Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani shake hands during a joint press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on March 21, 2023. Agence France-Presse
Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary election campaign is gaining momentum ahead of the May 14th vote. Trailing in the polls and facing his first electoral defeat in two decades, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has enlisted two small parties with the aim of boosting support for his People’s Alliance, composed of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party and the ultranationalist, fundamentalist Great Unity Party. The additions are fundamentalist New Welfare — which had demanded repeal of a key law providing protection for women against violence — and the Kurdish ffundamentalist Free Cause Party. These parties boost Erdogan’s People’s Alliance credentials with conservative and devout voters from the majority Sunni and minority Kurdish communities. The Kurdish party’s presence could (but may not) curb anti-Kurdish rhetoric from ethnic Turkish nationalists while New Welfare could alienate female voters.
In any case, Erdogan can count on the votes of only a small fraction of Kurdish voters. After he became prime minister in 2003 — following the AKP landslide in the 2002 parliamentary vote — he used the appeal of the country’s shared Kurdish-Kurdish Muslim heritage to win over the Kurds, who constitute 20 per cent of the population of 85 million. He also engaged in peace talks with the insurgent Turkish Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) until their collapse in 2015 and the resumption of hostilities which began in 1984. Erdogan’s coalition of convenience cannot, however, match the broad grouping cobbled together by his main rival for the presidency, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular progressive Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded in 2023 by the revered father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Turkey’s first Alevi Kurd to run for the top office, Kilicdaroglu, 74, heads the six-party Nation Alliance which consists of the CHP, the nationalist Good Party, the fundamentalist Felicity Party, the Democrat Party, and two AKP-dissidents, the Future and Democracy and Progress parties.
A mild-mannered former civil servant without oratorical skills who has led the CHP for 13 years, Kilicdaroglu cannot match Erdogan’s charisma and bombast or the appeal of Erdogan’s Sunni faith and conservative Sunni policies to rural and urban labouring class voters. Both the AKP and the CHP dominate their alliances. Their partners secure votes in single digits. However, last week the Nation Alliance secured the backing of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which normally garners 10 per cent of the vote and could win 12-14 per cent in this election.
The HDP announced its decision not to field a candidate and held discussions with Kilicdaroglu on cooperation with his bloc. Consequently, the HDP could be the kingmaker in this election. Recent polls put Kilicdaroglu 10 points ahead of Erdogan and give the Nation Alliance four points more than his People’s Alliance.
Although the CHP bloc lost the 2018 election to the AKP coalition by the large margin of 52.6 per cent to 30.6 per cent, the erosion of AKP power began that year with an economic crisis that continues until today. Turkey was afflicted with rising inflation and costs of living combined with the fall in the value of the Turkish currency. The main causes of the crisis were a construction boom based on foreign borrowing, cheap loans, and heavy government spending. Erdogan made the situation worse by insisting on a low interest rate.
The crisis was said to have led to the defeat of AKP candidates in mayoral elections in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities in the 2019 local elections. Two other factors also harmed Erdogan: his growing authoritarianism and the widely resented presence of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey who had entered the country and settled on Erdogan’s invitation. Then, on February 6th, southeast Turkey and northwest Syria were struck by 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes which killed 50,000 in Turkey and devastated cities, towns, and countryside.
Erdogan has been blamed by both critics and allies for delayed and poor handling of the search-and-rescue effort and the slow provision of urgently needed aid. Opponents have long criticised him for neglect of Turkish institutions during his two decades in power as prime minister and president. Kilicdaroglu rather than Erdogan was the first to visit the quake zone.
Erdogan was also blamed for the collapse of thousands of buildings which were constructed in a boom era when regulations providing for earthquake resistant measures were not observed and contractors, many AKP favourites, violated the regulations paid fines instead of remedying the situation.
While apologising for the lack or supervision and adherence to rules and laws, Erdogan has ordered the arrests of some contractors and promised that rebuilding half a million new homes will be completed within a year. Many Turks suspect that such an accelerated construction programme would not produce quake proof buildings. Fifty companies, many close to the AKP, have begun bidding for contracts.
While Erdogan has followed an idiosyncratic foreign policy by courting regional actors, China, and Russia and upsetting Turkey’s traditional Western allies, his tarnished charisma and wrong-headed domestic policies will decide the election. Despite the ongoing crisis, Turkey could choose the leader and party they know rather than a new man with new ideas. The unexpected entry in the race last week of Muharrem Ence, the 2018 CHP candidate who lost that election, could cost Kilicdaroglu votes in the first round and require an unpredictable second round to decide the winner. This could be Turkey’s most crucial popular consultation as it could decide Turkey’s future course. If Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance triumphs, he has pledged to amend the Turkish constitution to return the country to parliamentary rule, reform the administration, and tackle Turkey’s economic woes with sound policies rather than the individualistic policies pursued by Erdogan. He has also promised to mend relations with the West and NATO — neither of which are wildly popular in Turkey.
If Erdogan and the AKP win again, he will continue to implement policies designed to replace the moderately socialist secular state created by Ataturk with a religiously, socially and culturally conservative Ottoman-style entity which could pursue Ottoman-style expansionist efforts in this region. Erdogan has already begun this drive by gaining control of Syria’s north-western Idlib province, the Afrin district of Aleppo province, multiple enclaves along the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border.
He also seeks to erase the Kurdish paramilitary presence in the large swathe of territory of north-eastern Syria which amounts to 25 per cent of that country. Despite resistance from Turkish Cypriots, Erdogan would continue his efforts to proselytise, colonise with mainland Turks and annex the Turkish-occupied northern 36 per cent of Cyprus.