On 14 May, three months after devastating earthquakes hit the south of the country, Turkey goes to the polls. With the economy in serious trouble, can a disparate but united opposition unseat Erdoğan?
Not in 20 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has Turkey’s opposition looked so close to defeating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, this time in presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May. Erdoğan has seemed to be struggling for some months; now opinion polls suggest he is neck and neck with his main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s oldest political party, established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Much of Erdoğan’s loss of support is down to the deteriorating economic situation since 2021, followed by the disastrous 6 February earthquakes which killed at least 44,000 in Turkey alone, largely due to the government’s clientelist, profit-driven urbanisation policy and the mismanagement of its emergency response (1).
Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, though soft-spoken and without Erdoğan’s charisma, is an astute economist and former civil servant (in charge of social security). His profile is similar to that of many civil servants on the left, nationalist and secular, the backbone of the Turkish state until they were gradually squeezed out by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in government since 2002.
Importantly, the CHP leader is an Alevi, from a modest background in Turkey’s predominantly Alevi, eastern province of Tunceli. The Alevi minority follows a distinct form of Islam with heterodox beliefs and its own houses of prayer, and has over the centuries suffered numerous sectarian attacks (notably after the 1937-38 Dersim rebellion). Erdoğan, a Sunni with conservative religious leanings, has often stigmatised Alevi rites to further polarise Turkish society. Kılıçdaroğlu has always played down his background, still sensitive in today’s Turkey, but on 19 April released a video on Twitter titled Alevi. In it, he made a direct appeal to Turkey’s young saying it was time to address ‘a very sensitive subject’: the video went viral with 73 million views on its first day (2).
Kılıçdaroğlu first came to wider public attention when he attacked the government over a number of corruption scandals. Then, in 2017, he led a March for Justice from Ankara to Istanbul, in protest against the purges that followed the failed military coup of 2016 (3). Erdoğan told Kılıçdaroğlu at the time, ‘If the judicial authorities invite you in somewhere tomorrow, then don’t be surprised’, to which Kılıçdaroğlu replied, ‘If I prove that you and your government gave orders to the courts, will you resign like an honourable man?’ The confrontational tone has since intensified; during the presidential campaign Kılıçdaroğlu has called on Erdoğan to take responsibility for the scale of the humanitarian disaster following the earthquakes.
Playing the unity card
Throughout the campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu, who defines himself as a social democrat, has played the unity card, leading the National Alliance or Table of Six, a political and electoral alliance of parties ranging from the moderate left to the ultranationalist far right, via political Islam and conservative liberalism (4). This disparate grouping does not seem as convincing to voters as Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance (5): international relations expert Aurélien Denizeau points out that the National Alliance ‘was brought together not so much by ideological convergence as by the desire of its constituent parties to merge their electoral lists ahead of the legislative election and to field a joint presidential candidate’ (6). This makes some fear a return to the unstable governments of the pre-AKP years if the opposition coalition wins.
In late January the National Alliance published a manifesto setting out core principles rather than detailed policies: restoring a balanced parliamentary regime, combatting inflation to bolster the economy, and respecting human rights and democratic norms (7). However, there was nothing on the Kurdish question, even though Kılıçdaroğlu takes pains to present himself as a champion of reconciliation – with women who cover their heads (a practice disliked by secular parties), conservative nationalists, and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP, leftwing Kurdish autonomist), whose co-chairs he has met.
This is a stumbling block for the alliance: the Good Party (ultranationalist far right) takes a hard line against the HDP, which is threatened with dissolution for activities contrary to the ‘indivisible integrity of the state’ and links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But Kılıçdaroğlu’s reconciliation strategy has paid off: under the influence of its former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, in prison since 2016, the HDP has not fielded a presidential candidate but given its tacit approval to Kılıçdaroğlu, for whom the votes of its supporters may prove crucial.
Even so, many Turks believe Erdoğan will be re-elected. They must recall the many irregularities of past polls: an almost nationwide power cut during the final count in 2014, unsealed envelopes in 2017 etc. This year, the indirect results of the earthquakes could prevent the elections being properly conducted. The campaign has taken place under a state of emergency declared in ten of Turkey’s 81 provinces the day after the quakes. Turks have been here before: the 2017 constitutional referendum and 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections also took place during a state of emergency.
Élise Massicard of the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales in Paris says, ‘By declaring a state of emergency rather than a state of disaster, which might have been more appropriate, the government has given far greater powers to the public authorities, such as the power to ban demonstrations or control the media in these highly populous regions, amplifying recent criticism that the state apparatus is no longer neutral, but works for the AKP and is partisan in its use of public resources.’
