News | Party / Movement History - Turkey Turkey Is Ready for Change

Voters could very likely end Erdoğan’s 20-year reign this Sunday — but what comes next?



Kemal Bozay,

Supporters of the Left Green Party march on a May Day parade in Izmir, Turkey.
Supporters of the Left Green Party march on a May Day parade in Izmir, 1 May 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May 2023 have not only been billed as “fateful”, they are also being defined by one of the biggest earthquakes in the history of the country, which as of 22 April has led to the deaths of over 59,000 people, in particular in the cities of south-eastern Anatolia. Non-compliance with building codes owing to corrupt dealings and construction bungles have been blamed for a devastating catastrophe.

Kemal Bozay is Professor for Social Sciences and Social Work at the IU International University of Applied Sciences in Cologne.

Translated by Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

While the opposition has attempted to hold the government responsible for the construction defects and called on the population to show solidarity, many citizens have lost faith in the Turkish government and feel that they lack security and protection.

One thing is clear: the century-old Turkish republic has seen an incremental dismantling of the Kemalist state originally established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In its place, a country has emerged at the crossroads between Europe and Asia increasingly reorganized as an autocratic presidential dictatorship that embraces Turkish Islamism and nationalism. With the introduction of the presidential system in 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acquired increased power as an autocrat, taking control of the legislature, executive, and judiciary, while also occupying the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

On the eve of the elections, it remains to be seen whether Erdoğan will surrender his position as sole ruler. The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are therefore seen as pivotal, especially since politics in Turkey has not only become more polarized over the course of the election campaign, but also in light of the fact that the election is shaping up as a head-to-head contest between Erdoğan and Kemalist social democrat and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Turkish Politics on the Eve of the Elections

Even if the latest poll results have not been especially good for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the AKP will benefit politically from a number of circumstances and factors at the impending elections. In particular, there is a definite imbalance in the conditions affecting the government and the opposition.

Turkey is thus facing turbulent days in the lead-up to the election. For example, the Turkish-Kurdish and Sunni-Alevi conflicts will be stirred up further, and political pressure on the democratic opposition will increase. “I’m an Alevi. … Our identity makes us who we are”, Kılıçdaroğlu said in a recent video message broadcast on the internet with over 100 million views, thus responding to Erdoğan’s demagogic attacks on Alevis.

On the opposition side, moreover, not only are important representatives of the pro-Kurdish, left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in prison, such as the former party co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, together with numerous HDP mayors who have been removed from office, the Constitutional Court is deliberating on a case that could see the HDP banned.

In order to get around a possible ban, the HDP is contesting the elections under the banner of the Green Left Party (YSP). On the other hand, the Green Left Party, polling at more than 10 percent of the vote, has a crucial position in the elections. Together with its constituents, it may well end up playing kingmaker in the presidential election.

On first taking office, Erdoğan announced numerous promises that have not been kept in the more than 20-year period of his government.

Then there is Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP), who is in a court of first instance facing a ban from politics, which is not yet in force. Owing to his popularity, İmamoğlu was appointed deputy to presidential candidate Kılıçdaroğlu in March 2023, alongside Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş (CHP).

Besides these things, freedom of the press and of opinion have not really applied in Turkey in the context of this election campaign. Most TV channels and radio stations are controlled by the government, social media are restricted by means of the “Disinformation Act” under the pretext that “fake news” is being disseminated, and opposition media are blocked, face confiscations, or are banned.

Furthermore, recent changes to the electoral regulations, a politicized judiciary, and the possibility that the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) will again be instrumentalized all spell unequal conditions that are not fair to the opposition. The new electoral law, for example, lowered the electoral threshold from 10 to 7 percent, and made an exception to give Erdoğan, as the incumbent president, permission to make use of public funds during the election campaign. The Supreme Electoral Council is also dominated by Erdoğan and his AKP. There can therefore be no question of the elections being free and safe.

In June 2018, election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) pointed out that candidates did not have equal chances, among other things on account of the restrictions on the freedoms of assembly and the press. In relation to the present parliamentary elections, observers from the Council of Europe have spoken of a “difficult election environment” and also criticized inadequacies concerning the freedoms of the press, opinion, and assembly. The situation, they say, is at its most difficult in the regions affected by the earthquake, where people will go to the polls under circumstances made more difficult by the destruction it caused. Around 100,000 people affected by the earthquake have registered to vote in other provinces. Hundreds of thousands have left the earthquake region.

It cannot be ruled out that the calculations and results will be manipulated on election night, or that Erdoğan will then seek to shape the situation by declaring victory. Independent national and international electoral observers will therefore play a key role at these elections.

Erdoğan’s Promises

On first taking office, Erdoğan announced numerous promises that have not been kept in the more than 20-year period of his government. In particular, he vowed to make progress on the economy, infrastructure, welfare provision, the health system, and education. He also held forth on the importance of human rights, freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, and on the prospect of a resolution to the Kurdish question. In practice, the majority of these pledges have not been kept.

