Türkiye one year before elections – Erdoğan’s High Noon moment?

Image: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

As Turkey prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is losing ground due to the unfolding economic crisis and the effective strategies of opposition parties. For the first time in two decades, Turkey’s governing party, the AKP, has to fear that it will not emerge victorious in upcoming elections. In all polls, the party is only 30 percent or even below, that is the worst figure in its history. The most recent representative survey by the respected opinion research institute Metropoll also showed that in a presidential election, each of the five possible challengers would get more votes in the first ballot than incumbent Tayyip Erdoğan. Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas would even defeat him clearly.

The President and AKP leader will decide on an election date when he still sees the best chances for himself and his party. The next parliamentary and presidential elections would normally have to take place on June 24, 2023 at the latest. However, Erdoğan already called for the elections in 2015 and 2018. It had long been speculated that he would also call these elections earlier. Apparently, he expects better chances in the coming year.

There is much to suggest that Erdoğan or parliament will not hold the elections before mid-April. Because on April 15, 2023, the new electoral law will come into force, which reduces the chances of the opposition to exhaust their potential voters. The old electoral law allowed several parties to form a bloc and then distribute the mandates among themselves. According to the new electoral law, each party must stand up individually and is therefore subject to the new blocking clause of seven percent. Many voters could then not be represented in Parliament. Because four of the six opposition parties that have formed an alliance each achieve less than seven percent. Despite some major programmatic differences, they are united by the common goal of ending the Erdoğan era.

The party’s power peaked in 2018 when Erdoğan pushed through the transformation of Turkey’s parliamentary system into a hyper-presidential system with no oversight mechanisms. By abolishing the post of prime minister, disabling parliament and giving key powers to the president, Erdoğan subordinated the opposition’s ability to organize and mobilize voters to arbitrary one-man rule. In the last elections in June 2018, 42.6 percent voted for the AKP. Together with the 11.1 percent for the right-wing nationalist MHP, this was enough for an absolute majority. The President was even confirmed in office with 52.6 percent in the first ballot. In view of the economic crisis and the decline in purchasing power by more than a quarter in the past two years, these values appear to have receded into the distant future.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey has evolved into a model of populist authoritarianism over the past decade. But six opposition parties have recently forged an opposition alliance linked by a common democratization agenda. Their efforts deserve to be included in a growing handbook of tactics for fighting autocratic populists.

Over the years, Erdoğan’s leadership style has become increasingly authoritarian. He has positioned himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the country’s sole representative, denied all opposition groups their legitimacy and jailed some of their members. With the help of its parliamentary majority and referendums, the AKP deepened Turkey’s political and social polarization while consolidating control of the executive branch.

But despite the government’s efforts to intimidate, silence, divide, marginalize and criminalize its opponents, Turkey remains democratically resilient. Recent polls show that growing support for opposition parties poses a major threat to Erdoğan, the AKP and its current coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The opposition, it seems, has learned from past mistakes.

Like the democratic forces that have ousted populist incumbents elsewhere, the Turkish opposition has recognized the importance of unity. In the 2018 general election, opposition parties cooperated to win parliamentary seats but fielded their own presidential candidates against Erdoğan. Not surprisingly, this strategy was doomed to failure.

In 2019, opposition parties agreed to field joint candidates in local elections. And some parties outside the official opposition coalitions, such as the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), implicitly supported the joint candidates by not running in some urban constituencies. As a result, the AKP lost control of key cities, including Istanbul and the capital Ankara, shattering Erdoğan’s reputation as an unbeatable leader. Although opposition parties occasionally succumbed to the pitfalls of polarization, their positive strategy of “radical love” was successful.

And now Erdoğan faces an unintended consequence of his introduction of a presidential political system. To win national elections, he must now garner 50 percent or more of the vote, and Erdoğan can no longer count on a fragmented and divided opposition that has finally recognized that the key to victory lies in cooperation rather than competition .

Six opposition parties – the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party (which split from the MHP), the Islamist Felicity Party, the right-wing Democratic Party (DP) and two offshoots of the AKP, the Democracy and Progress Party and the Future Party – put their differences aside and began to cooperate. Unlike in 2018, they plan to nominate a joint presidential candidate and, if elected, ensure a democratic transition by introducing a new parliamentary system with strong oversight mechanisms.

While Erdoğan is trying to instill fear in his supporters along the lines of “if I lose, you will lose”, the opposition wants to send a very different message. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader who could become the opposition’s joint presidential candidate, said recently that if the opposition comes to power, he would seek “reconciliation” (helalleşme) for all people and groups living under state violence, have suffered oppression and exclusion. Of course, the opposition’s ability to promote inclusion without engaging in a polarizing battle with Erdoğan will be put to the test just ahead of the election.

With Turkey’s clientelistic economy leading to extremely high annual inflation (the official rate currently stands at 80 percent) and rising inequality, the opposition has focused on fundamental issues rather than the identity politics favored by Erdoğan. By proposing convincing solutions to everyday problems, the opposition is forcing Erdoğan to accept some of their proposals, such as: B. raising the minimum wage and removing interest on student loans.

The opposition’s experience in managing big cities and meeting people’s daily needs despite the restrictions imposed by the central government has proven their ability to run the country. Recent polls show that Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara respectively, alongside Kılıçdaroğlu, are potential contenders for Erdoğan in the presidential elections.

But there is also a constitutional problem for the running President: The question of whether Erdogan can run for another term is controversial. Article 101 of the Constitution states that the term of office of a President lasts five years and that a person may be elected President of the Republic no more than twice. Erdogan has already been elected president twice by the people, first in August 2014 and then in June 2018. He would then run for a third time. The opposition has not yet addressed this because they do not want to be accused of using legal means to defeat Erdogan, since they cannot achieve this goal politically. Should the High Electoral Council YSK accept Erdogan’s candidacy as the sole and final authority, there would be no opportunity to contest it anyway. But then, as the opposition parties make clear, the shadow of questionable legitimacy would hang over Erdogan’s further term in office.

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