Turkey’s Hinge Election

by November 2022
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (Right), Leader of Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (Left). Photos credit: via REUTERS, REUTERS

In 2023, Turkey will hold a hinge election. An opposition victory would mean a more democratic, pro-Western Turkey—and a Turkey that keeps its distance from Islamist groups. An Erdoğan victory would solidify his hold on the nation and most likely mean diminished freedoms and continued Turkish efforts to balance East and West, as well as continued flirtation with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seemingly vulnerable. Until recently, his job approval ratings were down, and polls showed him trailing each of the most-discussed potential opposition presidential candidates. And no wonder. Per capita income in Turkey tumbled over the past six years by nearly a quarter, from $12,500 in 2015 to $9,500 in 2021. Inflation, officially at 83.5%, is probably far higher. Turkey’s currency, the lira, has lost roughly half its value against the dollar over the past year. And Erdoğan shows no inclination to reverse any of the key policies that have produced this economic chaos. Adding to his vulnerability, Erdoğan is widely blamed for the Turks’ number-two concern (after the economy): the presence of 3.5 to 5 million generally unwelcome Syrian refugees.

Nevertheless, more recent polls show Erdoğan’s support once again rebounding. He is, after all, Turkey’s longest-ruling leader and most successful politician since the onset of free elections in 1950. His religion-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP, in its Turkish initials) has come in first in every national election since its maiden effort in November 2002. The stage is set for Erdoğan’s toughest challenge in 20 years. 

Dramatis Personae

Under the “executive presidency” system, narrowly (and disputedly) adopted by popular referendum in 2017 and implemented in 2018, presidential and parliamentary elections are held simultaneously, with each elected to five-year terms. The 2023 elections, which must be held by June 18 but could be earlier if President Erdoğan so decides, will be the first since 2018. Before 2014, the Turkish parliament, not the people, selected the president.

Under this new system, the president can govern by decree on most issues and appoint virtually every top official in the executive and judicial branches, without any “advice and consent” parliamentary review process.

There are two main electoral coalitions in Turkey, both initially formed in preparation for the 2018 elections. The People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) consists of Erdoğan’s AKP and the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). 

Its rival, the Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı), comprises the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), run by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and a Turkish nationalist breakaway from MHP called İyi, or Good, Party. İyi’s leader is a former interior minister—the only female to have held that post—Meral Akşener. (When spelled in all upper-case, as in the party logo, the word “İYİ” evokes an early Turkic tribal warrior symbol.)

Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance is the more ideologically coherent coalition. Both of its parties support ethnic Turkish nationalism, favor a strong presence of religion in society, and have limited tolerance for expressions of Kurdish consciousness. With MHP support, Erdoğan largely muzzles the media and pursues a muscular foreign policy, including a willingness to project force. 

The two main constituent parties of the opposition Nation Alliance differ on the central political problem of Turkish society; that is, how to accommodate Kurdish demands and integrate Kurds into Turkish society. CHP, while it has Turkish nationalist elements, supports the legitimacy of the Kurdish-rights Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP),  calls for the release of HDP’s founder from prison, and criticizes the government’s wholesale removal of elected HDP mayors.  Note the use of the plural “Peoples” in HDP’s name, ascribing multi-ethnicity to Turkey which has traditionally insisted on a unitary Turkish character. İyi is on the other side of those issues.

CHP and İyi do agree on two things: Erdoğan must go; the parliamentary system of government should be restored. 

Two smaller parties who share the priority of “beat Erdoğan” also joined the Nation Alliance in 2018: the Islamist Saadet Party and the center-right Demokrat Party. And in 2021, two breakaways from Erdoğan’s AKP joined to form a grouping called the “Table of Six.” The two are former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party (GP) and former foreign minister Ali Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), each reflecting ideologies of earlier, more liberal stages of the AKP’s development.

The core Nation Alliance parties, CHP and İyi, are hoping that the Table of Six concept will broaden the appeal of the Alliance; right now, however, the four small parties collectively score only about 3% in the polls.

