Turkey’s democratic future hangs in the balance
10 May 2023|

This year’s presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May mark one of the most critical moments for Turkey in the past 100 years. Turkey is currently dealing with the aftermath of the devastating February earthquakes while simultaneously experiencing a massive economic crisis due to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bizarre economic theories. It is a moment for the democratic soul of the country, but the mood is hopeful for political change. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan have been in power for over 20 years. But for the first time in many decades, it appears that Erdogan, the AKP and their political allies under the People’s Alliance (Cumhur Ittifaki) might lose the election.

The opposition parties have united in the Nation Alliance (Millet Ittifaki). Despite their ideological differences, the opposition is in with a chance for the first time in over two decades according to polls. More importantly, the opposition’s presidential candidate from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, looks to have a lead over Erdogan.

In Turkey’s competitive authoritarian regime, questions remain about whether this will be a free and fair election. Erdogan will likely try to win by ‘hook’ or ‘crook’. To secure power he has jailed opposition members like Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas and sentenced Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), to two years in prison, banning them both from politics. The AKP’s control of the media and vast resources of the Turkish state puts them at an obvious advantage. AKP control over the judiciary and the Supreme Election Council (YSK) means that institutionally the AKP can tip the scales in its favour as it did in 2017 when the YSK made the last-minute decision to include unstamped ballots as valid.

While the AKP may have institutional dominance and control over most of the state’s essential functions, it would be unwise to say this is a sure win for the AKP and Erdogan. It may benefit the opposition that Erdogan’s campaign has lacked his usual vigour due to his age, health issues and the inevitable disconnect from voters, especially when one occupies the throne for too long. Erdogan has dialled up cultural, ethnic and sectarian polarisation as the AKP’s attempts to dampen the effects of inflation have failed. With the economic crisis, rallying around the flag operations and polarising rhetoric may not bring the votes the AKP desires. Flashy new projects such as the first Turkish-developed automobile are being eclipsed by the opposition’s focus on the problems of everyday people like the price of onions. Erdogan is old and tired, and seems to be out of good ideas, particularly on how to fix the mess that his rise to power has created. Despite all the pressure put upon it, the opposition’s campaign has maintained a positive message.

The Turkish public takes voting very seriously, and despite minor irregularities, the turnout on average elections sits around 80%. Voting has always been a way for the Turkish public to voice grievances against centralised authority during the AKP rule and throughout Turkish history. During the 2019 Istanbul elections, Erdogan used the YSK to overturn the opposition win and re-run the poll. Turks then voted in droves to re-elect Imamoglu by a staggering amount, denying the AKP the city of Istanbul and the vast coffers that running this municipality offered.

Now it appears that the bureaucracy the AKP government has spent the last two decades undermining and filling with loyalists is starting to hedge its bets. The YSK has rejected a AKP motion to remove the Nation Alliance’s name from the ballot. Turkey’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, reversed its decision to block state funding to the HDP for its electoral campaign despite AKP protests. Signs like this indicate that bureaucrats may be considering a possible AKP loss and where their futures may lie in a post-Erdogan Turkey. This could be because the vast economic strain on the country is starting to affect those who’ve benefited from the system for so long.

Unsurprisingly, the new executive presidential system that concentrated power in Erdogan’s office has also been highly inefficient. The AKP government’s response to the earthquake in February is a prime example. This all means that the institutions of state the AKP has aimed to control for so long may not be as tied to the regime as the AKP thinks. Patrimonialism tends to disintegrate when the money is no longer there.  The opposition has focused on the economic cost of a continued Erdogan government and stated that the country would return to a parliamentary system if it’s elected.

Questions remain about the security services. The AKP’s purging of the Turkish Armed Forces may have created a more pro-AKP military, but it’s still not guaranteed that the military would back Erdogan if he lost the election. The AKP has emboldened other security organs instead such as the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) and Gendarmerie and created alternative pathways for its military power through non-state actors and private military organisations like SADAT Inc. How these other institutions will respond if Erdogan loses is uncertain.

Despite these factors, it’s still difficult to assess whether there’ll be a power transfer if the opposition wins. Besides the political cost for Erdogan, there’s a real chance that he and his family will end up in prison if he loses power. That makes it unlikely that he’ll go without a fight. Moreover, the AKP and its networks have entrenched themselves so deeply within the state’s economic, social and political institutions that the opposition will have a difficult challenge ahead of them. There’s been little discussion of what necessary state re-building will be needed if the AKP loses. In its current presidential form, the Turkish state cannot deal with the economic and political challenges that await it in the coming years. The Kurdish issue will need a resolution if a new government wins.

Regardless of the election’s outcome, there’ll not be much change in foreign policy. Although the opposition wishes to diffuse tensions in existing alliances, Turkey’s push for an independent foreign policy is part of a longer historical tradition across the political spectrum. While there may be some reorientation back towards NATO and the EU, given the shifting multipolar dynamics of the region and global system, it’s likely that Turkey’s new managers would try to hedge between its relationships with the US and NATO and its developed relationships with the Middle East, China and Russia.

It is apparent after 20 years that the AKP can no longer run Turkey effectively. The country is in crisis and a win for Erdogan will only prolong these issues. An AKP win is not inevitable and we shouldn’t discount the forces and headwinds the AKP faces, but it is also not wise to count out Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan’s ministers are already setting up a narrative that an unfavourable election result would be part of a planned coup to topple the Erdogan regime.

Turkey has always been an imperfect democracy and, like most countries, has contended with authoritarianism throughout its history. The election will be a critical moment for Turkey. If Erdogan wins, there’ll be a shift to a more authoritarian state that will make the lives of Turkish citizens more miserable.

Geopolitically, Turkey will remain a destabilising force in the Middle East and the wider region. This would also lead to further erosion of the Eastern flank of NATO as Erdogan deepens his relationship with Putin’s Russia. But they say it’s always darkest before dawn and the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic may see a shift to a more revisionist and authoritarian nation—or hopefully, a ‘Third Republic’ that is more democratic, open and inclusive will emerge.