Parties involved: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (People’s Alliance), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (National Alliance), Sinan Oğan (Ancestral Alliance), Muharrem İnce (Homeland Party)
On 14/05/2023 general elections will be held in Turkey. Turkish citizens are able to vote for the presidential and legislative elections.
Although three candidates are running in the presidential elections, the main contenders are current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Election polls expect that Erdoğan will receive 46% of the total votes during the first round of elections, while Kılıçdaroğlu is expected to receive 50% of the votes. Third candidate Sinan Oğan will receive 3% of the votes according to the polls. Muharrem İnce, a fourth candidate that would participate in the elections and was expected to receive 2% of the votes, withdrew from the presidential race on 11/05/2023. If none of the candidates receives the 51% of the votes that is needed to become elected president, there will be a second round of voting two weeks later in which only the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round will participate. It’s thus possible that the voting this Sunday is the first out of two rounds at the ballot box.
Kılıçdaroğlu, Erdoğan’s biggest opponent, is the leader of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and represents an alliance of six opposition parties drawn from secularists, Islamic conservatives, and Turkish nationalists. He wants to become more aligned with the West and reform Turkey’s economy. He has promised to restore the independence of the central bank and to reverse previous economic policies. He also wants to restore the previous parliamentary system in order to decrease the president's centralized power in the executive. Besides, Kılıçdaroğlu has promised to bring back press freedoms and to delegate more authority to the parliament. Kılıçdaroğlu also talked about plans to send back Syrian refugees that live in Turkey as well as the improvement of the relations with Western countries. Another promise made by Kılıçdaroğlu is the return of Turkey to the U.S. led F-35 fighter jet programme, which Turkey was removed from after buying the Russian-made S-400 missile system in 2019.
Erdoğan promised Turkish voters to solve the problem of inflation in the country and to boost growth. Erdoğan talks about a strong, multilateral Turkey under his rule and plans to create six million jobs. On 09/05/2023, just five days before the presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan announced a ‘last-minute’ pay rise that will increase wages of public workers by 45%.
In recent years Erdogan was regularly criticized because of a soaring inflation rate and the decline in the value of the Turkish Lira. Another key political issue that plays a role during the election is the approximately 5.5 million refugees that live in Turkey, most of them coming from Syria. All parties that are participating in the elections promised to send Syrians back. The fragile housing and poor aid response to the devastating series of earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria in February 2023 is also a key political issue. However, polls taken after the quakes only show a minor drop in support for Erdoğan. The current president has promised an ambitious reconstruction programme to help the communities affected by the earthquakes.
The Kurdish community, who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, could play a key role in the election results. Erdoğan has lost popularity among Kurdish voters. After the 2016 coup, Erdoğan cracked down on Kurdish parties and the conflict with the PKK continued. HDP politicians and former parliamentarians were jailed on terrorism charges and recently Turkey arrested 110 HDP top officials, pro-Kurdish lawyers, journalists and artists. Furthermore, there has been an intensification of Turkish military offensives against Kurdish armed groups. Kılıçdaroğlu can count on support from the HDP and he has promised to release HDP politicians from prison if he were elected president. He also called for a political solution for the Kurdish issue. It is expected that many Kurds that are in favor of the HDP will eventually choose to vote on Kılıçdaroğlu instead of Erdoğan.
According to election polls Erdoğan has a chance of losing the elections, and the opposition may win this Sunday. Whether Erdoğan accepts the result of an election in the event of defeat is highly uncertain. Given Tunisia’s and Israel’s authoritarian turn in recent years, the Turkish election holds significant implications for the state of democracy in the region, and indeed the world. However, as both candidates are expected to be extremely close with respect to the amount of votes they will receive, the Turkish voters could also decide to give Erdoğan another mandate. The outcome of the elections will not only influence the course of Turkey’s internal politics, but it will also define the path that the country will follow during the coming decade with respect to its foreign relations.
A change of leadership could influence the relationship between Turkey and the EU. With Erdoğan in power, the relationship between Turkey and the EU has deteriorated over the last few years due to democratic backsliding in Turkey, a number of bilateral disputes between Turkey and several EU member states and disagreements over foreign policy. Kılıçdaroğlu promised that he would push for closer relations to the EU by implementing democratic reforms and defreezing EU accession talks. However, it is unclear whether his agenda can be fully implemented because of the ideological disparity within the opposition. Furthermore, it is the question whether the opposition would revise the 2016 migration deal between the EU and Turkey, which is more likely to stay in place if Erdoğan would win. Turkey’s tense relationship with Greece and Cyprus over minerals and border disputes also presents difficulties for re-establishing constructive relations with the EU. Even though a change of power in Turkey opens up the opportunity for the improvement of Turkey-EU relations, it also poses some reason for insecurity among EU member states.