The Kurdish-rights HDP isn’t welcome in the Nation Alliance, mainly because İyi sees HDP as linked to the PKK, banned in Turkey as a terrorist organization. But the opposition will need strong Kurdish support to win the elections, with Kurds representing about 15% of the electorate, and it won’t receive that support unless it has at least the implicit backing of the HDP, the dominant party among Kurdish voters. 

Taken together, the two main parties of the People’s Alliance, AKP and MHP, and the two main parties of the Nation Alliance, CHP and İyi, plus HDP, constitute the five most popular parties in Turkey and the five largest in parliament. 

Opposition Challenges 

The opposition alliance’s strongest argument is Erdoğan’s troubled economy. The opposition’s challenges are daunting, however. Its mixture of ideologies was noted above. Another is its failure to date to announce a common presidential candidate. The likely candidate will be Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose CHP is the largest party in the Nation Alliance.

Kılıçdaroğlu is a relatively colorless politician with a bureaucratic background but has a reputation for being clean in a society where few of his counterparts can make that claim. At its core, CHP remains secular and strongly Turkish nationalist, but Kılıçdaroğlu has reached out to more religiously traditional elements and has softened the party’s approach toward the Kurds. The most striking example of this—and his greatest electoral success—was in the 2019 local elections. He promoted mayoral candidates with conservative backgrounds (one a former MHP member, the other a lifelong CHP member but from a traditional, center-right family) in Istanbul and Ankara and also forged an informal partnership with the Kurdish-rights HDP—and won both elections. That ended an era of 25 consecutive years of rule by Erdoğan’s AKP (and a predecessor religious party) in Turkey’s two largest and most prestigious cities.

Kılıçdaroğlu, who turns 74 in December, seems determined to run. His five coalition partners, all of whom represent parties to his right, are reportedly unhappy about that prospect, although they aren’t saying so publicly. One reason for their skepticism about him is his spotty showing in the polls, where he has now slipped behind Erdoğan. Linked to that is the fact that CHP national election results have been stagnant during his 12-plus years as leader; CHP regularly captures about 25% of the vote as the country’s second largest party, whereas AKP consistently receives in the forties. 

A second concern is Kılıçdaroğlu’s style. Even many of his supporters worry that his low-key, non-charismatic personality wouldn’t hold up well against Erdoğan’s rhetorical bullying—all the more so in a country that generally favors powerful leaders. 

A third problem is Kılıçdaroğlu’s religion: Alevism, a heterodox version of Islam that many conservative Sunnis consider to be not Islam at all. Historically, CHP draws a significant portion of its vote from Alevis, who are generally believed to compose about 20% of Turkey’s population. (Turkey’s census-takers do not ask about religious preference or ethnicity, so estimates can be made only indirectly.) In a recent poll, 34% of Turks said they wouldn’t vote for an Alevi, including 20% of CHP supporters and 26% of İyi supporters.

Finally, there is CHP’s historical baggage. Founded by Kemal Ataturk on the principles of Turkish nationalism and anti-clerical secularism, the CHP was for decades at odds with the sizable religious segments of the society as well as with the Kurds. Kılıçdaroğlu has worked hard to soften that image. But significant numbers of religious people are convinced that a return to power by secularists would threaten hard-won gains of the two-decade-old Erdoğan era. During this period, women wearing headscarves, who were long at the center of Turkey’s kulturkampf, have made enormous gains. Once barred from universities and from political office, they now can enter any career path, including the military. Although polls show that secularists now fully accept this situation and have no desire to overturn it, historical memories remain strong among many religious Turks. 

A supporter of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waves a AK Party (AKP) flag. Photo credit: REUTERS

Erdoğan’s Resurgence

Erdoğan’s surprising ascent in recent polls is attributable to three factors.

Populist economic message: Throwing inflation caution to the wind, Erdoğan has begun to use his office to bestow largesse on the public. Most recently, he announced plans for 500,000 low-income, public housing units; more than 7 million people applied in the first month. Thanks to his dominance of the media, Erdoğan has been able to persuade large segments of the public that worldwide problems, rather than economic mismanagement at home, are the source of Turkey’s economic woes. 

