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Turkey’s Pivotal Elections

Facing a critical juncture at home and problems abroad, much is at stake in close elections.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson
Date:

Emre has hope.

For the first time in two decades, the 24-year-old university student believes it is possible to unseat Turkey’s long-time ruler, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On May 14, he and millions of other Turks will vote in presidential and parliamentary elections widely seen as the most crucial in Turkey’s 100-year history as a republic.

“It’s very important because we as dissidents are very close to defeating the AKP after 20 years,” Emre said, referring to Erdogan’s Islamic conservative party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan’s opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the center-left People’s Republican Party (CHP), is so close to defeating him in the elections that the outcome is hard to predict. Polling shows Kilicdaroglu maintaining only a marginal lead over the incumbent, who is seeking a third term.

With the elections close and voting just days away, emotions and anticipation in the country are high – and for good reason. Serious challenges at home mixed with an active foreign policy mean much is at stake both for Turks and the rest of the world.

TROUBLES AT HOME

Erdogan hasn’t faced a challenge like this before.

Shared resentment toward the president has united opposition parties from across Turkey’s political and ideological spectrum – nationalists, socialists, Islamists, conservatives, and former Erdogan allies. Representing a coalition of six opposition parties in the presidential race is 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat and parliamentarian promising to restore Turkey’s democratic institutions, fix the economy, and unify the nation amid deep polarization.

“I love him as much as my father,” said Emre.

Emre didn’t feel that way at first, though. Nor did other Turks. Some thought Kilicdaroglu wasn’t popular enough and that other figures, like the mayors of Istanbul or Ankara, would be stronger candidates. But since announcing his candidacy in March, Kilicdaroglu has won many voters over.

In many ways, Kilicdaroglu is the polar opposite of the brandish Erdogan. If elected, Kilicdaroglu has promised to sell off the president’s 16 aircraft and retire after only one term in order to spend time with his grandchildren.

“We all agree that he wouldn’t cheat. He wouldn’t take bribes. He’s an honest politician and we need these kinds of people,” said Emre.

Kilicdaroglu’s promises don’t stop there, though. His and the opposition’s vision for Turkey is one vastly different from that of Erdogan and his allies. For one, Kilicdaroglu has promised to roll back controversial constitutional reforms proposed by Erdogan that expanded the powers of the president. He also promises to return Turkey to a parliamentary system and bring back the position of prime minister. “Tayyip became a de facto king for us,” said Emre, referring to the president by his first name. “He can do whatever he wants… He has enormous rights, enormous power.”

It’s something that concerns Emre and many other Turks.

“Turkey has been in a rapid process of democratic backsliding,” said Hakan Yavuzyılmaz, a postdoctoral researcher at Nottingham University’s School of Politics and International Relations. “Right now, we cannot categorize Turkey as a consolidated democracy. We used to categorize Turkey as a defective democracy, but now all we can say is that it’s a completely authoritarian regime.”

In addition to abolishing the position of prime minister and expanding the prerogatives of the presidency, Erdogan has stripped the central bank and judiciary of their independence, jailed dissidents, and taken other measures labeled as autocratic by critics.

“This election is important because it will determine whether Turkey will hold this path of democratic backsliding or to what extent we will see a re-democratization process,” said Yavuzyılmaz.

Among the range of other domestic issues facing Turkey, from tensions caused by a large refugee population to steep polarization, none seem more pressing and on voters’ minds than the economy. Official figures (whose numbers are disputed) put inflation at just over 43%. The Turkish lira, meanwhile, has lost 80% of its value. Turkey’s devastating earthquakes earlier this year also put further strain on the economy. The cost of living is high, making daily life ever more difficult as goods like groceries become increasingly unaffordable.

“Inflation is at the core of this agenda,” said Cem Cakmakli, assistant professor of economics at Koc University.

Critics blame the economic woes on Erdogan’s economic policies. Cakmakli noted that inflation in Turkey surged in recent years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “This made a huge change because the inflation rapidly increased from like 8% to values like 50% in a couple of months,” said Cakmakli. “Such a rapid increase means that there was a huge deterioration in the income of people because the income was not increased at that pace.”

Traditional economic policy, Cakmakli said, calls for central banks to raise policy rates to decrease consumer demand and thereby combat inflation. But in Turkey the central bank, under the influence of Erdogan, reduced rates with the intention of creating an exports based economy. The model helped bring economic growth, but inflation persisted.

Like most Turks, Emre has been hard hit. Seated in a study lounge in a dormitory at his university in Istanbul, he noted how he and other students had started collectively raising money to buy certain foods like cheese. He said he’s thankful, if not lucky, to be able to eat at the university’s cafeteria, which charges 5 to 7.5 Turkish liras ($0.26 – $0.38) per meal. Without that option, he said he might go hungry. “I don’t want to lie, I didn’t skip a meal, but I know so many people who skip their meals,” he said. “If there wasn’t a school cafeteria, I don’t know what we would do.”

The opposition has vowed a series of reforms to fix the economy. But doing so won’t be easy. “If they win the elections, they will inherit a ruined economy,” said Yavuzyılmaz.

The most pivotal economic reform the opposition will need to introduce is restoring independence to the central bank, said Cakmakli. “Independence of the central bank is at the heart of everything because that shows that you will proceed with sensible, widely accepted economic policies,” Cakmakli said. “That will affect expectations, that will convince local and foreign investors to invest in Turkey.”

