Unpacking Turkey’s May 14 Elections: Ideological Transformation, Geopolitical Preferences and Conjunctural Needs – Gökhan Çınkara / MANARA MAGAZINE

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Turkey’s political elite and voters are focused on the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14. In the run-up to the elections, the country is divided into three political camps: The People’s Alliance (Nationalist Conservative Bloc), the Nation Alliance (Nationalist Secular Bloc) and the Labor and Freedom Alliance (Pro-Kurdish and Socialist Bloc). Political analysis by Gökhan Çınkara in Manara Magazine on April 22, 2023.

The People’s Alliance is a diverse coalition that includes the ruling AK Party, the nationalist conservative MHP, the Islamist Yeniden Refah Party, the nationalist leftist DSP, and the Kurdish-Islamist Hüda-Par. This alliance brings together a range of political ideologies, from nationalism to Islamism, and aims to consolidate power by appealing to various segments of the electorate.

The Nation Alliance is another prominent coalition, comprising the main opposition CHP, the nationalist liberal İYİP, the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Gelecek Party, the liberal DEVA Party, and the Islamist Saadet Party. This alliance seeks to challenge the ruling party by uniting a broad spectrum of political ideologies, from nationalism to liberalism and Islamism, thus positioning itself as a viable alternative to the People’s Alliance.

The Labor and Freedom Alliance primarily consists of the socialist TİP (The Labor Party of Turkey) and the Green and Left Party. While this alliance may be less influential in comparison to the other two, it represents a left-leaning coalition that addresses social and environmental issues, providing a distinct voice within the political landscape. Feeding this political divide are the three alliance groups’ respective positions on economics, ideology, and geopolitics, but the main division line separates those in favor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s continued leadership and those against it.[i]

It appears that the opposition bloc desires this type of plebiscite on leadership. This is because the six political parties that make up the Nation Alliance (at least for now) have divergent ideological preferences.[ii] Opposition to President Erdogan’s leadership style and political discourse can therefore be considered the founding factor in the concentration of these ideological preferences in one bloc. On the other hand, there are also efforts by actors within the opposition who do not belong to the alliance cluster to rise as alternative political preferences (Third Way).[iii] In Turkey, the emergence of a Third Way beyond the ruling party and the opposition remains uncertain, as various political actors vie for influence. A growing number of protest voters criticize both the government and the opposition, arguing that neither side presents a viable alternative to the other. The primary characteristic of this voter group is their anger, which results in an unclear ideological orientation.

Despite the seemingly monolithic nature of the opposition, the antagonistic dynamics within it strengthen the possibility that Turkey may enter a cycle of early elections. In a scenario where one alliance secures the presidency while the opposing alliance bloc wins a parliamentary majority, the President would likely become a lame duck, attempting to push the parliament towards elections. Given that the current political landscape is not delineated along traditional right-left lines but rather based on pro- and anti-Erdoğan stances, this points to a challenging and potentially unsustainable political dynamic. Such a situation could lead Turkey into a prolonged cycle of elections, further complicating the nation’s political landscape.

Ideological differences matter in the strategies and policy proposals for addressing the macro-level problems facing Turkey, making it difficult for political actors to mobilize around a single bloc. If the opposition emerges victorious in the election, a joint effort by seven vice presidents and six party leaders will be required to manage national politics. This scenario could represent an antithesis to prevalent Turkey’s political culture, which typically features individual charismatic leaders with strong social support. As micro-scale conflicts of interest between party leaders arise, they have the potential to escalate into macro-scale national political crises, leading to a less stable political landscape.

