Turkey is to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, 2023. While it is impossible to predict the outcome of these elections, the opposition is closer than ever to victory. Not only have they united around a joint candidate, but they have also developed a shared agenda that calls for restoring the parliamentary system and advancing democratic freedoms. They have presented an Agreement for A Strengthened Parliamentary System, a constitutional amendment package aimed at a “strengthened parliamentary system”, and a Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies.
Together, these three documents suggest that if the opposition were to win, one important consequence would be re-institutionalization, or returning power to policymaking and administrative institutions and ending the current system of personalized politics. This would herald significant political reform, particularly in the vital areas of strengthening the rule of law, stabilizing the economy, and increasing reliability in foreign policy.
A Political System of One
The current system in Turkey, which was introduced through a 2017 referendum, resulted in a consolidation of executive power without effective checks and balances. This system established presidential rule and rendered parliament and other state institutions practically impotent. Some of their authority was transferred to the president, a move that created major problems.
Perhaps the most important is further democratic backsliding, which has manifested itself in an undermining of judicial independence, an erosion of the rule of law, a weakening of human rights protections, and politically motivated trials. In effect, the government can now disregard key principles of democracy such as free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. The government has already refused to implement decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that called for the immediate release of prominent dissident figures such as businessman Osman Kavala and pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş was charged with a string of terrorism-related activities and convicted of some after years under pre-trial detention. Legal procedures related to other charges remain pending. Kavala also faced numerous charges, including attempting a coup, and was imprisoned for life. International criticism of both cases, seen as politically motivated, is widespread. The European Parliament condemned the convictions and expressed deep concern about the “deterioration of fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law in Turkey”. Other opposition figures are also in judicial hot water on contrived charges. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu faces more than two years’ imprisonment and a ban on participating in politics for allegedly insulting the Turkish judiciary. Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the head of the Istanbul branch of Republican People’s Party (CHP, the main opposition party), has received a five-year jail sentence and was banned from politics for allegedly publishing « terror propaganda and insults against the Turkish state” on social media. She is currently free on probation.
A second problem with the current political system is the state’s weakened ability to deal with crises and national emergencies, in part due to a paralyzed bureaucracy. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) argued before the 2017 referendum that a revamped presidential system would lead to more effective governance and faster decision-making. But natural disasters, such as forest fires and floods in summer 2022 and the recent earthquakes, have shown that the relevant government agencies are woefully incapable of crisis management. The government was heavily criticized for failing to rapidly mobilize rescue teams and military units in the earthquakes’ aftermath. During the critical first days, the lack of trained rescue teams and heavy machinery likely contributed to thousands of unnecessary fatalities. Subsequent criticism was leveled at the government for failing to coordinate humanitarian aid and urgent infrastructure repair. The Turkish Red Crescent was also faulted for selling tents, rather than supplying them free of charge, to earthquake victims. The hollowing out of institutional capacity is a fatal consequence of the hyper-presidential system that allocates key government positions on the basis of loyalty. Competition among the AK Party elite was rampant even for lower-level jobs.
Turkey’s economic distress is the third problem arising from the personalization of national power. The elimination of central bank independence and the introduction of political influence over monetary policy cratered public and investor trust in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s economic policies and led to instability. Erdoğan’s firm control over the bank has resulted in the dismissal of three of its governors in the last two and a half years and unsettled investors. Rising unemployment and double-digit inflation have made life miserable for millions.
A fourth and final problem of the hyper-presidential system is that it has stripped ministries of policymaking influence and reduced them to mere implementers of presidential decisions. The foreign ministry, for instance, struggles to oversee a portfolio that the executive instrumentalizes for domestic political purposes. This has strained relations with Turkey’s most important European trading partners and led to the imposition of US sanctions. Ankara has scored successes with its recent rapprochements with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, and achieved recognition for its mediating role between Russia and Ukraine, but foreign policy regularly remains mired in hard power and escalating tensions—all for the purpose of scoring political points at home. Turkey’s effort to impede Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO applications is a recent example.
The result of these issues is that most Turks are dissatisfied with their presidential system. Support for it as of September stood at 31%, and 55% of voters think their country is badly governed.
On top of all these issues, Erdoğan faces another challenge from the Nation Alliance that his political opposition formed in the aftermath of their 2019 victory in local elections. That vote brought 11 cities under their control, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The Nation Alliance broadened after the local elections and now includes six opposition parties—the secularist CHP, the nationalist Good Party (İYİ), the Islamist Felicity Party, the right-wing Democrat Party, the Democracy and Progress Party, and the Future Party (the last two having broken away from the ruling AK Party). For May’s election, the alliance nominated CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as its presidential candidate. Kılıçdaroğlu, if he wins, is to appoint as vice presidents the leaders of the other five opposition parties and the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş.
A New Policy Vision
The Nation Alliance’s Agreement for A Strengthened Parliamentary System and their recently announced Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies lay out the parties’ plans for a broader social and political alliance. These documents also propose a system based on a vision for democratization and re-institutionalization. A strengthened parliamentary system aims to ensure inclusive and sound policymaking and policy implementation in domestic and international affairs.
The documents outline mechanisms for checks and balances to prevent autocratic rule. The president becomes a figurehead, largely devoid of executive authority, while the legislature assumes a central political role. The judiciary would be impartial and independent.
The proposed system also seeks to anchor a more democratic and representative electoral process by lowering the threshold for a party to enter parliament from 7% of the vote to 3%. This is an effort to counter Turkey’s current majoritarian government and emphasize pluralism and participation. Other important reforms envisioned include strengthening legal provisions for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and academic independence at universities. There are measures to strengthen climate justice, local governance, and governmental transparency. Gender equality and the promotion of women in policymaking roles are also key components.
Regarding foreign policy, the opposition parties have pledged to abide by the priorities listed in the Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies:
- Instituting a foreign policy that is not based on domestic political calculations and ideologies
- Respecting international law; prioritizing dialogue and diplomacy
- Relying on relevant institutions to strengthen EU-Turkey relations
- Placing the principle of “peace at home, peace in the world” at the fore
The opposition parties have also specifically committed themselves to accepting constitutional court and European Court of Human Rights rulings, something Erdoğan has repeatedly refused to do, and abiding by fundamental EU values to achieve membership in the bloc. The memorandum also includes a pledge to reestablish relations with the United States on an institutional basis, meaning through appropriate state agencies, and to work toward rejoining the F-35 joint strike fighter program. The effort is meant to elevate institutional roles in the formulation of foreign policy to help improve, in particular, transatlantic relations as war rages in Ukraine. The parties also commit to maintaining relations with Russia, also on an institutional basis, on the premise of the two countries’ equality.
Lastly, to return the levers of economic policy to their former strength, the memorandum obligates the parties to maintain an independent central bank.
There is no guarantee that the opposition parties will implement this agenda even if they win the election. In a large coalition such as theirs, cracks are likely to appear. The preliminary steps toward re-institutionalization and democratization nevertheless signal a willingness to address Turkey’s most urgent domestic and foreign policy issues. The country’s transatlantic allies would be well advised to start preparing for a significant political shift in Ankara, one that could herald an era of improved relations.
Seren Selvin Korkmaz is executive director of the IstanPol Institute, an Istanbul-based think tank, a researcher at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, and a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. She is a Marshall Memorial Fellow at GMF.