Why the most important elections of 2023 are in Turkey

The opposition, after more than 20 years, could regain control. Its promise to reverse the democratic degradation of the nation will have important effects at home and abroad.

Manel Domingo

In its centenary year, the Republic of Turkey will hold on the 14 May the most decisive elections in its recent history. This will also be the most important election worldwide in 2023. Turkey sits between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East – and is barely separated from Russia by the Black Sea. Moreover, it is a regional power that reads from its own script within a revitalized NATO.  

Beyond geopolitics, Turkey has also been an example of the degradation of democracies around the globe. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was elected before many of the champions of the new illiberal order (Orbán in Hungary, Trump in America, and Bolsonaro in Brazil). These elections will either represent a democratic regeneration or the further consolidation of an increasingly authoritarian regime.  

Turkey faces these elections with rampant inflation and cities still buried under the rubble of February's earthquake. "Erdoğan is looking fragile, but he continues accumulating power given the deterioration of democracy, institutions, and freedoms," says Juan Moscoso del Prado, a senior researcher at EsadeGeo.  

"Before Erdoğan, Turkey was far more aligned with Western democratic values. But for the first time in 20 years, the opposition may be able to reverse the situation," he says. The six opposition parties have, for the first time, united behind a single candidate. Even the Kurdish minority party, the country's third political force and traditionally rejected by the entire political spectrum, has helped the opposition leader by not presenting a candidate. 

Descent into a dying democracy 

After 21 years in power and a series of institutional changes that have enabled him to stay in power, Erdoğan is already the leader who has longest been at the helm of the country. He has served longer than the revered founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who in 1923 took over the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to create, with an iron fist, a state inspired by European democracies and modern Western values. 

Erdoğan was elected in the early 2000s after a long period of political crisis. He capitalized on the feeling of abandonment and historical grievance suffered by the peripheral Turkey, a more rural and Islamic population that felt relegated from politics by the Kemalist elites of Ankara and Istanbul. "He used identity and cultural conflict to mobilize this electorate," explains Moscoso del Prado.  

The West, recovering from the shock of 9/11 and hoping to find a moderate political Islamism with democratic principles, embraced Erdoğan’s first term with enthusiasm. Those were the years of great economic expansion in Turkey and its democratic system was in good health. The nation even began a process of accession to the European Union that remains deadlocked to this day. 

However, the initial period of optimism did not last for many years. It soon became clear that Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, would try to retain power by any means. From 2010 onwards, there have been deep institutional changes – among them, the switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system – and such constitutional changes that have ensured the party’s continuing hold on power.  

During this process, Erdoğan has depended on a popular base that has remained loyal and has enabled him to win election after election. However, also decisive has been the increasingly sharp persecution of his political opponents, some of them imprisoned or disqualified, and his tight control over the media, with journalists imprisoned and the press restrained under the provisions of anti-terrorism legislation.  

The significance of this opportunity 

Although Erdoğan and the AKP's control over the state apparatus make these elections an unequal contest, the electoral system remains sufficiently trustworthy to give the opposition a chance. The winner will be announced by the Supreme Electoral Court, an independent body composed of seven judges elected by the judiciary itself and whose ruling is final.  

However, Turkish history offers few examples of peaceful political transitions. The Turks are used to the fact that it is the army that makes the final call. This was the case with the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, and 2016 (being unsuccessful on this latter and convoluted occasion). The difference is that coups have always been for a Kemalist Turkey and against the Islamic nationalism represented by Erdoğan. 

The electoral system remains sufficiently trustworthy to give the opposition a chance

Moscoso del Prado does not believe that an attempt to reverse the electoral result by force will be made – as happened recently in America and Brazil. Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition candidate, "is running a very measured campaign that rejects identity exaltation, and he is carefully and successfully choosing where to hold his rallies". The aim is to take advantage of the voters’ fatigue towards Erdoğan, while not further exacerbating Turkey’s already polarized society. 

Moreover, "the institutional elites remain fairly heterogeneous, as is the judiciary and army". The Kemalists present in the state apparatus have been keeping a low profile for years, but they are still present despite the constant political purges made by the government over the last decade. 

Moscoso del Prado insists on the importance of the opposition winning the presidency as well as a parliamentary majority. "Kılıçdaroğlu will not make changes that he cannot consolidate," he insists. If the balance continues as it is now, and Erdoğan’s AKP maintains its parliamentary majority with the support of far-right ultranationalists, as it has been during the last legislature, then it will be difficult to make far-reaching reforms. 

An election with global repercussions  

"Turkey is a key geopolitical actor because of its location and its actions," says Moscoso del Prado. What happens in these elections will have global effects, starting with its neighbors: Turkey is sheltering 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Their eventual return to Syria has been under discussion for some time and could change the map of the whole region. 

The relationship that the new government establishes with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime will also be crucial, since Turkey is one of the main military actors in those areas that remain in dispute after 12 years of war in Syria. The new government's attitude towards Russia, with whom it has so far maintained a delicate balance and deliberate ambiguity regarding the invasion of Ukraine, will also be important.  

Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, including 3.6 million Syrians

Another key area will be Turkey's relationship with NATO, which has deteriorated greatly since 2016. "Turkey has not failed to fulfill its obligations, but it does not participate with much determination on the political side," says Moscoso del Prado. A new executive would change this stance in some ways. "It would end the veto on Sweden's accession, but more sensitive issues would continue unchanged," he says. Among them, the long-running dispute over the partition of Cyprus.  

As for the European Union, "there will be a lot of rebuilding to do and a lot of trust to regain". Re-starting the accession process still sounds utopian, but there would be scope to improve very deteriorated ties. Moscoso del Prado believes that the EU will not hesitate to offer the necessary economic support for a new Turkey to move forward. Something that the new government would need if it found public coffers emptied after years of patronage and corruption. 

A new Turkish government would need to rebuild the country with EU aid

"We can expect a Europeanization of the country," Moscoso del Prado says. But it will also depend on "proactivity by the Turkish side," since it will be necessary to renew bilateral agreements and Turkey's participation in European programs. Moreover, in exchange for support, he believes that the EU would require Turkey to return to "a balanced and transparent economic policy that includes monetary and financial stability”.  

For now, everything hinges on the votes cast on Sunday 14 May. During the last few months, the polls were showing a wide lead for the opposition, but Erdoğan has been closing the gap and is now close to a tie. If none of the candidates reach 50% (a possible outcome, since two independents are also running), a second round will be held on 28 May. 

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