Foreign investment will bring foreign cash, a vital asset needed for addressing another major issue – Turkey’s current account balance. Cakmakli said that many of Turkey’s imports are foreign products needed for production. To purchase them requires foreign currency, which Turkey lacks. This problem also means that if Erdogan wins, he might still need to reexamine his economic strategy. “Given that we have these kinds of constraints, I’m not sure whether they can continue with these policies,” Cakmakli said. “So then there are two options: Either you need to turn back to orthodox policies, or you should have some kind of capital controls. Because otherwise, we cannot stop this current account balance problem.”

FOREIGN POLICY

Like most voters, foreign policy isn’t a big consideration for Emre when it comes to deciding who to vote for – though he would like to see Turkey join the EU.

Turkey applied to become a full member state of the EU under Erdogan. Talks of Turkey joining the EU peaked in the mid-2000s but have stalled in recent years. The opposition under Kilicdaroglu has vowed to resume them. “I support the idea of getting into the European Union for the welfare of the state,” said Emre. “I don’t think we will always be in correlation with the USA or European Union. We are neighbors with Russia and Iran, but our key for living as human beings is being a European Union country. If we had gotten into the European Union in 2005-2006, Turkey would be very different and 2023 Turkey would be a very good country.”

EU accession isn’t the only foreign policy area whose direction is posed to change according to the outcome of the election. Turkey is actively involved in other European and, especially, Middle Eastern affairs. Turkey controls territory in northern Syria, where it is engaged in military operations against US-backed Kurdish forces that it accuses of being terrorists. Ankara’s struggles against Kurdish forces have been both a domestic and foreign issue, particularly with NATO and Sweden. Turkey has so far blocked Sweden’s bid for NATO membership, demanding that it first extradite dozens of people accused by Erdogan of being linked to a failed coup attempt in 2016 and Kurdish militias. Turkey has also been accused of numerous human rights violations in Syria.

In Europe, Turkey has taken something of a middle ground when it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Ankara has provided drones to Kyiv, a position Erdogan has rallied around in his electoral campaign. But he has also maintained ties with Putin and refrained from joining in Western sanctions against Russia, an important trade partner that Turkey relies on for energy imports. Turkey has also sought to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and helped broker crucial UN-backed deals that enabled the resumption of grain exports from Ukrainian ports.

In such foreign affairs and more, Erdogan has taken an active and personal approach. “Currently, Turkish foreign policy is highly deinstitutionalized and that’s why there is this increasing adaptive capacity of Erdogan in terms of switching sides or taking other different propositions,” said Yavuzyılmaz.

“Even in the last two days towards elections, something can happen and shift the balance between two candidates. Turkey is a really volatile country in that aspect.”

If Erdogan wins, Yavuzyılmaz expects largely a continuation of the status quo in which the key NATO member maintains antagonized relations with the West. But an opposition victory could readjust Turkey’s foreign policy, making it more institutionalized and less involved in other countries’ affairs. Under such a framework, coupled with promised domestic reforms, Yavuzyılmaz expects Turkey’s relations with the EU and the US to improve. On Tuesday, Kilicdaroglu told the Wall Street Journal that he would forge closer ties with NATO and the West if elected. Previously, the opposition promised to approve Sweden’s bid to join NATO, something which the US and other countries have long called for.

“Putin’s regime has been supporting Erdogan’s autocratic regime in Turkey, but I think the opposition will establish an approach more based on realistic foreign policy, which is directly based on national interests,” said Yavuzyılmaz.

THE UNCERTAIN ROAD AHEAD

When Emre casts his vote on Sunday, he hopes that Kilicdaroglu will clinch the victory. Emre worries about what might happen if the vote goes into a second round on May 28.

On May 7, supporters of the AKP’s ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, attacked Kilicdaroglu ally Ekrem Imamoglu during a rally in Turkey’s eastern Erzurum province. “These kinds of incidents might take place again,” Emre said. “That’s our main fear. That’s why we want to end this election in the first round with a great victory.”

While polls indicate that Kilicdaroglu leads the presidential race, it’s not guaranteed that he will pass the fifty percent threshold.

“There is this debate whether elections will be finalized in the first round, or there will be the second round, but those are all hypothetical things,” said Yavuzyılmaz. “Because it depends. Even in the last two days towards elections, something can happen and shift the balance between two candidates. Turkey is a really volatile country in that aspect.”

That volatility manifested Thursday afternoon when one of the other two presidential candidates announced that he was dropping out of the race. While neither of those candidates has garnered much support, analysts say the exit of Muharrem Ince on Thursday could shift just enough votes to Kilicdaroglu to allow him to win in the first round.

Still, Erdogan remains able to rally an unwaveringly committed base. Conservative voters see in him a strong leader who remains capable of protecting and advancing nationalist and religious values. In the lead-up to the elections, Erdogan has announced a number of subsidies and handouts, including free monthly doses of gas to households and wage increases for public workers.

“In this kind of context, where there is this rapid democratic backsliding, we see this emergence of democracy versus autocracy cleavage,” Yavuzyılmaz said. “One segment of the population is okay with the discourse and policies of this regime, and a certain block becomes solidified and seeks for re-democratization.”

Despite losing several relatives earlier this year in devastating earthquakes that critics accuse the government of responding poorly to, Emre said that many of his external family will still vote for Erdogan. But Emre remains behind Kilicdaroglu and the opposition.

“If we lose this, we might not get a chance to defeat the AKP again, because they will be much more powerful after this.”

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Asia.

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