It can be argued that the current consolidation of politics in Turkey, at both the actor and institutional levels, is primarily driven by pro-Erdoğan and anti-Erdoğan sentiments. However, it appears that this political and social trend has reached its limits. Factors such as Erdoğan’s age, his tenure in office, and demographic shifts are likely to push Turkey towards a new phase of political divergence. Given that the nature and distribution of this emerging divide will be influenced by Erdoğan’s legacy, it may be fitting to refer to it as the post-Erdoğan era. Nonetheless, it is crucial to examine the structural factors that shape the trajectory and functioning of politics beyond Erdoğan in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the overall political landscape. While individuals may exert influence over decision-making processes, it is important to recognize that their choices are still constrained by the underlying structural factors at play. There are three factors that structure political trajectories in Turkey: ideological transformation, geopolitical preferences, and conjunctural needs.

Ideological Transformation

The pivotal role of ideas in shaping practical politics is especially pronounced in Turkey, where the ideological foundations of politics are often underestimated. Compelling ideas, charismatic leaders who can effectively communicate them to the masses, and political narratives that consistently reinforce these ideas, are frequently regarded as prerequisites for electoral victories.[iv] In this context, it is essential to consider the ideas of political leaders, as they are arguably the key factor contributing to their success in the eyes of the public.

Atatürk’s idea of independence and sovereignty, Menderes-Bayar’s idea of democracy and freedom[v], Ozal’s idea of liberty[vi], and Erdogan’s idea of justice and development[vii] have all resonated with the public. The widespread appeal of these ideas can be attributed to both the social transformation occurring within the country at the time and the influential representational power that is the leader’s ability to appear as a credible personality championing and operating them. Thus, one may ask: what could be the emerging idea of this election period? The answer to this question is deeply connected to the prevailing macro-level issues in Turkey at the moment.

Turkey is currently grappling with the challenges of hosting millions of Syrian refugees, combating high inflation and managing the fallout of the recent earthquake.[viii] The prevailing sentiment among the Turkish public is that addressing these issues within the country requires radical and direct political action. The connection between ideological transformation and social change is apparent today as the public’s reactions to the economic crisis and the refugee situation in Turkey coalesce around nationalism. This form of nationalism, which stands in opposition to the government and serves as an antithesis to conservative values as well as the economic, geopolitical, and domestic policies they encompass, is both pro-Western and nationalist-liberal.[ix]

In Turkey, the People Alliance Bloc, lead by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Devlet Bahceli, seeks ways to render nationalist ideas more manageable. Consequently, it maintains a restrained approach to political nationalism in its discourse. This strategy aims to avoid jeopardizing its relationships with Kurdish voters, its overarching Muslim identity, and its delicate interactions with Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, the opposition seeks to position nationalism within the context of secularism. As a critique of the ruling AK Party’s 20-year-long promotion of a religious society, secularism is instrumentalized with nationalism as its secondary component. The opposition’s de-facto alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) leading up to the elections has emerged as a development that inhibits nationalist discourses from occupying an autonomous space. For right-wing and nationalist voters, who make up a significant portion of the electorate in Turkey, the political manifestations of multiculturalism and their representation are considered a red line in their voting behavior. For these voters, a unified Turkey and an integrated national identity are the primary political approaches they support. Consequently, a considerable number of voters are consolidating their views.

Beyond the People’s Alliance and the Nation Alliance, a new political stream, which can be referred to as the “Third Way,” is emerging. It can be argued that the primary driving force behind this political sphere is nationalism. According to recent polls, Muharrem İnce, who is not the candidate of the People’s Alliance, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the National Alliance candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, are all experiencing a rapid and cumulative rise in support. İnce’s vote share has already surpassed 10 percent, pushing the presidential election into a second round. Muharrem Ince, the leader of the Homeland Party, effectively articulates Ataturkism/Kemalism through authentic and populist political rhetoric. By doing so, he successfully politicizes the emotions of angry voters within the realms of nationalism and secularism.

Consequently, Turkey’s macro-level challenges are contributing to the resurgence of nationalism and secularism. The angry voters who believe that these ideologies are underrepresented within mainstream political blocs will likely continue seeking alternatives until a harmonious alignment of leadership, party, and ideology is established.