Above all, in the current period, a radical neoliberalization of society has taken place that has produced a “green” capitalist class dependent on Erdoğan’s system of power. In accordance with the principle that “the spoils of statehood go to those at the top, only crumbs fall to those below”, the AKP era has seen the establishment of extensive relationships of economic dependence, corruption, and nepotism. The result of these neoliberal economic policies was the implementation of the most extensive programme of privatization in Turkey’s history, which radicalized the existing economic policy even further. While inflation rose to almost 20 percent, the official unemployment figures hit 12 percent, with a substantial share of real unemployment remaining hidden. Through contract staffing, flexibilization, the dilution of workplace protections, and the curtailment of rights to union-based workplace participation, wages have been subjected to downward pressures that are forcing many employees to lead a life under the existential minimum.

The current crisis has dragged purchasing power down and also led to drastic cuts in social benefits for retirees. In addition, economic growth has slowed significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic and the Turkish lira has suffered a massive drop in value since 2018. The middle class has also seen its purchasing power significantly eroded. Dissatisfaction with the spread of injustice, corruption, and nepotism across the country is rife among young voters in particular. They can see that scores of officials in the AKP government have become wealthy while at the same time youth unemployment sits at 25 percent.

Moreover, Turkey is witnessing the world’s highest rate of femicide, with more than 4,000 women murdered by their partners in the last 15 years. In 2021, in response to feminist resistance calling for the legal protection of women, President Erdoğan announced Turkey would be withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention because, he said, it “destroys the Turkish family structure” and creates a “legal basis for homosexuality”. Since Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention, violence against women and LGBTQ people, including femicides, has further increased.

The Political Balance of Power

The party system in Turkey is presently both very complex and highly variegated. The legally stipulated 7-percent hurdle means that smaller parties hardly stand a chance of winning seats in parliament. Nonetheless, splinter formations and new parties have proliferated across the political landscape.

Electoral alliances play a key role in the presidential and parliamentary elections. President Erdoğan and his AKP currently control 286 of the 600 seats in the Grand National Assembly, while his allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have 48 seats. This means that Erdoğan has so far been able to count on a parliamentary majority. At the last municipal elections in March 2019, the AKP lost ground — particularly in Turkish metropoles such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, and Diyarbakır — to opposition parties like the Kemalist, social-democratic CHP and the left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP.

The People’s Alliance

The People’s Alliance came together in February 2018 as an electoral alliance linking the AKP in close affiliation and cooperation with the far-right MHP and the Islamist, nationalist Great Unity Party (BBP). At the last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, the alliance received 53.7 percent of the vote. For the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, the Islamist, anti-Semitic New Welfare Party, and the radical Islamist Free Cause Party , active in the Kurdish regions and known for its proximity to Hezbollah, have joined the coalition. The conservative, nationalist Motherland Party (ANAP) has also promised its support.

Throughout their history, pro-Kurdish and left-wing socialist parties have faced a variety of restrictions and forms of repression.

A further significant constituency for Erdoğan lies in Muslim congregations and sects (such as Menzil, Ismailağa, Iskenderpaşa, Nur Cemaati, and Süleymancılar) that have declared their support for the People’s Alliance. The composition of the alliance shows that a coalition between Muslim, Islamist, and far-right parties has emerged to champion a Turkish-Muslim synthesis.

The Nation Alliance

The Nation Alliance is led by the CHP. In contrast to other western European social-democratic parties, the CHP is not a product of the workers’ movement. Rather, it stands in the tradition of a party rooted in the state apparatus.

Up until the mid-1990s, its social constituents consisted of military officers, government bureaucrats, and members of the intelligentsia. With the election of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to the position of party chair in 2010, the CHP announced a change of political direction that has so far failed to produce a breakthrough. At the 2018 parliamentary elections, the Good Party (IP), the Democrat Party (DP), and the Felicity Party (SP) had all joined the Nation Alliance, together attracting 34 percent of the vote.

An important partner in the alliance is the IP led by Meral Akşener, Turkey’s minister of the interior between 1996 and 1997, who split from the MHP in October 2017, taking her allies with her. The IP, which is a conservative or right-wing populist party, currently has 36 seats in parliament. When the opposition coalition named Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (CHP) as its presidential candidate, Akşener left Nation Alliance’s “Table of Six”. Akşener reserved her sharpest criticism for Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. As an alternative, she called for the nomination of either Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu or Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş. The alliance ultimately agreed to make both mayors deputies to Kılıçdaroğlu.

For the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections the Nation Alliance is also joined by Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), a party formed in March 2020 out of internal political differences within the AKP. Its founder, Ali Babacan, has served as deputy prime minister, minister for economic affairs, and foreign minister, and sees his party as a conservative Muslim party with a European or Western outlook. Another coalition partner is the Future Party (GP), also the result of a split from the AKP. Its founder and chair Ahmet Davutoğlu was well known as a major AKP strategist and served from 2014 until his resignation in 2016 as chair of the AKP and prime minister of the country. His party caters to a conservative Muslim constituency and therefore tends to espouse an anti-Western politics.

