Turkey’s presidential runoff election set for May 28 appears to favor longtime incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with little chance that he will ease up on his authoritarian ways. By Steven A. Cook in Council on Foreign Relations on May 15, 2023.
Though Erdogan now faces a runoff, was the first round a success for him?
The two weeks heading into the runoff will be hard fought, but President Erdogan has all the advantage going into the second round after winning 49.5 percent of votes in Sunday’s first round. That puts him more than 4 percentage points ahead of his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The third-place candidate, Sinan Ogan, who garnered about 5 percent of the vote in the first round, is a nationalist and has all but ruled out supporting Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance because it receives support from the Kurdish party. If Ogan throws his support to Erdogan, it will be even more difficult for Kilicdaroglu to win.
Was the election process considered free and fair?
Most of the problems in this and recent Turkish elections have come before Turks went to the polls. For example, in December 2022, one of Erdogan’s primary rivals, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, was banned from politics and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly insulting the judges of the Supreme Election Council. This was clearly an effort to keep Imamoglu from challenging Erdogan. (The case is on appeal and Imamoglu is one of the opposition’s candidates for vice premier.) The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled judiciary has also sought to shut down the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party and ban its rank-and-file politicians from politics for five years.
In addition to mobilizing the media (the vast majority of which is in AKP-friendly hands) to promote President Erdogan and the party, the government has used coercion to ensure that Erdogan’s narrative remains unchallenged. Just one day before Turks went to the polls, Turkish officials demanded that Twitter block tweets from certain accounts in Turkey or the service would be barred in the country. The offending accounts were presumably opponents of the president and ruling party who have significant followings.
During the voting, AKP officials challenged large numbers of ballots in areas where the opposition was believed to have considerable support. It is unclear whether the ballots in question were ever tallied.
What issues were of highest concern for voters and what were policy goals of the two main candidates?
It is hard to know for sure. Many commentators have focused on Turkey’s economic challenges, especially the lira crisis and high inflation rates. There is also the government’s slow response to the February 6 earthquake. While pocketbook issues have, of course, been important, Kilicdaroglu has emphasized returning Turkey to a parliamentary system and democracy. Turkey was previously a hybrid parliamentary-presidential system and was not a consolidated democracy, but Kilicdaroglu believes that with the deepening of Erdogan’s authoritarianism in the last decade or more, there is a profound appeal to promising this kind of radical institutional change. Kilicdaroglu has also promised a quieter, less paternalistic approach to governing.
Erdogan has campaigned on a combination of continuity, the potential for instability if the ideologically unwieldy opposition coalition wins, and identity issues. In the weeks before the first round of elections, Erdogan struck a stridently homophobic posture as he emphasized family and religious values.
How serious are the country’s economic problems?
Turkey has been experiencing a currency crisis for about four years. Between 2018 and 2021, the lira lost about 50 percent of its value, and in the twelve months between January 2021 and January 2022, it lost 83 percent of its value. The way to reverse the currency’s slide and arrest the resulting inflation is for Turkey’s central bank to raise interest rates. Although the bank is supposed to be independent, Erdogan is firmly opposed to raising interest rates and has interceded to stop the bank from raising them, preferring an unorthodox strategy that he believes will spur export-led growth. He is concerned that higher interest rates will hurt his core constituency of middle-class Turks, though they are experiencing significant economic strain with inflation, which has soared as high as 88.5 percent according to official sources.
Should we expect major policy changes from Erdogan if he wins the runoff?
It seems unlikely. Erdogan tends to view his electoral victories as mandates (no matter how close the results) and a vindication of his policies. The most pressing issue is the economy, but rather than shifting his approach and pursuing orthodox economic policies, an Erdogan victory would likely convince the Turkish leader that his form of economic populism works. Some might argue this is exactly the right moment to reverse course on the economy, but Erdogan is unlikely to surrender to what he calls “the interest rate lobby.”
Foreign policy under Erdogan will likely be more of the same as well. Turkey will inhabit a gray zone between Russia and Ukraine, develop relations with the Gulf states in pursuit of investment from their sovereign wealth funds, use warming ties with Israel to improve Turkey’s standing with the United States, improve relations with Egypt in a subtle effort to isolate Greece even though relations between Athens and Ankara improved significantly after the February 2023 earthquake, and seek a reset with the United States. Normalizing ties with Syria and transferring Syrian refugees back to their country may no longer be as urgent as it was given that this was an opposition issue that Erdogan appropriated because it was popular.
Kilicdaroglu’s foreign policy priorities are much harder to divine, beyond normalizing ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and sending Syrians back to their country. He wants to rejuvenate membership talks with the European Union, but has taken a tough stance on Cyprus. He has not signaled a major change in Turkey’s position regarding the war in Ukraine and he has remained silent on relations with the United States.
By Steven A. Cook in Council on Foreign Relations on May 15, 2023.