Geopolitical Preferences

In addition to the current distribution of actors in Turkish domestic politics, it is essential to focus on the geopolitical environment too. This is because the opposition and the ruling party have competing visions of the world outside Turkey. While this may be seen as merely the preferences of the elites, it is also related to the positions in which a section of Turkish society wants to see the country develop. The AK Party have recently prioritized the non-Western world more intensely in foreign policy in order to consolidate conservative social sectors following the Gezi Park Protests that threatened their power. In the wake of the Gezi Park Protests, it can be said that the social opposition was more willing to engage with the Western world. This has led to the emergence of complex engagements.[x]

The new geopolitical balances in Syria and Libya have prompted Turkish rulers to align with Russia and China, two major non-Western powers. Turkey’s quest for geopolitical revisionism, which began with the Arab Spring, has been significantly shaped by its involvement in Syria and Libya. The emergence of Russia as a military power in these two countries has added complexity and, to some extent, dependence to Turkey’s relationship with Russia. Meanwhile, China’s growing investments in Turkey and its expanding influence in the Middle East remain the primary drivers behind the Turkish elites’ increasing affinity for China.

The erosion of EU and US leverage in foreign policy has diminished the impact of their emphasis on Western-style democracy in Turkey’s domestic politics.[xi] The opposition, on the other hand, aims to re-establish a reciprocal relationship with the Western world, as in the past.[xii] According to this preference, the main goal seems to be to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis and harmonize political and legal arrangements accordingly.

The Arab Spring appears to have lost its influence. The notion that Islamism serves as a dependable agent of democratization in the region has been discredited.[xiii] In the wake of the Arab Spring, the geopolitical center of power has been shifting to the Gulf, and the prevailing political ideology is increasingly characterized by nationalism.[xiv] In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, any form of identity beyond national affiliation is met with skepticism. This development renders the promotion of Islamist discourse by the ruling Ak Party in Turkey less relevant. Domestically, the economic crisis and issues related to refugees have diminished the appeal of grand narratives for conservative voters. In foreign policy, Islamism is perceived as a national security threat by many regional countries, particularly the Gulf states.[xv] Consequently, the current geopolitical climate encourages a more inward focus in Turkish politics, with nationalism taking center stage.[xvi] At this juncture, it is important to clarify that during the Arab Spring, Turkey’s foreign policy was heavily influenced by Islamism and revolved around an understanding that primarily prioritized supranational identities, such as the concept of the ummah. However, as the Arab Spring experienced a crisis of political representation, a more territorially-focused nationalism emerged as the dominant pattern in both foreign and domestic policy, emphasizing Turkey’s borders and national interests.

Conjunctural Needs

Assuming that only macro-level factors structure voter behavior in Turkey would leave the political picture incomplete. Different dimensions of the difficulties voters face in their daily lives (exclusion and deprivation) may lead them to alternative political choices. At this point, political parties should not only put forward concrete project proposals to improve the current conditions of voters but also convince voters that there is a genuine political choice.

Considering that the political arithmetic in Turkey is 60 percent right-leaning and 40 percent left-leaning, it seems very difficult for voting preferences to change overnight.[xvii] For this reason, blocs are trying to appeal to voters outside their traditional base by striking agreements with smaller parties. The People’s Alliance, established by the AK Party and the MHP, is strategically partnering with Hüda-Par and the Yeniden Refah Party to appeal to Kurdish Islamists and traditional Islamist sectors, respectively. The Nation Alliance, in which the CHP and IYI Party are the main actors, is trying to gain votes from the Islamist sectors on which the AK Party has risen, thanks to the Saadet Party. Particularly in Turkey, where ethnic tensions are an important social divide, the CHP’s political negotiations with the HDP push these constituencies to seek a third way. The rise of Muharrem İnce, who ran for the presidency from the CHP in the previous presidential election, and his party, the Homeland Party, can be explained by this dynamic.[xviii]

The political advantages for blocs partnering with smaller parties are somewhat limited. The insubstantial vote share of these small parties (none of which can exceed 1 percent individually) heightens skepticism among the blocs’ core voters about their affiliated parties. Conversely, the larger parties within the blocs justify their alliances with smaller parties by asserting that they aim to build as broad a political coalition as possible.

