehensive economic package that includes detailed measures on public finance, tax systems, industrial policy, and international trade.
DEVA has sought to capitalise on the strong performance of its leader, Ali Babacan, under whose term as economy minister Turkey experienced high growth.
The looming question is to decide which party gets the economics portfolio under the new government. Announcing their economic programmes early, İYİP and DEVA seem to be in open competition to attract voters hard hit by the crisis and want to get the political credit for pulling Turkey out of it.
Surprisingly, the CHP has taken a back seat in these debates. Although the "Table of Six" laid out the steps to address the currency and budgetary crisis, this weak performance by the CHP – as the only leftist party in the alliance – risks weakening the ability of the new government to adopt redistributive and anti-poverty measures.
Another important issue to tackle for the new government would be the replacement of partisans in civil service, the military, and the judiciary. Especially since the failed 2016 coup, the Erdoğan administration has purged tens of thousands of public officials and replaced them with sycophants who became complicit in the partisan and repressive measures adopted by the ruling bloc.
If these cadres were to keep their positions, the new government would encounter resistance against its political agenda, experience bureaucratic obstruction, and even run the risk of military insubordination.
Although the six opposition parties acknowledge the need for change, they disagree on how and with whom to replace these posts.
Naturally, the main opposition CHP expects the lion's share in bureaucratic appointments. Due to the exclusion of social democratic cadres under AKP rule, the CHP does not have a sizeable pool of recruits.
Therefore, major metropolitan municipalities in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, where CHP mayors are in charge, could emerge as the centre-left party's primary source of recruitment in a post-Erdoğan era. Faced with limited financial sources and government obstruction, the opposition cadres in these cities have gained invaluable experience in undertaking large infrastructure projects, providing social assistance, and running integration programmes for migrants, among others.
After nearly two decades of AKP rule, few government critics have any significant experience in public office, with the exception of some members of the two Islamist splinter parties. Owing to the fact that they were established by former AKP members, the leadership of both parties still enjoy ties to the state bureaucracy and may also advocate for the reinstatement of former AKP-era cadres who were purged by Erdoğan over the years.
İYİP may also have an ideological advantage that could appeal to certain segments of the bureaucracy, particularly those in the security apparatus.
Due to the AKP's alliance with the ultranationalist MHP, state ranks have recently been filled by nationalist recruits who may gravitate towards the İYİP after a government turnover.
Faced with these challenges, the “Table of Six” has not yet offered a comprehensive policy platform. On matters of economic policy, judicial reform, and refugee management, the six parties have recently begun to converge their positions.
Even if these parties were to settle on common positions, recovery would require tough decisions in the post-election period. On the other hand, the six parties are divided on matters of foreign affairs, political and bureaucratic appointments, and the Kurdish question, among others.
These rifts may intensify if the six parties begin to compete against each other following Erdoğan's defeat. While tackling these problems, the six parties would also need to amend the constitution to restore the parliamentary system.
This would be a tough task to accomplish, considering that the record of coalition governments in Turkey is not very strong.
No coalition government has managed to complete its full term since Turkey's transition to a multi-party democracy in 1950.
Another challenge for the new government will be restoring Turkey's foreign policy. Erdoğan's revisionist agenda has led to frequent clashes with the EU, brought into question Turkey's position within NATO, and strained ties with various countries in the region. Although Erdoğan has recently sought rapprochement with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, Turkey's international standing has been shaken severely over the past decade. The new government is expected to strengthen Turkey's position within NATO and reset EU-Turkey relations.
After years of continuous tensions in EU-Turkish relations, Erdoğan's departure from power would generate some goodwill among European governments, but the improvement of bilateral relations would take a long time.
In particular, the status of Cyprus, maritime borders with Greece, and the migration deal will continue to plague bilateral relations with the EU.
The opposition does not have a new vision for recalibrating Turkey's relations with either Russia or Iran, both of which have determined their diplomatic policy on Turkey based on personal ties to Erdoğan.
The complicated triangle between Turkey, Russia, and Iran would also affect Turkey-Syria relations in a post-Erdoğan era. Both the CHP and İYİP have indicated their willingness to talk with the al-Assad regime.
The six opposition parties have vastly different agendas that would complicate efforts to develop a consistent diplomatic course. The CHP's foreign policy portfolio is currently run by Ünal Çeviköz, a former diplomat with moderate Western leanings who advocates for a return to Turkey's traditional foreign policy agenda.
But on controversial issues, such as the Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems and the eastern Mediterranean disputes, Çeviköz has met with strong nationalist pressure from the CHP base.
Unlike DEVA, İYİP views Syrian Kurdish insurgent groups to be directly linked with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), opposes any diplomatic talks with Kurdish groups in Syria, and even criticised Erdoğan for not being tougher with Finland and Sweden for allegedly supporting the PKK.
The chief architect of the AKP's interventionist foreign policy after the Arab Uprisings, former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, is currently in the opposition camp as leader of the GP. Although the likelihood of Davutoğlu returning to his old post is low, his presence in the opposition camp may complicate efforts of the new government to break from the AKP's failed policies that are directly associated with him.
In a country that hosts more than six million refugees and irregular migrants, the status of this growing community would be another major challenge for the new government. Due to civil wars in the region, Turkey has recently emerged as the top host country for refugees in the world, with approximately four million from Syria alone.
CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu has consistently criticised the open-door policy for Syrians and opposed Turkey's military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. He recently became more vocal with these criticisms, pledging to send Syrians back to their country voluntarily in two years through increased dialogue with the Assad regime and financial assistance from the EU for infrastructure development in Syria.
İYİP advocates a similar agenda that includes the expulsion of illegal immigrants and a quota system for the settlement of Syrians in urban neighbourhoods.
Founded in 2021 by Ümit Özdağ, who was a far-right deputy from the MHP and, briefly, from İYİP, the ZP quickly increased its popularity as a single-issue party focussed on expelling refugees back to their country.
While openly admitting that the open-door policy is unsustainable, the two splinter parties – DEVA and the GP – have until recently not publicly advocated for the return of Syrian refugees.
As the chief architect of the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal, for instance, Davutoğlu's GP is calling for a return to the agreement's framework and wants to limit the settlement of Syrian refugees to designated areas. Meanwhile, DEVA leader Babacan openly questioned the feasibility and legality of returning Syrians back to their country earlier this year.
In response to growing anti-refugee sentiment, however, both parties have changed their positions on this issue and joined other opposition parties by declaring their commitment for the return of Syrians, albeit voluntarily.
Unless it is backed up by a strong political commitment and a diplomatic agreement with Syria, however, voluntary return is destined to remain at low levels. After living in Turkey for a decade, few Syrians want to return to Syria willingly. It is unlikely that the Assad government would welcome these refugees, many of whom are treated as opponents of the regime due to their Sunni Muslim faith.
Dr Berk Esen was IPC-Stiftung Mercator Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at SWP.