The Path Ahead in Turkey’s Upcoming Electoral Campaign
In approximately eight months, Turkey will hold elections that will either mark the consolidation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian power or give Turkish democracy a new lease on life. Erdogan’s opponents are more united than ever, and analysts appear sanguine about their chances. But the opposition still faces a number of stiff challenges stemming from its own internal disagreements. Moreover, while Erdogan’s management of the economy has gone from bad to worse, he still has a few gambits left to exploit fissures among his opponents on both domestic and foreign policy.
The opposition’s weaknesses are largely related to two factors, its nationalist ideology and lack of a coherent foreign policy. To date, many observers have assumed Erdogan will target these by doubling down on aggressive policies — picking fights with Greece, Washington, or Kurdish forces in order to force the opposition to rally around the flag and close ranks behind him. But this is not Erdogan’s only option. Were he to build on the reputational boost he’s received from the war in Ukraine and double down on his more moderate turn in regional relations, he could also outflank the opposition in a different way to emerge as a statesman on the eve of the elections. This still may not guarantee him victory, but it is a pivot the world should be prepared for.
The Paradox of the Opposition Alliance
Most political scientists these days describe Turkey’s system as “competitive authoritarianism,” meaning that Turkey is an authoritarian state that happens to hold elections that are sometimes competitive. Historically, and going back to the first ballots cast in the republican era, elections in Turkey have been free but not fair — the vote itself is mostly viewed by elites and populace alike as sacrosanct, but there are all manner of structural and political barriers to full and equitable participation in place, from an unfree media to bans on political parties. This has become all the more true during Erdogan’s reign, in which he has consolidated control of the media, imprisoned leaders of rival parties, and started a war to change an election outcome. But despite this, results of recent elections have not been challenged by opposition parties to any significant degree, and evidence of vote tampering, though credible, does not appear to rise to a level that would have altered results.
While the debate continues over how heavy-handed manipulation may be in Turkey’s next election, the assumption remains that given Erdogan’s unpopularity, a generic opposition candidate would defeat him in a free head-to-head vote today. Yet picking that candidate may prove problematic. The opposition consists of an alliance between the Republican People’s Party and junior partners like the Iyi party which are situated on its right flank. They have come together around defeating Erdogan and have also promised a return to the parliamentary system of government which Erdogan discarded. Yet many opposition voters are focused on more quotidian issues: economic stagnation and a currency crisis, as well as anger over Turkey’s significant population of refugees.
This paradox — that what binds the opposition to each other is not what binds the opposition to its supporters — is clearest in the looming decision to select a candidate to face Erdogan. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu appears to be the most skilled politician among the potential choices, and he beat Erdogan’s hand-picked candidate in mayoral elections twice in 2019. But he is viewed by some internal rivals and analysts as the least suited to carry out the agenda of democratic reforms. These concerns stem from his youth, ambitions, and relative independence within the People’s Republican Party. By the same token, the candidate who has been the architect of the opposition coalition, People’s Republican Party Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, figures as a weak personality in a contest that will surely be full of bravado. Kilicdaroglu has stifled internal divisions in the party throughout his tenure and was not personally on the ballot in the 2019 elections. But he is widely viewed as the man most likely to follow through on rebuilding the parliamentary system, seeing as how he was the one who built a coalition around this goal. It seems that the opposition is intent on putting off its decision as long as possible, a move that may prove wise if it helps maintain unity until the right candidate can be declared at the right moment.
The Silent Partner Problem
A further challenge to the opposition alliance is that, having pooled their core constituencies together, they appear to still fall short of the majority they will need to defeat Erdogan. To break this fifty percent plus 1 threshold, they are counting on Kurdish voters who support the People’s Democratic Party. The People’s Democratic Party has easily been the most vilified political party of the present era because of its support for Kurdish rights and ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but it still commands the majority of the Kurdish vote and is the most important player in a coalition of Turkey’s small but active left-wing parties. The party’s leadership has been imprisoned for years, and where its candidates won local elections in the southeast, they found themselves summarily replaced by Justice and Development Party appointees.
Much of this repression has happened with the support, tacit or open, of the parties in the opposition alliance. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party backed legislation to strip Selahattin Demirtas and other Kurdish leaders of their parliamentary immunity in 2016, which enabled Erdogan to jail them. Moreover, many within the Republican People’s Party and Meral Aksener’s Iyi Party, are openly hostile to the People’s Democratic Party and the Kurdish cause, making it hard for them to win the votes they will need. This was well understood by Ekrem Imamoglu in his 2019 mayoral campaign, where his ability to garner Kurdish support was key to his victory. But pulling off such a trick on a national scale is a challenge of a different order altogether. Without meaningful outreach and promises, many Kurdish voters may conclude that the opposition will do little to alleviate the oppression they face. Kilicdaroglu likely understands this but is limited in what he can do. Recently, the mere rumor that the People’s Democratic Party would be promised a single ministerial position should the opposition win caused Meral Aksener to threaten to torpedo the entire alliance. Meanwhile, the Kurdish leadership has insisted any meetings with the Republican People’s Party occur in public, seemingly preventing clandestine negotiations.
