Challenges and Opportunities in Turkey's 2023 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections
In this Q&A, Ayça Alemdaroğlu, Associate Director of the Program on Turkey at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, discusses the key issues and their implications for the country's future.
Turkey is bracing for what is expected to be a pivotal moment in its political history as the country gears up to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14, 2023. With a range of significant challenges facing Turkey — from the erosion of democratic institutions to economic instability and concerns about its foreign policy — the outcome of the elections is likely to have far-reaching implications for the country's future.
To shed light on the electoral landscape and the stakes involved, we sat down with Ayça Alemdaroğlu, Associate Director of CDDRL’s Program on Turkey, to discuss the key issues at play and what they mean for Turkey's trajectory.
Turkey will have two elections on Sunday, May 14. Can you talk about why these elections are important?
The upcoming elections in Turkey hold immense importance due to several reasons. The country has faced a multitude of challenges, including the erosion of democratic institutions, political polarization, and a struggling economy. Firstly, the government, led by President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party(AKP), has used its power to silence opposition voices, restrict the press, control the judiciary, and crack down on civil society organizations. These actions have led to fear and intimidation among citizens, creating an environment where dissent is not tolerated. In addition, the government's efforts to centralize power under the presidency have further weakened the checks and balances essential to a functioning democracy. This election is Turkey's chance to reverse the democratic decline.
Secondly, the two major earthquakes that affected 11 cities and millions of people in February exposed the decay in state institutions under the current government, causing significant human and urban destruction. When the current government is responsible for much of this destruction, it will be a mistake to let it lead to the urgent recovery needed in the earthquake region.
Thirdly, Turkey's economy is in disarray due to President Erdogan's erratic economic policies and mismanagement, leading to rising inflation rates, a weakened currency, and economic instability. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to these challenges, further impoverishing the people. In addition, the economic situation has resulted in an exodus of the most educated sections of society, causing a significant setback to Turkey's human development and economic potential. Therefore, Turkey needs a government that can fix these economic problems.
Finally, the elections come at a time when Turkey faces increased tensions with several international actors, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine adds to the existing pressures. The foreign policy stance of the next government will have far-reaching implications for global democracy and security, making it vital for Turkey to be governed democratically and to uphold the rule of law.
The outcome of the elections will decide how these issues will be addressed, and the re-election of President Erdogan and his AKP would further deteriorate the situation. On the other hand, if the opposition coalition wins, they plan to undo Mr. Erdogan's autocratic presidential system of government, shift back to a rational economic policy, release jailed opposition figures and journalists, and, most importantly, restore democratic institutions and practices.
Can you explain the political landscape in Turkey and the major political parties contesting the upcoming elections?
There are two distinct races in Turkey's upcoming elections — one for the presidency and the other for parliament. In the presidential election, four candidates are vying for the position, with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party Republican People's Party (CHP), being the strongest contender against President Erdogan. Muharrem Ince, the CHP's 2018 presidential candidate, is also running again. His few percentage points serve no one other than Erdogan in this closely contested race.
There are 26 parties and three election coalitions on the ballot for parliamentary elections. Erdogan's People's Alliance includes his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ultra-nationalist MHP, and two Islamist fringe parties. The main opposition coalition, known as the Table of Six or Nation Alliance, includes the CHP, the ultra-nationalist Iyi Party, and three other small parties with significant political personalities. The Labor and Freedom Alliance of Turkey's Labor Party and pro-Kurdish Green Left Party support Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race. Polls indicate that Erdogan will be unseated by a small margin and the opposition will win at least a parliamentary majority, which unfortunately may be less than what is needed to make constitutional changes.
What are the key issues and challenges facing Turkey in the lead-up to the upcoming elections, and how are the major political parties addressing these concerns in their campaigns?
Election security is the key issue. Turkey has been grappling with significant election security concerns in recent years. There have been allegations of voter fraud and irregularities in past elections. The independence of the High Electoral Board and the fairness of the electoral process are also of major concern. We have seen how the Board repeated the 2019 Istanbul elections when the ruling party candidate lost it.
In addition, there have been incidents of violence and intimidation at polling stations, which have led to questions about the safety of voters and the integrity of the electoral process. During the current election period, the government has made every effort to delegitimize the contender parties by accusing them of collaborating with terrorist groups. But the attack on the opposition is not just in words. Over the weekend, we saw a violent mob attack one of the opposition leaders, the Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, and his audience during a rally in the eastern city of Erzurum. Unfortunately, the police neither intervened to stop the mob nor arrested anyone afterward. Imamoglu responded well, calling his supporters to calm down and retreat and ending the rally prematurely. However, I worry that these violent attacks will ramp up in these last days before the election.
Finally, the upcoming elections are closely watched with concerns about potential interference and attempts to manipulate the results. It is a big question for me and many others if the opposition parties have adequate means and preparations to deter these manipulations. We will soon know the answer.
What critical issues and concerns are shaping the campaign discourse in Turkey, and how might they resonate with American voters?
The condition of the Turkish economy, growing inflation, joblessness, corruption and plundering of Turkey’s resources, and the decline of democratic institutions, freedom, and human rights are prominent problems that the opposition campaign addresses. The government alliance holds a negative campaign accusing the opposition of collaborating with terrorist organizations and portraying it as inept in solving Turkey’s economic problems. The discourse of associating the opposition with terrorism reached a new level last week when the Ministry of Interior declared that if Erdogan loses, they will consider the elections as a coup against the government. This issue would strike a particular chord with American voters.
More importantly, Turkey is the largest country by land area and population in Europe, with an important sphere of influence in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Turkey’s economy, despite its problems, is among the twenty largest economies in the world. Turkey has the second-largest military force in NATO and plays a pivotal role in regional security, as evident in the wars in Ukraine and Syria. If the US government worries about global democracy and security, it will be better off having Turkey governed not by a single man but with democracy and strong institutions, and that is what the opposition promises.