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2023 Turkish general elections: which opposition to Erdogan?

The Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in a few months. It could be the biggest challenge for Recep Tayyip Erdogan even though the opposition struggles to face the Turkish president.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential complex in Ankara | Adem Atlan/AFP via Getty Images

On 13 February, the six centre-left and right-wing parties opposed to Erdogan were supposed to show a sign of unity. They should have appointed a candidate for the presidential election that is supposed to take place on 14 May. Their coalition, known as the Table of Six, constitutes the main opposition to the President. They have not been able in more than a year to express a consensus on the subject. Parliamentary elections should take place on the same day. According to recent polls, both elections will be tight.

However, the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria has changed the situation for both the President in place and the opposition. There have been more than 40 000 victims and the election is no longer the priority in Turkey. It is likely that the election will be moved, probably in June, the deadline indicated in the Constitution. Erdogan would have to change the constitution to go beyond this date. The 13 February meeting is now postponed indefinitely.

Civilians look for survivors amid the earthquake wreckage in Antakya, Turkey, on Feb. 7. Ibrahim Oner/Sopa Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Political analysts insist on the necessity for the parties to use the time before the election wisely. It should tap into public anger over the catastrophic earthquake and the way it was handled by the authorities. Many voices were raised to denounce the role played by the local building infrastructure and the inefficiency of the Turkish public intervention in failing to lower the consequences of the earthquake. But analysts say they should try to avoid appearing to seek political gain from it.

A single candidate, a single platform

The leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP, social-democratic and main secular party) Kemal Kilicdaroglu is considered to be the favourite candidate to lead the opposition in the election because of his national support. But other candidates could spring a surprise, such as the member of the nationalist party Iyi Party Meral Aksener. Kilicdaroglu and Aksener were not united on their response to the earthquake: Kilicdaroglu’s visit in affected areas while Aksener chose to stay quiet in the first few days. It is yet difficult to know if the tragedy will divide or unite the Table of Six.

The evolution of Turkish inflation (2014-2022), The Financial Times

The opposition’s unity is however incarnated by their 2300-point platform that expresses the goal of undoing President Erdogan’s legacy. First of all, they aim to roll back many presidential powers to the Parliament and ministries that were controlled by Erdogan since he came to power. After 20 years, it may seem impossible for the opposition to compete against Erdogan but the context is not helping the Turkish President. The earthquake reinforced his lack of support among different categories of the population but before that, the economy was already struggling. A 57% inflation rate (it came up to 85% last year), enfeebled lira (i.e the Turkish currency), and low investment have contributed to reinforcing the objection by a significant part of the population.

Boosting the economy

However, will the opposition radically change Erdogan’s policies if they come to power? The answer is probably no. The actual Turkish President first came to power in 2003. Since then, he has shaped the country’s institutions with his ideology. He has influenced the government, the military, academia, the religious establishment, the media, etc.

Furthermore, it is certain the AK Party (Justice and Development Party led by Erdogan) will maintain substantial power in Parliament and it is probable Erdogan will remain in power. According to an October survey by Metropoll, up to 47.6% of the Turkish population shows approval of Erdogan’s policy. This number was high up to 39% a year ago so their sustain is not going down. The President has now to deal with the disastrous situation in the country but experts say he will try to rally national support and strengthen his position. On the contrary, Table of Six only has a few months to convince the population that its candidate should rule the country.

Moreover, they have not articulated a clear strategy to recover the economic situation, an element that could be the key factor for the next election. If the economy shows signs of recovery in the next few months Erdogan could easily continue his time in the presidency. He has therefore announced a record public spending by increasing the minimum wage by 55%, boosting the salaries and pensions of civil periods, and giving the chance to more than 2 million people to retire immediately.

Stimulating the economy before a general election is a tactic Erdogan has already used in the past, that has worked and that could work again this year. Even though the earthquake will strike the Turkish economy, IMF Executive Director Mahmoud Mohieldin told the reporters of Reuters investments in rebuilding could boost GDP growth going forward after the initial impact over the next few months.

A decisive moment

Different uncertainties surround the moment of the election, especially the question of equity after several criticisms. A lot of observers and the opposition have denounced irregularities concerning the municipal scrutiny of Istanbul in 2018. This led to a reorganisation of the election – that was then won by the opposition – and also to interrogations regarding the next election. These are reinforced by the possibility for the actual President to appeal in front of the electoral commission, whose members were nominated by himself. However, Erdogan would take major risks by contesting the results of the election. This would undermine its support among the population and the institutions.