A change of leadership could influence Turkey’s standpoints in NATO. Over the course of last year Erdoğan has allowed Finland to join NATO, but has resisted endorsing Sweden over their alleged support for what Turkey deems as terrorist groups. Kılıçdaroğlu has stated that he would allow Sweden to join NATO, taking another course than Erdoğan has done so far. However, it’s not ruled out that Sweden could eventually still join NATO if Erdoğan remains president of Turkey, since he has not entirely closed the door for Sweden’s accession yet.
A change of leadership could influence the relationship between Turkey and the U.S., as Kılıçdaroğlu stated that he wants to return to the U.S. led F-35 program. Turkey was kicked out of this program in 2009 after buying the Russian made S-400 missile system in 2009. It is likely that Kılıçdaroğlu would try to improve Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. in order to make the return to the F-35 program happen.
A change of leadership could influence Turkey’s relationship with Russia and Turkey’s role in the war in Ukraine. Since the start of the 2022 war in Ukraine Erdogan has been talking with Ukrainian President Zelensky as well as Russian President Putin and offered to mediate between the two countries. Turkey has been delivering weapons to Ukraine, but also refused to sanction Russia. Furthermore, Erdoğan played an important role in brokering the UN grain export deal that was signed in Istanbul on 27/07/2022. It is expected that Kılıçdaroğlu would put more weight on Turkey’s status as a NATO member, which would likely not be beneficial for the relationship between Turkey and Russia. Even though Kılıçdaroğlu has stated that he would like to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, it is questionable whether Kılıçdaroğlu will have the same influence in international diplomacy as the well-known and longstanding current President Erdoğan has.
A change of leadership could influence Turkey’s relationship with Syria and the way Turkey deals with Syrian refugees. The accommodation of approximately 4 million Syrians, many who fled the war in Syria, is a contentious political issue in Turkey. Turkey is a supporter of the Syrian opposition that controls northwest Syria and has tried to hinder the Syrian army from re-taking control over the region. Over the years Turkey set up multiple military bases and deployed thousands of troops in northern Syria. However, on 10/05/2023 the foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran met in Moscow to talk about rebuilding ties between Turkey and Syria. Kılıçdaroğlu has promised Turkish voters that he would work on a plan to send back Syrian refugees back safely on a voluntary basis. However, it is likely that Assad will specify certain conditions, like he did with Erdoğan in the past, to make this dialogue happen. It is unclear whether Kılıçdaroğlu would listen to Assad’s request to withdraw all Turkish military operations from Syria.
The election results might lead to political unrest in Turkey. This is especially the case if there is a suspicion of unfair elections or if Erdoğan would reject the results. Unrest and a possible escalation could lead to a disruption of aviation traffic. In a worst case scenario, scenes comparable to the 2016 attempted coup could re-emerge in Turkey. Istanbul is a major air traffic hub for civil aviation. This can lead to military activity in the air, presenting a direct risk to civilian air traffic both directly in the sky as from the ground directed at the sky. The consequences for civil aviation would be multiplied compared to 2016, since the war in Ukraine has now forced almost all air traffic to route over Turkey when flying between Asia and Europe.
The outcome of the general election carries substantial implications for the state of Turkey’s democracy and the wider region. If the result of the general election is respected, Kılıçdaroğlu could reverse Turkey’s descent in authoritarianism. He could also improve Turkey’s relationship with the EU, U.S., and NATO by supporting Sweden’s accession to NATO and adopting a more NATO-friendly foreign policy. In the highly uncertain event that Erdogan respects the vote, Kılıçdaroğlu still faces obstacles to implementing a more pro-western foreign policy. Ongoing tensions between Turkey and Greece, the question of whether he will revise the 2016 migration deal and the unstable coalition of six very different parties, could eventually hinder Kılıçdaroğlu’s plans to improve the relationships between Turkey and the West. In addition foreign policy priorities, whether the Turkish elections will result in a reversal of Turkey’s slide to authoritarianism remains to be seen.