Foreign policy: Erdoğan’s foreign policy has been bold and aggressive but also at times surprisingly nimble. He has been unusually adept at steering Turkey through the thicket of the Russian war on Ukraine, even if in a manner generally distasteful to his Western allies. He manages to maintain close relations with both Ukraine and Russia, selling armed drones to the former while deriving maximum benefit from economic relations with the latter. He has also managed to keep at bay Western frustration with his anti-sanctions policy, thanks to his efforts at mediating between Moscow and Kyiv, especially his negotiating, along with the UN, a deal to allow Ukraine to export grains and thereby ease world hunger and food prices. 

Erdoğan’s decision to hold Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership hostage to their compliance with Turkish demands regarding the PKK is popular domestically. Like his four invasions of Syria and his active support of Azerbaijan’s recapture of most of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is an example of a policy that Kılıçdaroğlu almost certainly would not have pursued himself but to which politically he could not object once Erdoğan took the initiative.

Opposition missteps: Perhaps the most important reason for Erdoğan’s recovery in the polls has been disarray in the opposition, highlighted by its failure to project a clear policy message and uncertainty about its choice of presidential candidate. 

The opposition has made tactical mistakes as well. In October, for example, Kılıçdaroğlu proposed a bill to protect the rights of women who cover their heads to serve in public positions, which would have simply formalized the existing situation. His intention was to demonstrate to the religious community that they need not fear a return to power of a secularist party. But Erdoğan, long the champion of Turkey’s religious, quickly turned it to his advantage, announcing he would propose not just a law along those lines but a constitutional amendment. Whatever Kılıçdaroğlu’s intentions with his original proposal, many of his supporters are angry that he changed the focus of public discourse from their issue, the failing economy, to an issue squarely in Erdoğan’s wheelhouse.

The Fork in the Road 

A government led by Kılıçdaroğlu and his National Alliance would not represent a 180-degree change from Erdoğan—on issues like Greece, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and the PKK it might seem virtually the same—but it would be different in many ways. To give a few examples:

Western orientation: Kılıçdaroğlu is a secularist coming from a tradition that sees Turkey’s proper place as part of the Western world, and he feels more at home in the West than in the Middle East or Russia. He would be disinclined to rock the boat in NATO.

Russia: Kılıçdaroğlu would certainly pursue ties with Russia, which are now economically critical for Turkey, but he probably could be counted on to work with the West to limit Moscow’s ability to use Turkey to circumvent sanctions. 

Human Rights: Kılıçdaroğlu and his partners would reverse Erdoğan’s authoritarian course and head in a more democratic direction. The media would be freer and journalists and political opponents would be less likely to be imprisoned.

Kılıçdaroğlu has also said he would abide by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights—as Turkey is obligated to do as a member of the Council of Europe and as it did for decades before the Erdoğan years. This quickly would lead to the release of two of Turkey’s most internationally known political prisoners, Osman Kavala, a liberal activist and philanthropist, and Selahattin Demirtaş, co-founder of the HDP.

Muslim Brotherhood: Kılıçdaroğlu has frequently criticized Erdoğan for pursuing a “Muslim Brotherhood-based” foreign policy. He would likely expel foreign Brotherhood members in Turkey—and likely would do the same with Hamas elements. 

Israel: Relations with Israel are likely to warm within limits. A return to the close military cooperation of the Süleyman Demirel era of the 1990s is unlikely, particularly given Israeli ties with Greece and Cyprus. But Erdoğan’s rhetoric—and provocations in East Jerusalem—would disappear. Although pro-Palestinian, Kılıçdaroğlu is unlikely to resort to the kind of rabble-rousing on the Palestinian issue that Erdoğan has.

The 2023 campaign has already begun in earnest and will surely heat up once the opposition announces its candidate for president, probably in January. Differences between Erdoğan and the opposition represent two distinct pathways. One pathway or the other will determine Turkey’s course and influence the entire Middle East, for the next five years and likely beyond.

Alan Makovsky
Alan Makovsky is a senior fellow for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. He was previously a senior analyst on Turkey and the Middle East at the State Department and, later, the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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