This is one of the elements that exhibit Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strength in Turkey. But his policies and the opposition’s project for the 2023 elections are opposed on political, economic, and international aspects. If the Table of Six implements its agenda, it will limit the president to a seven-year term, create an important role of prime minister, and end the president’s power to issue decrees. This idea of a parliamentary regime goes against Erdogan’s way of leading the country in the last two decades. They have indeed seen a reinforcement of the President’s role who now has the capacity to lead his policies without dealing with the parliament.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Presidential Palace, Ankara, Oct. 26, 2016. Yasin Bulbul/Anadolu Agency

Restoring a strong democracy is therefore one of the main goals of the Table of Six. Since the attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016, the Turkish President has not stopped to undermine public freedoms. It is especially the case for the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. Some media related to the opposition have been closed and a major number of journalists (currently 23), intellectuals, and politicians have been jailed. For instance, Istanbul’s popular opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has recently been sentenced in court to more than two years in jail and banned from public life.

Le maire d’Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu | Source: Getty Images

Turkey is ranked 149th among 180 countries in the annual Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. According to the NGO, “the Recep Tayyip Erdogan “hyper-presidency” has stepped up its attacks on journalists in a bid to deflect attention from the country’s economic and democratic decline and to shore up its political base. However, tactics such as near systematic censorship on the internet, frivolous lawsuits against critical media outlets or the misuse of the judicial system have, until now, enabled Erdogan to restore his popularity rating, while he continues to be embroiled in a major case of corruption and political clientelism.” The interrogation is therefore to know if Turkey will maintain its authoritarian regime.

On the economic aspect, the Table of Six pledges to introduce a tighter monetary policy and restore central bank independence. They aim to restore macroeconomic stability, end inflation, and higher the population’s purchasing power.

Finally, immigration is one of the main issues surrounding the election. Civil wars and political instability in the Middle East have made Turkey the country that welcomes most refugees in the world. More than 4 million Syrians have joined the country since the beginning of the conflict. The recent economic difficulties have provoked hostility toward immigrants among the population. Some parties inside of the opposition tackle this issue and promise to send back to their country part of these immigrants, even though it seems almost impossible since they are strongly integrated into Turkish society.

“The World’s Most Important Election in 2023?”

It is by those words that Bloomberg described the Turkish general election. The Turkish general election will be carefully observed across Europe, Washington, and Moscow because of Turkey’s ambivalent position toward its neighbours. The country has been a member of NATO since 1952 when Stalin’s USSR contested Turkey’s control over the Black Sea. Since 1991, it has unsuccessfully tried to become part of the European Union. Its application has been rejected, first because of its aggressiveness toward Cyprus and then because of Erdogan’s authority.

On the other hand, the collaboration between Turkey and Russia is not a recent phenomenon. Since the 1990s Russia has shown its will to control the Black Sea by forging links with Turkey. The two countries created the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) in 1992 and constructed the Blue Stream pipeline in 2005 and TurkStream in 2020. This zone became even more important since the Russian annexation of several territories in Georgia and Ukraine. Turkey is now a key player in this zone and signed the first international agreement since the beginning of the Ukraine War in 2022. It allows the resumption of cereal exports through a secured corridor in the Black Sea.

During the past few years, President Erdogan has constantly reinforced the links between his country and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This does not seem surprising in light of their similar tendency to limit political and social freedoms. But their collaboration has gone even further, for example with the acquisition of missile-defence systems from Russia. However, the country also helped Ukraine by supplying the country with Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. Sputnik/Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Pool via REUTERS

Not only does Erdogan assume a key role in the Black Sea but he also tries to expand Turkish influence in the Middle East and Africa. The Syrian conflict indeed demonstrates how the Turkish President intends to develop links with its Western allies and Russia at the same time. By sustaining Syrian President Bachar al-Assad, the country joined the conflict. With the Russian agreement, it also entered Syrian territory to contain the constitution of a Kurdish organisation allied with the PKK.

Ankara against the Western World?

Inside NATO, Erdogan’s Turkey also tries to block the membership of Sweden and Finland, threatens to flood Europe with refugees, and threatens to attack Greece. The Ankara-Washington relationship has consequently gone worse in the past few years. In 2020, American President Joe Biden suggested in a television interview that the United States should help the Turkish opposition to “take on and defeat Erdogan”. On the other hand, Turkish officials accuse the US of preparing a coup against their President with the help of terrorist groups.

Erdogan’s ambitions for his country especially focus on its immediate neighbourhood where Turkey tries to replace and counter American and European influence. But because of its ambivalent international policy, it is now isolated and considered belligerent. If the opposition finally comes to power this year, one of its goals might be to restore a positive relationship with the European Union and reinforce Turkey’s position inside NATO. There is however uncertainty concerning the potential international policy in case of victory of the Table of Six because of some disagreements between the parties.

DCI’s main goal is to decode encrypted news for an enlightened citizen

Andrea Perez, Journalist at Décryptage Citoyen International

21st of February 2023

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