Türkiye elections: A closely-fought cliffhanger on the cards

The opposition’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu is mounting a stiff challenge to incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the keenly-watched elections on May 14.

Published : Apr 27, 2023 16:10 IST - 12 MINS READ

Election campaign billboards of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul on April 27, 2023. The slogan on the billboard reads: “One year free natural gas for households.”

Election campaign billboards of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul on April 27, 2023. The slogan on the billboard reads: “One year free natural gas for households.” | Photo Credit: Murad Sezer/REUTERS

As Türkiye gets ready for the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-May, politicians have adopted a low-key approach to attract voters, avoiding colour, song and dance, or drama, the reason being the devastating earthquake in February that left more than 50,000 people dead in the country’s 11 southeastern provinces.

On May 14, voters across Türkiye will elect the President and 600 members of parliament for a five-year term.

During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and the long Eid weekend, members of rival parties with their banners were seen handing out water, milkshakes, and dates in front of mosques to register their presence, instead of resorting to high-decibel campaigning or organising processions. Even outside a nightclub across the street from the Maltepe Mosque in the heart of Ankara, some young activists of a Turkish nationalist political party distributed election brochures, baklava, and water bottles.

Although dimmer, optics do matter at a time when the contest is based on issues ranging from the faltering economy and migration policies to post-quake reconstruction.

As this election will decide the fate of high-profile incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled the country for more than two decades, it is being keenly watched all over the world as the outcome could have a far-reaching geopolitical impact, given Türkiye’s rise in the global scheme of things in recent years.

Following the March 27 election review, the Supreme Electoral Council, the country’s top electoral authority, accepted the nominations of four presidential candidates and confirmed that 36 parties were eligible to run for parliamentary seats.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the CHP and presidential candidate, delivering a speech in Ankara on April 23.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the CHP and presidential candidate, delivering a speech in Ankara on April 23. | Photo Credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

Main contenders

The four presidential candidates are Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as AK Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the joint opposition candidate and leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party, Muharrem Ince, who split from the opposition and formed his own Homeland Party, and Sinan Ogan, who represents the Ancestral Alliance, which has an anti-refugee agenda.

Pollsters have predicted a close contest between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, who are both expected to garner 42-43 per cent of the vote. Since neither candidate is likely to achieve the 50 per cent plus one vote mark needed to win the election, the 15 per cent of voters who have remained undecided so far—most of them among the 5 million new voters—will influence the outcome at the last minute, according to the pollsters.

If neither candidate gets the required votes, there could be a second round of voting between the first two candidates on May 28. A realignment of political forces may take shape for the second round. Opinion polls suggest that Ince, who ran as the main opposition CHP candidate against Erdogan in 2018, will receive 6-8 per cent of the vote, mostly from the youth, spoiling the opposition’s chances.

However, the opposition’s chances are boosted by the fact that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the third-largest party in parliament that accounts for 12 per cent of the vote, has not fielded its own presidential candidate, paving the way for its voters to support the united opposition. Further, as the election draws closer, Ince’s projected vote share has also been decreasing.

Political alliances

The People’s Alliance, originally consisting of four parties under the leadership of AK Party, has now succeeded in bringing eight parties under its umbrella. They are the ultra-Turkish National Movement Party (MHP), the Islamist Great Unity Party (BBP), the breakaway Kurdish-dominated Islamist pro-Iran Free Cause Party (HUDAPAR), the Islamist New Welfare Party, the left-leaning Democratic Left Party (DSP), the pan-Turkish Great Türkiye Party, and the liberal-conservative True Way Party (DYP).

The opposition, which began with a six-party National Alliance, has since ballooned into a coalition of 17 political parties, ranging from nationalists such as former Interior Minister Meral Aksener’s IYI (Good Party) to the liberal-conservative Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA).

The country’s main Islamist Felicity or Saadat Party, led by Temel Karamollaoglu, is also part of the opposition alliance led by the secular CHP. Karamollaoglu negotiated with and convinced the opposition to agree to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, despite resistance from many opposition parties.

The National Alliance had formally opposed an alliance with the HDP because of Turkish nationalist sentiments, particularly those of the centre-right IYI party. However, political observers said their votes will likely go into Kilicdaroglu’s kitty.