And because of the earthquakes, the results of the elections could be even more open to challenge. Voters are registered at their home address, provided they have lived there for at least three months before an election. This time, registration has been an administrative challenge, as more than 3.5 million people have been displaced and millions of younger voters (who are less likely to support the AKP government and many of whom are first-time voters) have had to leave student halls of residence to make room for quake victims. Depending on the political leanings of voters in a particular constituency, rigging or deliberate bureaucratic inertia cannot be excluded in registering new voters, or striking off those who have moved away without leaving an address.
‘Millions of votes at stake’
‘Millions of votes are at stake, and that could influence the final result,’ says Massicard. ‘Some constituencies are more crucial than others in legislative elections, and the results of this one could have a knock-on effect on the second round of the presidential election. The authorities know that voter registration is a big issue and that they won’t gain anything by playing tricks. But it’s true that the massive population movements after the earthquakes have opened up the possibility of manipulation. The opposition coalition is making a big thing of it.’
Erdoğan could try other tricks too. Sinan Ciddi, an associate professor of national security studies, warns that ‘if defeat seems imminent, judges and elections officials loyal to Erdoğan may overturn the results, as they attempted to do by annulling Istanbul’s mayoral election results in 2019. Or he may even rely on the police and the armed forces’ (8).
Meanwhile, Erdoğan has increased the minimum wage (which affects 60% of the population) and public servants’ salaries, allowed over two million people to retire immediately, and repeatedly promised to rebuild tens of thousands of homes destroyed by the earthquakes.
There are other things that make opponents of Erdoğan pessimistic about the chances of defeating him. The playing field is far from level with around 90% of the media under government control, a new law to control social media, dozens of journalists and HDP politicians in prison, the HDP itself under threat of dissolution, and the popular mayor of Istanbul Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP) sentenced to prison.
Direct government control
As political scientist Cengiz Aktar points out, the government appoints the chairs of provincial and district electoral commissions and of the Supreme Election Council (YSK). Though Massicard notes that while ‘it’s true that all the judges on the YSK have been appointed under the AKP [government], the major political parties are all represented on the council, even if they lack voting rights.’
The May elections could also see the return of civil society actions as in 2014 and 2015, when, especially in Istanbul and Ankara, activists sat on sacks containing ballot papers for hours, waiting for the votes from the polling station they were monitoring to be counted. These efforts to prevent electoral fraud showed the creativity, energy and democratic engagement of some of Turkey’s youth, even if it didn’t last under government pressure. This time, even with the help of some 350 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, activists are unlikely to be able to cover more than 10% of Turkey’s 180,000 polling stations.
However, over the years, opposition parties have gained experience and are playing an increasingly important role in election monitoring and ballot counting. ‘The opposition is far better organised than before: assessors and scrutineers have learned a lot, and are vigilant,’ Massicard says. ‘The problem is, in some provinces, political parties don’t have enough members to send a scrutineer to every polling station. Since the opposition is made up of multiple organisations with different voter bases, they may divide up the task according to their local strengths.’
Erdoğan has often said, ‘Democracy starts at the ballot box and is expressed at the ballot box.’ Which is why political scientist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş (9) believes the president, who ‘has built his legitimacy on elections, could not contest a decisive opposition win.’
May’s elections will be far more than the usual political contest. In 2014 Turks made fun of energy minister Taner Yıldız when he claimed that power cuts which interrupted ballot-counting in 35 towns and cities around the country were caused by a cat getting into a power distribution unit. Nine years on, it’s not certain voters would show the same sense of humour. A narrow opposition defeat would be seen in the light of the government’s past manipulation and fraud, real or imagined. And it could lead to distrust or disengagement from the democratic process itself, and even to violence.
(1) See Ariane Bonzon, ‘Erdoğan’s credibility shaken’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2023.
(2) Ezgi Akin, ‘Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu garners record attention in Alevi video’, Al-Monitor, 20 April 2023.
(3) See Sümbül Kaya, ‘Turkey’s rootless coup’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 2016.
(4) The CHP, Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), Future Party (Gelecek Partisi), Democrat Party (DP), Good Party (İYİ Parti) and Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi).
(5) The AKP, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Great Unity Party (BBP), New Welfare Party (YRP) and Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR).
(6) See Aurélien Denizeau, ‘Les coalitions politiques en Turquie à la veille des élections de 2023’ (Political coalitions in Turkey on the eve of the 2023 elections), Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), April 2023, www.ifri.org/.
(7) See Seren Selvin Korkmaz, ‘Turkey’s visionary opposition: A proposal for new government and policymaking structures’, German Marshall Fund, 29 March 2023, www.gmfus.org/.
(8) Quoted in Jamie Dettmer, ‘It’s going to be hard to get rid of Turkey’s Erdoğan’, Politico, 18 March 2023, www.politico.eu/.
(9) Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, ‘Letter from Istanbul: Turkey has difficult years ahead’, Brookings, 4 April 2023, www.brookings.edu/.
The longer view