In other words, while the opposition alliance draws strength from its broad attachment to nationalist ideology, this is an easily exploitable weakness should it prove to be too rigid. The opposition can offer Kurdish voters a return to parliamentary politics and the release of political leaders from prison. But it remains to be seen whether this will be enough.
Erdogan’s Dovish Option
Erdogan also has a number of cards to play, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, that can make the opposition’s position even more difficult. At one extreme, some worry that Erdogan may find a way of suspending elections under some pretextual emergency such as a war with Greece. There is some precedent for this. In June 2015, Erdogan suffered his first electoral defeat when the People’s Democratic Party passed Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold, thereby entering parliament and denying Erdogan’s party a majority. Erdogan cynically pursued a twin strategy of escalating conflict in the southeast and sabotaging efforts to form an opposition coalition. It paid off as the Justice and Development Party rebounded in snap elections in November. But, as fighting continued, it also resulted in the bloodiest year Turkey had experienced since the aftermath of its 1980 coup d’etat.
Of course, the cost of starting a conflict with Greece today would be much higher, particularly as Turkey is in a highly precarious economic situation right now. While Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that high costs cannot always be counted on to reign in an authoritarian leader’s irredentist impulses, this sort of recklessness would also go against the image that Erdogan has tried to cultivate of late. In the context of Russia’s invasion, Erdogan has worked to present himself as a potential peace broker. This campaign reached its apotheosis in September during the UN General Assembly meetings when his communications team released a long video of the Turkish president taking a leisurely stroll through Central Park. Here, he was approached — supposedly spontaneously — by numerous American passers-by who declaimed their gratitude for his leadership on the world stage, and in the current conflict in particular.
Perhaps Erdogan is planning for a strategy that combines calculated bellicosity and selective moderation. While Erdogan’s threats against Greece are alarming, he has also left himself plenty of off-ramps in his rhetoric. As a result, his escalation could be part of a two-step strategy that uses a fake controversy to gin up nationalist fervor, only to climb down later to come out looking like the peacemaker. This would box in the more ardent and committed nationalists in the opposition coalition — especially those in Iyi Party.
Perhaps the biggest benefit for Erdogan’s electoral strategy would be a turn of events in Ukraine that enables him to emerge as a peacemaker here too. If Erdogan were able to play a significant role in overseeing eventual peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the dividends, both domestically and internationally, would be significant. Erdogan’s place as a broker between Ukraine and Russia fits with his vision of an independent foreign policy in which Turkey balances between and ultimately joins the world’s great powers.
Already, we’ve seen Turkey’s profile improve thanks to the provision of Bayraktar TB2 drones which figured in Ukraine’s early, sensational rebuffs of Russian attacks. It has also received a boost from diplomatic moves like the conclusion of a prisoner swap for Azov battalion fighters in Mariupol. As a result of this intervention, the men were reunited with their families and Erdogan received a glowing feature in the New York Times. Most recently, Erdogan has presented his ability to coax Russian leader Vladimir Putin back into their tenuous grain corridor deal as evidence of the benefits of his personal relationship with Putin. On top of this, the deal, and trade with Russia more generally, is being touted as a solution to Turkey’s economic crisis.
Much of Erdogan’s agenda, going back at least a decade, has centered on re-establishing Turkey’s place in the world, projecting power, and demanding respect. It’s hard to imagine a foreign policy crisis in the last decade where this case could be made more easily to the Turkish people than the current one. As a result, the opposition is stymied. They have little foreign policy experience to point to, and any potential outreach to the West will create trouble with the deeply anti-Western elements in their own base. Evidence of this can be found in Kilicdaroglu’s visit last month to the United States, where he pointedly avoided holding any meetings with U.S government officials.
Erdogan is a consummate politician and has built up just about every structural advantage possible in the given climate. His stubborn, years-long, ideological adherence to fanciful ideas about the relationship between interest rates and inflation has proven to be his Achilles heel as everyday Turkish voters have felt the enormous pain of rising costs of household goods over the last two years. Up to this point, Erdogan has tried to shift the conversation to culture war topics like gay rights and rock concerts and to one-up the opposition with his own nationalist fervor. If recent polls are to be believed, Erdogan’s slide in approval ratings has momentarily halted but his party is still polling almost 10 points behind where it was in 2018. Eight months out from potential elections, it’s impossible to know whom the opposition will pick as a candidate and what course Erdogan will chart. But Western policymakers trying to predict Turkish moves over the coming months would do well to worry less about Erdogan starting a new war and prepare for the prospect of a show of statesmanship instead.
James Ryan is the Director of Research and of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.