In a similar vein of navigating challenging circumstances, President Erdoğan appears to have adeptly managed and contained the potential political backlash that could have arisen from the extensive material losses caused by the earthquake. One could argue that the swift initiation of housing projects and social assistance networks has contributed to this successful outcome.

What Recent Polling Says About the May 14 Elections?

The findings from a survey conducted by Metropoll, a reputable polling firm in Turkey, between January 13 and March 14, 2023, present intriguing insights. In January 2023, President Erdogan’s support stood at 45.9 percent, which subsequently declined to 42.7 percent in February and further to 42 percent in March.[xix] [xx] In January, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu garnered 43 percent of the vote, which decreased to 41.4 percent in February before rising to 44.6 percent in March.

Another reputable polling agency, Panaromatr, reported the following results: Recep Tayyip Erdogan with 41.2% support, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu at 36.7%, Muharrem İnce with 12.9%, Sinan Ogan receiving 1.8%, and the HDP candidate at 5.3%. It is important to mention that this poll was conducted before the HDP declared that it would not field a candidate in the wake of a meeting between Kilicdaroglu and the HDP.[xxi]

The rapidly shifting political landscape in Turkey is poised for the emergence of a new balance of power at any moment. The unexpected surge in Muharrem İnce’s vote share has decreased the influence of the Table of Six coalition to an extent, increasing the likelihood of a presidential election runoff. In order to claim victory in the presidential election, one of the candidates must surpass 50 percent of the votes in the first round. If this vote threshold is not reached, the two candidates with the highest number of votes proceed to the second round. Erdogan aims to attract swing voters by initiating a manageable culture war with the opposition, believing that ultimately, they will return to his side. However, the proportion of swing voters among the opposition is relatively low as these groups share an antagonistic relationship with the current government. As Turkey approaches its upcoming election, it is evident that the outcome may set off a series of subsequent electoral cycles, given that the nation’s politics have yet to achieve equilibrium.