The opposition alliance with the sole motive of unseating Erdogan can be very well compared with the Janata experiment in India that defeated powerful rulers such as Indira Gandhi in 1977 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, but then crumbled under its own contradictions in a few years, paving way for the Congress’ return to power.

Erdogan during a visit to the hard-hit southeastern city of Diyarbakir, five days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the border region of Turkey and Syria, on February 11, 2023.

Erdogan during a visit to the hard-hit southeastern city of Diyarbakir, five days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the border region of Turkey and Syria, on February 11, 2023. | Photo Credit: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP

Erdogan’s promises

From anti-Western rhetoric and the unveiling of the Togg T10X, a domestically built electric car, to the commissioning of the country’s long-awaited largest warship and the inauguration of a new metro line in Ankara, Erdogan is leaving no stone unturned to get re-elected.

He has also launched the first indigenous high-resolution Earth observation satellite, IMECE, and offered free gas to households for one month to celebrate domestic energy production for the first time from the Black Sea

He recently called on his supporters to teach the US a lesson in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections after US Ambassador Jeff Flake called on Kilicdaroglu.

He also extolled his own efforts in making the country self-sufficient in defence, at a function in late April where BMC, a domestic manufacturer, delivered the first two units of Türkiye’s Altay battle tank to the military after years of delays.

Promising stability and continuity for the system, which has many takers, especially in earthquake-ravaged regions, Erdogan has pledged to rebuild 319,000 homes within a year.

“Our goal is to build a total of 650,000 new houses, of which 319,000 will be completed within a year, and hand them over to earthquake victims,” he said at a groundbreaking ceremony for new houses in the earthquake-damaged city of Gaziantep. More than 13.5 million people in Türkiye have been affected by the quakes.

Not to be left behind, Kilicdaroglu has also pledged to rebuild some 600,000 homes for earthquake victims free of charge. He has promised to appoint a veterinarian, an agricultural engineer, and an agricultural technician for each of the country’s 18,000 villages. With the promise of family insurance and plans to support family income, he has tried to lure rural voters by promising free electricity and the distribution of some 3.7 million heads of cattle and more than 7 million sheep to villagers as part of a food security programme.

Return to parliamentary system

The opposition’s main plank is abolishing the presidential system and reintroducing the parliamentary system of government.

“We did not have an American-style presidential system where appointments are vetted by Congress. I was told that Erdogan signs 3,000 papers a day to decide even on low-level appointments and micro-manage affairs,” Nevsin Mengue, an Istanbul-based independent journalist, said at a function organised by the US-based research group Brookings. She hopes that the new system will increase accountability.

Drawing parallels between the two major alliances, Sinan Uelgen, director of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said they represent two different versions of society. He said: “Erdogan’s alliance has been in power for the past 20 years and has been cold and hot toward the West, while the opposition alliance has a different vision of bringing Türkiye closer to the West.”

Under Erdogan, he said, Türkiye, despite being a member of NATO, has sought a degree of strategic autonomy and has turned toward West Asian and Turkic identity, exploring and developing ties with Turkic countries and communities across Eurasia, even up to Afghanistan.

Türkiye was instrumental in setting up the Turkic Council or the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), comprising Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Türkiye, and Uzbekistan, with Hungary, Northern Cyprus and Turkmenistan as observer members.

In contrast, the opposition alliance seeks to strengthen Türkiye’s Western identity and continue a balance in relations with Russia and other countries.

To demonstrate its strategic autonomy, Türkiye under Erdogan bought the S-400 missile defence system from Russia despite US warnings and completed construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant with Russian help on April 27, amid an election campaign. It is Türkiye’s first nuclear power plant with an installed capacity of 4,800 megawatts and four reactors.

Without commenting on how he will continue relations with Russia, Kilicdaroglu has promised to allow Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe just three months after taking office. “We will come to power. We will win the presidency. We will solve the visa problems,” he said in a television interview on Haberturk TV.

EU ties

Türkiye’s negotiations to join the EU have been stalled since 2016 because the country failed to meet five of 72 criteria. These include legislative changes to combat corruption, the conclusion of an operational cooperation agreement with Europol, judicial cooperation with EU member states, updating personal data protection legislation, and revising terrorism legislation in line with EU standards, apart from some human rights issues such as granting rights to the LGBT community.

