By Brynna Boyer
In October of 2023 the centennial celebration of the founding of the Republic of Türkiye will be honoured as a momentous occasion. Indeed, 2023 marks not only 100 years of the Republic, but also a potential turning point in the political history of the country in the coming months – a shift perhaps foreshadowed by the recent rebranding of Turkey to the Republic of Türkiye, the original name of Ataturk’s new republic.
In 2023, Turkey is heading for a crucial parliamentary and presidential election, the results of which could change the politics of turkey altogether. In May, the Turkish voters will either consolidate the almost decade-long power of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – and two decades of his Justice and development Party’s (AKP) rule – or mark a seismic shift in the political landscape of Turkey.
Held on 14 May, the Turkish election is perhaps the most important in the world this year (although that does not mean it will be the fairest). This vote will determine whether the century-old Republic – which connects Europe, Asia, and the Middle East – as well as its 85 million citizens will continue on the rather autocratic and expansionist path set by Erdoğan or whether a new age of liberalism and pluralism will usher Turkey into its second century.
The previous election, held in 2018, transitioned the country from a parliamentary system of government to a presidential one, a decision which was only narrowly chosen in the 2017 constitutional referendum. Erdoğan retained his presidential position in this election, a position he has held since 2014, and has ruled with increasingly autocratic tendencies since the referendum. Yet, the President’s AKP party has recently received barely 30 percent support amongst citizens.
Since the AKP Party’s rise to power in 2002, there is a serious possibility for real political change to happen in the country. Inflation is soaring to over 85.5 percent in October and the Lira has fallen in comparison to the dollar. As the economy and Lira sinks, the population’s discontent with the current government continues to rise – Erdogan’s approval has plummeted over the past two years.
Turkey’s economic crisis is directly associated with Erdoğan’s rule as the president insisted on lowering interest rates as a misguided measure to curb inflation (something which opposes the advice of most economists). As a result, more skilled workers are emigrating and thus Turkey is losing important resources to reenergise the economy.
Adding to the rising opposition against Erdoğan, opposition parties are more united than in previous electoral cycles and the goal of defeating the incumbent president is the bond of the otherwise disparate opposition parties. The main opposition is the National Alliance (which includes the mostly centrist and liberal parties of the Republican People’s party, İyi Party, Felicity Party, and Democrat Party) and it joined efforts last February with the Future and DEVA Parties (which were both founded by former prominent members of Erdogan’s AKP Party) to create the ‘Table for Six’. This coalition’s main aim is to effectively reverse the decision of the 2017 referendum and restore the Parliamentary system of government.
However, as strong as the oppositions seems, Erdoğan will do everything possible to retain his power. A highly pragmatic politician, Erdogan has cemented his power by winning elections, thus gaining him legitimacy, while simultaneously consolidating his rule by using many plays in the authoritarian ruler’s handbook: jailing critical journalists and anyone who dares to oppose the regime. This past October, the Parliament enacted a new media law, backed by the AKP, which enables Erdoğan’s government to penalise anyone who disseminates ‘false or misleading information’ – what the government considers to be false and misleading will surely depend on whether or not the media in question favours the president.
This past December, a Turkish court sentenced Istanbul’s popular mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican’s People Party, to over two years in prison based on comments he made over three years ago. The charge? ‘Insulting public figures.’ If this charge is upheld upon appeal, İmamoğlu will be barred from public office – a very convenient coincidence for the incumbent President as he could reclaim Istanbul while simultaneously eradicating his strongest competitor from the June election. As this dubious sentencing of a successful opponent to the incumbent president comes just six months before the historical presidential elections, it reeks of Erdoğan’s authoritarian meddling. Indeed, as only Erdoğan and his courts are capable of judging insults from valid concerns, this seems very much like a ploy to keep power by any means necessary.