The CHP suffered a split at the hands of its former parliamentary leader Muharrem İnce, who founded the Homeland Party (MP) in May 2021. The party is conservative and Kemalist, and its presidential nominee İnce makes use of a populist rhetoric that is also instrumentalized by AKP-aligned media against the CHP. The left-wing nationalist, pro-Russian Patriotic Party (VP) led by Doğu Perinçek, by contrast, remains of negligible influence on the elections.

A look at the political diversity of the six-way Nation Alliance reveals dissension within the participating parties on numerous issues. The coalition represents a marriage of convenience that has been brokered according to the precept that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. On issues such as the economy, the peace process, or secularism, the alliance espouses varying political positions, but has closed ranks to fight against Erdoğan and his power politics.

Labour and Freedom Alliance

Throughout their history, pro-Kurdish and left-wing socialist parties have faced a variety of restrictions and forms of repression. Since the mid-1980s, twelve pro-Kurdish and left-wing socialist parties have been banned. The HDP is the first pro-Kurdish party in Turkish history to have successfully crossed the (then) 10-percent threshold, something it achieved in 2015 as part of an alliance of a number of progressive and left-wing socialist parties that took its seats in parliament as the third-largest faction. Despite ongoing repression and criminalization, at the 2018 election the alliance maintained its position in third place.

The upcoming parliamentary elections will be crucial for determining whether Turkey finds a path to parliamentary democracy or continues to fall into the clutches of an autocratic regime.

To avoid facing a ban, the HDP is contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections under the umbrella of the Green Left Party. The socialist Workers’ Party (TIP) is also a participant in the alliance, although it is contesting the election as a party in its own right. Given that the YSP occupies a key position in Turkey’s system of party-political power and has officially declared its support for Kılıçdaroğlu as a presidential candidate, Erdoğan’s AKP has launched a smear campaign against the YSP, which they accuse of supporting the PKK and terrorism.

The alternative camp running under the name Union of Socialist Forces, and consisting of the Left Party, the Communist Party of Turkey (TK), and the Communist Movement of Turkey (TKH), remains marginal as far as the elections are concerned. They hardly stand any chance of winning seats in parliament.

Ancestral Alliance

Besides Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu, who according to polls so far are anticipated to receive the majority of votes, the Ancestral Alliance has also announced its participation in the elections, gathering 100,000 signatures in support of its presidential candidate Sinan Oğan despite the fact that the alliance has no significant majority. Oğan, a former member of the far-right MHP, is supported by other right-wing ethno-nationalist groups. One of them is the Victory Party (ZP), a party founded in 2021 by Ümit Özdağ, splitting off from the IP shortly after it was founded. The ZP now propagates ethno-nationalist narratives as part of its programme and is known, in particular, for the racist propaganda and deportation policies it directs against refugees.

What Happens If Erdoğan Loses?

Current analyses of the election campaign show that the political cleavage between the parties is becoming increasingly hostile, and that Erdoğan now has to worry — for the first time — that he may lose power. Not only was his crisis management inadequate during the earthquake catastrophe, the head-to-head contest with his rival Kılıçdaroğlu is weakening his position.

Almost all polls put Kılıçdaroğlu ahead of Erdoğan (still). This has triggered aggressive, even incendiary behaviour from AKP elites such as Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu, who, speaking at an election event in Istanbul, went so far as to describe the official election date, 14 May, as a “Western political coup”, drawing parallels with the failed coup attempt of 2016. We know that the AKP has ramped up its verbal attacks on the opposition. In addition to this, shots have been fired at CHP and IP party offices. If Erdoğan loses, the strained atmosphere around the country may reach new levels of intensity.

If none of the four presidential candidates receives an absolute majority of the vote, the contest will see a second round at the end of May. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins, he will presumably act as an impartial president and gradually return to the presidential model practiced in Turkey in the past. He is promising that his government will be more inclusive and seek to build political consensus. Even if it is not in the programme agreed upon by the Table of Six, in interviews Kılıçdaroğlu has signalled that philanthropist Osman Kavala and former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş will be released. One important demand addressed to the opposition that is not in the Table of Six programme remains the strengthening of women’s rights and a return to the Istanbul Convention.

A further significant election issue that will confront the opposition if it comes to power is Turkey’s economic development. Particular attention will need to be given to the currency crisis, which since its onset in 2018 has seen a devaluation of the lira and one of the highest inflation rates in the world. The current account deficit is at a record high, and currency reserves are being drained at an increasing rate.

In addition, rapid price rises and a corresponding drop in purchasing power are leading to widespread discontent. Meanwhile, if it is true that Kılıçdaroğlu aims to improve relations with NATO and the EU, serious changes in his attitude to the wars in Syria and Ukraine have not emerged.

The upcoming parliamentary elections will be crucial for determining whether Turkey finds a path to parliamentary democracy or continues to fall into the clutches of an autocratic regime. If the democratic opposition is successful in mobilizing all possible forces — of whatever political and cultural stripe — it has a chance of leading Turkey away from autocracy and towards democracy. In this fateful election, the Left Green Party could play the role of kingmaker.