Kilicdaroglu has promised to make the relevant changes and show Europe that Türkiye is a country where freedom of expression is exercised without any restrictions. “We will bring all the democratic rules prescribed by the EU to our country,” he said.

His party also hopes that the new Turkish parliament will approve Sweden’s delayed accession to the NATO before the alliance’s members meet for their next summit in the summer.

Inside Istanbul’s emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, which once again became a mosque in 2020..

Inside Istanbul’s emblematic landmark church-turned-mosque-turned museum Hagia Sophia, which once again became a mosque in 2020.. | Photo Credit: Ozan KOSE/AFP

No return to rigid secularism

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, said that while Kilicdaroglu was known for his secular outlook and was an advocate of the separation of religion and state as promoted by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he has reached out to Islamists and religious circles to redefine Turkish secularism.

Speaking to Frontline at the CHP headquarters in Ankara’s Cankaya district, Ekber Alici, a party office-bearer, dismissed the notion that his party could reinstate a ban on women wearing headscarves, the recitation of the azaan (call to prayer), or reinstate military rule. In the past, when the CHP ruled, secular practices were strictly enforced, even to the point of banning headscarves, religious festivals, and gatherings. The military also had a say in political and judicial appointments, which ended during Erdogan’s tenure.

“A lot of water has flowed since then. They were formative years in the founding of the republic. We have to coexist and work for the country and social reconciliation,” he said with a wry smile, adding that his country had learned to embrace India’s version of secularism, which he said was not hostile to religion but gives equal space to all ideologies and religions.

Significantly, Kilicdaroglu recently spoke openly about his Alevi identity for the first time in a video message to prevent his opponents from using this against him in the Sunni-majority country. Alevism is a heterodox Islamic tradition with roots in the Anatolian region of Türkiye.

“Our identities make us who we are. And of course, we have to accept them with dignity, we cannot choose them. We are born with them, grow up with them and live with them,” the 74-year-old leader said, appealing to voters to “get this country out of harmful sectarian debates”.

Makovsky, however, said the biggest challenge facing the CHP was the lack of talent to govern the country. The CHP has been out of power continuously since 1979, despite ruling the country with an iron fist for more than 20 years since the founding of the republic in 1927.

“It will not have the necessary experience to govern. However, that experience will come from the smaller parties in the opposition coalition that have been in and out of power with various alliances in the past,” he said.

Commenting on the fears of some Western media outlets about the possibility of rigging in the high-stakes election in favour of the ruling coalition, Uelgen said that the overall voter turnout in Türkiye was usually 86 per cent and this time it is expected to be over 90 per cent, so the likelihood of rigging was low. According to the Election Council, over 64 million people are registered to vote in the upcoming election. In addition, 3.2 million Turkish citizens currently living overseas can also cast their votes.

“There is a vibrant political and democratic DNA in Türkiye. So, the institutions will side with democracy. The speculation in the West that the election could be rigged must be put to rest. Any government in Türkiye will need democratic legitimacy. Otherwise, it will not be able to function,” he said, referring to the 2019 mayoral election in Istanbul, in which Erdogan’s party lost despite seeking a re-election.

Furkan Hamit, editor of Türkiye Urdu, an Ankara-based news portal, said that although Erdogan’s party individually still had the biggest chunk of the vote bank at 32 per cent, he is struggling more due to a weakening economy than on account of the motley group of opposition parties.

Hamit, who has lived in Ankara since 1979, said that Erdogan deserves credit for bringing the country into the comity of industrialised and developed nations and introducing social security for the entire population, but it seems that the unimaginable rise in the cost of living and the steep fall of the lira in recent years have hurt his electoral chances. Currently, the minimum wage in the country is $420, which is not enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Erdogan has increased the salaries of state employees, but the amount does not match rising prices. The increase in salaries also fuelled inflation further.

Analysts said that Erdogan’s possible defeat will have to do more with inflation and the cost of living than anything else. They, however, added that his presence as opposition leader was also a scary prospect because he will complicate decision-making by the ideologically divergent Kilicdaroglu-led government. “Even if he loses, he will still be a symbol of the national mood and will pounce on issues that limit the government to do what it wants,” Makovsky said.

In any case, a change of government in Türkiye will be a political earthquake  that could forever change the region and its strategic calculations.

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