Regardless of the ongoing appeal in İmamoğlu’s case, this witch-hunt may not create the political security the President craves and he, especially, should recognise this. Erdoğan himself was elected as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and challenged the party in power with his religious conservatism. As a result, he was banned from politics by the courts (who were then controlled by his opponents) under the accusation of spreading religious hatred during one of his speeches and thus imprisoned for four months. It seems Erdoğan is not very creative when it comes to eliminating his competition.
Erdoğan’s persecution only served to bolster his popularity among voters, as the people of Turkey rallied behind the political victim. It seems İmamoğlu’s sentencing has done the same. The mayor’s sentencing catalysed thousands of supporters to take to the streets and protest his arrest.
Considering Erdoğan’s waning approval, it seems unwise to stir the pot, especially in the context of Istanbul’s 2019 municipal election. In this fateful election, İmamoğlu seized victory from the AKP through a wave of populist support. However, Erdoğan encouraged the cancellation of the election through a decision of the Supreme Election Council – a decision which prompted İmamoğlu to make the criticism for which he is now being persecuted.
Populist movements have recently proven able to subvert elections across Europe in 2022– as Italy and Sweden ushered in new right-wing governments elected through populist movements, Viktor Orbán retained power in Hungary, and Emmanuel Macron just barely emerged victorious against right-wing populist Marine Le Pen – and there is a chance Turkey may just follow these countries into a similar electoral upset.
Populism is a direct backlash against perceived failings of a government, driven by people who are so disillusioned that they are able to go against the establishment to create change at a grass-roots level. Regardless of if the change populism brings is for better or worse, the very existence of populist movements indicates the failing of some sort by a complacent government. Erdoğan’s government is certainly failing the Turkish people economically, thus the conditions are right for Turkey to follow the electoral trends of 2022 and experience a populist upset during the elections of 2023.
In the past few years, Erdoğan has turned Turkey into an international presence. Therefore, the outcome of the impending election will not only affect the future of Turkey but will also greatly affect much of the world. Since its mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey has quickly gain international attention. Ankara has been trying to capitalise on the regional conflicts and the regional shifts of power it creates as well as its mediator role in these conflicts to increase their leverage on issues concerning what Erdoğan has deemed of national interest.
In their 20 years of power, Erdoğan and the AKP have reneged from their policy of ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ and forged conflicts with Syria, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Armenia, which could have massive consequences in the international community.
Ignoring opposition from both Washington and Moscow, Erdoğan has boasted of preparations to send tanks into Syria to dislodge Kurdish militias allied with the West in the fight against Islamic State militants, which Ankara sees as linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By launching this initiative Erdoğan hopes to create a buffer on the other side of Turkey’s southern border.
While Erdoğan has the support of strongly nationalist public opinion in Turkey, a full-out ground invasion into Syria that would trigger U.S. or Russian reactions, forcing Ankara to back down, could backfire on him — just like his dubious use of his government’s power of the judicial system to silence his opposition. On the other hand, a limited cross-border operation with few Turkish casualties could actually be the rallying point to turn voters in Erdoğan’s favour, as the operation would seem like a successful measure to protect Turkey’s borders.
Meanwhile, the increasingly problematic Turkish president is also threatening to strike Greece (a NATO ally) in a blatant and concerning act of aggression amid manufactured disputes over gas drilling, Cyprus, and the so-called ‘militarization’ of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Unfortunately, the European Union will most likely fail to be a force for moderation or restraint when it comes to Erdogan’s aggression. The EU is Turkey’s biggest trade partner, but it has lost influence in Ankara due to contentions surrounding the country’s delayed EU accession process. In fact, Brussels must regularly bribe Turkey to hold nearly 4 million Syrian refugees to keep them from flooding into Greece. As the impending election looms, the opposition against Erdoğan seems to be gaining traction. The West would certainly be relieved to see the back of the autocratic president, yet they are doing little to support the election of a more moderate, peaceful Turkey in June. However, Erdoğan has proven himself to be a resilient politician who is not afraid to resort to intimidation, aggression, and authoritarianism to retain his power over the country and it remains to be seen whether the Republic of Türkiye will welcome its new century still under Erdoğan’s thumb or with a completely new government to determine its future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
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