Election preview: Turkey

Sunday’s other big election is quite probably the most momentous election of the year, in Turkey (which its government now officially calls Türkiye, although I follow most English-language media in adhering to the old form). President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seeking re-election, and at the same time voters are choosing a new parliament – both to run for five-year terms.

Erdoğan has ruled Turkey for just over twenty years. He became prime minister in 2003 after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide victory at the previous year’s election, and was re-elected in 2007 and 2011. In 2014 he transferred to the presidency, and in 2017 he narrowly won a referendum to replace the parliamentary system with a semi-presidential one. He was subsequently elected to the new executive presidency in 2018, winning with 52.6% in the first round.

There are three opposition candidates on the ballot paper, but only two are still campaigning: the third, Muharrem İnce, announced his withdrawal yesterday. İnce was the candidate of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in 2018, but he left the CHP in 2021 to found his own party, the Homeland Party. He had made little impression in the opinion polls, and apparently withdrew so as not to be accused of splitting the opposition vote.

Erdoğan’s main opponent is the CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who, if the polls are right, is in the lead and within sight of the 50% needed for a first-round victory. (If no-one has a majority, a runoff will be held a fortnight later.) Kılıçdaroğlu has the support of most opposition forces, including the People’s Democratic Party (HDP; left-wing pro-Kurdish) and the Good Party (right-wing), each of which ran its own candidate last time.

The remaining candidate is Sinan Oğan, a far-right independent. The main far-right party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is part of Erdoğan’s coalition (having deserted the opposition back in 2015), so Oğan provides a way for dissenting voters on the right to vote against the president; polls show him collecting only a handful of votes.

The campaign has been exceptionally dirty, with Erdoğan exploiting the government’s control of most of the media. Nonetheless, Turkish democracy has had a longer lease of life than most observers expected; I was not alone when, prior to the 2018 election, I said that “If Turkish democracy has a last chance, this is it.” Yet the patient still breathes, and Erdoğan may face the prospect of having to choose between giving up power or resorting to patent illegality.

For the first decade or so of his rule, Erdoğan, although an Islamist, was a modernising and even liberalising leader. He brought Turkey closer to the European Union, initiated peace talks with Kurdish rebels and dismantled much of the militarised nationalist establishment of which the CHP was the traditional guardian.

But power corrupted him, as it so often does. As his rule became more authoritarian, he turned away from the EU and towards a more traditional Turkish chauvinism. The Kurds went from allies to scapegoats, and the failed coup attempt of 2016 led to extensive purges in the military and a break with the Gülen movement, an international Muslim network that had previously been a close ally. Erdoğan also drew closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite Turkey’s membership of NATO.

Probably none of those things would have been fatal to the government without its mismanagement of the economy. Economic policy had also been a success story in the early years, but more recently Erdoğan’s unorthodox monetary policy (sometimes said to be indebted to Modern Monetary Theory, although history suggests that autocrats are quite capable of coming up with bad economics on their own) has produced runaway inflation and severe economic hardship. Mismanagement of the response to a disastrous earthquake in south-eastern Turkey in February was further fuel for the opposition’s attacks.

As Erdoğan and the AKP shifted towards nationalism and authoritarianism, the CHP has moved in the other direction. While always secularist and nominally on the left, it had never had a strong attachment to democracy. Now, however, Kılıçdaroğlu is making promises of protecting press freedom and civil liberties, restoring the parliamentary system, reviving the long-dormant accession talks with the EU and moving to a strongly pro-Ukraine position. (He is also, sadly, keen on deporting refugees.) If he wins, and is allowed to take office, it will be as dramatic a sea-change as the region has seen for many a year.

And since the elections are held simultaneously, it’s a fair bet that whoever wins the presidency will also have a sympathetic majority in parliament. Last time around, the AKP won 42.6% of the vote, with another 11.1% for its ally, the MHP, giving them a total of 344 of the 600 seats. The opposition had 45.7% for its 256 seats – 146 for the CHP, 67 for the HDP and 43 for the Good Party. Polls suggest that they will again be the only five parties to win representation.


2 thoughts on “Election preview: Turkey

  1. What will happen with Cyprus will be a thorn for Turkey. Though like the Palestinians, I don’t feel sorry for the Greek Cypriots. Like the Palestinian Arab Muslim leaders in 1948, they should have adopted: “take what we can get now and hope for more later”. Two long decades of getting nothing at all is a heavy price to pay for the Greek Cypriots trusting their leaders’.


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