[i] “Turkish Opposition Unites behind Kılıçdaroğlu as Anti-Erdoğan Candidate”, POLITICO (blog), 06 Mart 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/turkish-opposition-kilicdaroglu-erdogan-ankara-election/.
[ii] “Turkey: The Opposition Unites behind a Joint Presidential Candidate”, OSW Centre for Eastern Studies, 09 Mart 2023, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2023-03-09/turkey-opposition-unites-behind-a-joint-presidential-candidate.
[iii] “YSK draws presidential candidates’ place on ballot paper – Türkiye News”, erişim 02 Nisan 2023, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ysk-draws-presidential-candidates-place-on-ballot-paper-182043.
[iv] Ihsan Aktaş, “Role of Charismatic Leadership in Times of Political Chaos | Column”, Daily Sabah, 25 Aralık 2021, https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/columns/role-of-charismatic-leadership-in-times-of-political-chaos.
[v] “BAYAR, Celâl”, TDV İslâm Ansiklopedisi, erişim 20 Nisan 2023, https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/bayar-celal.
[vi] “Turgut Özal’ın Hizmetleri”, erişim 20 Nisan 2023, https://www.anavatan.org.tr/Sayfa-Turgut-Ozal%E2%80%99in–Hizmetleri.
[vii] Vedat Bilgin, “Kuruluşunun 19. Yılında AK Parti ve Siyasal Kimlik Analizi”, Kriter Dergi, 01 Eylül 2020, https://kriterdergi.com/siyaset/kurulusunun-19-yilinda-ak-parti-ve-siyasal-kimlik-analizi.
[viii] Vugar Bakhshalizada, “Nationalists Are Exploiting Turkey’s Syrian Refugee Crisis”, Text, The National Interest (The Center for the National Interest, 31 Mayıs 2022), https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/nationalists-are-exploiting-turkeys-syrian-refugee-crisis-202742.
[ix] “Re-Evaluating Turkish Nationalism: A Bulwark Against the Religious Establishment”, The Washington Institute, erişim 03 Nisan 2023, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/re-evaluating-turkish-nationalism-bulwark-against-religious-establishment.
[x] Jadaliyya- جدلية ve Jadaliyya, “The Aftermath of the Gezi Park Protests: Rising Populism and Mobilization for Autocracy”, Jadaliyya – جدلية, erişim 03 Nisan 2023, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/42978.
[xi] Alper Coşkun Ülgen Sinan, “Political Change and Turkey’s Foreign Policy”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, erişim 20 Nisan 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/11/14/political-change-and-turkey-s-foreign-policy-pub-88387.
[xii] “Turkey’s Anti-Erdoğan Opposition Vows a Reset on EU and NATO”, POLITICO (blog), 15 Mart 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/turkey-anti-recep-tayyip-erdogan-opposition-reset-eu-nato/.
[xiii] Abdelrahman Ayyash, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Faces an Existential Crisis”, New Lines Magazine (blog), 02 Mart 2023, https://newlinesmag.com/argument/muslim-brotherhood-faces-existential-crisis/.
[xiv] Eman Alhussein, “Saudi First: How hyper-nationalism is transforming Saudi Arabia” (European Council on Foreign Relations- ECFR, Haziran 2019), https://ecfr.eu/publication/saudi_first_how_hyper_nationalism_is_transforming_saudi_arabia/.
[xv] “UAE Lists Muslim Brotherhood as Terrorist Group”, Reuters, 15 Kasım 2014, blm. Emerging Markets, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-emirates-politics-brotherhood-idUSKCN0IZ0OM20141115.
[xvi] “Interpreting Turkey’s Current Diplomatic Rapprochement Toward the Gulf”, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (blog), 22 Mart 2022, https://agsiw.org/interpreting-turkeys-current-diplomatic-rapprochement-toward-the-gulf/.
[xvii] “Milliyetçi muhafazakâr tablo yine değişmedi”, birgun.net, erişim 20 Nisan 2023, https://www.birgun.net/haber/milliyetci-muhafazakar-tablo-yine-degismedi-55034.
[xviii] Duvar English, “Muharrem İnce becomes third presidential candidate after gathering 100,000 signatures”, Text, https://www.duvarenglish.com/muharrem-ince-becomes-third-presidential-candidate-after-gathering-100000-signatures-news-62092 (Duvar English, 25 Mart 2023), https://www.duvarenglish.com/muharrem-ince-becomes-third-presidential-candidate-after-gathering-100000-signatures-news-62092.
[xix] “MetroPOLL anketi: Erdoğan’ın oyları geriledi, Kılıçdaroğlu önde”, birgun.net, erişim 17 Nisan 2023, https://www.birgun.net/haber/metropoll-anketi-erdogan-in-oylari-geriledi-kilicdaroglu-onde-426932.
[xx] Gazete Duvar, “Metropoll anketi: Cumhur İttifakı Millet İttifakı’ndan 4.5 puan önde”, Text, https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/metropoll-anketi-cumhur-ittifaki-millet-ittifakindan-45-puan-onde-haber-1611514 (Gazete Duvar, 03 Nisan 2023), https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/metropoll-anketi-cumhur-ittifaki-millet-ittifakindan-45-puan-onde-haber-1611514.
[xxi] “Üç anket: İnce ikinci tura taşıyor, Memleket Meclis dışı”, 31 Mart 2023, https://www.diken.com.tr/uc-anket-ince-ikinci-tura-tasiyor-memleket-meclis-disi/.

Dr. Gökhan Çınkara is a researcher, a columnist, and an analyst. He is the CEO of Ankara Center for Global Politics. He is an assistant professor at Necmettin Erbakan University, previously he was a researcher at Ankara University on Comparative Politics, Political Parties, Constitutional Institutes, Political Sociology, Intellectual History, Israeli Studies.

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