End of the Erdogan era?

Turkey must hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections by 18 June 2023. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his centre-right Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) are polling poorly, a six-party opposition alliance is yet to agree on a candidate. Here we assess whether the elections could spell the end of the Erdogan era.

  • Erdogan could yet turn his fortunes around. He is an experienced campaigner and has the full weight of supportive media and an increasingly repressive legislative framework behind him.
  • However, the negative trajectory of the economy, the key issue for voters, means that Erdogan and the AKP are likely to be defeated at the polls.
  • An opposition victory would result in an unstable coalition government, driving a period of heightened political instability, institutional turbulence and potential contract risks for businesses with government ties.
  • A plausible outlier scenario sees the AKP government postpone the election, or seek to alter or reject the result, triggering mass protests.

Presidential election

Under changes to the constitution that took effect in 2018, the president holds extensive executive powers, making the presidency Turkey’s most politically powerful post. The AKP enjoys a majority in parliament with the support of several hardline nationalist parties, most notably the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Opinion polls since late 2021 have shown a consistent slide in support for the AKP and the MHP. Since May, the AKP has been polling at below 30% of the vote and the MHP below 7%, compared with their respective 42.6% and 11.1% share of the vote at the 2018 elections. The polls also show Erdogan losing the presidential election in a second-round run-off to any of the three most likely opposition unity candidates.

Opposition challenge

Six opposition parties in early 2022 formed an alliance led by the main opposition secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the third-largest opposition party, the Good Party (IP – a splinter party of the MHP). Although united by their opposition to Erdogan, the alliance covers a wide ideological spectrum, also comprising the devout Islamist Felicity Party (SP), two AKP splinter parties and the liberal Democratic Party (DP). The CHP and IP have since seen their polling improve to around 27% and 15% respectively, up from 22.6% and 10% in 2018.

The alliance has yet to announce its candidate for the election, likely fearing that once it does so the pro-AKP media will begin a concerted campaign to undermine support for the candidate. However, to win a second-round run-off, which occurs if no presidential candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the first round, the opposition candidate would need the support of the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose agenda focuses on environmental issues and minority rights, and has a Kurdish nationalist element.

Motivated by opposition to Erdogan, the HDP is likely to provide this support. However, this is one potential area of weakness. Of the potential opposition candidates, one of the most popular currently is mayor of Ankara Mansur Yavas (CHP), who started his political career with the MHP and is still seen as a Turkish nationalist. This is likely to deter HDP voters.

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Bitter campaign

Against this backdrop, the situation does not look good for Erdogan. Nonetheless, a reversal in his fortunes is plausible. The government retains strong control over the media, enabling it to shape the narrative in the run-up to the elections. New legislation nominally intended to combat disinformation online will make the crime of spreading “disinformation” – very vaguely defined – punishable by up to three years in prison. The government is likely to use this legislation to deter journalists from criticising its policies.

Beyond Yavas’s nationalist leanings, the other two most likely opposition candidates also present obvious lines of attack. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu lacks Erdogan’s charisma and presence, while rumours of corruption continue to dog mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu (CHP). In addition, the new single-issue anti-migrant Victory Party (ZP), formed in August 2021 as a splinter from the IP and polling at around 2.7%, could yet lend its support to the AKP and draw away opposition votes.

Economy deciding factor

Nonetheless, ultimately the economic situation will be the decisive factor shaping the electoral outcome – and this will favour an opposition victory. Turkey’s economic woes are unlikely to improve by the time the polls arrive. The government has remained obstinate in its approach to the economy. It continues to force the nominally independent Central Bank to lower interest rates, despite soaring inflation (which reached more than 80% year-on-year in September), and to sell foreign currency reserves to prop up the currency, the lira, which continues to depreciate. This situation is driving a worsening cost-of-living crisis and unemployment, likely to be worsened by the deepening energy crisis and mounting predictions of a global recession in 2023.

Opposition victory

The victorious opposition candidate would face a daunting array of challenges on taking office. Likely heavy spending by the AKP in the run-up to the elections will have further weakened government finances. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy is ineffective, having been stacked with officials promoted for their loyalty to the AKP over their competence.The support of coalition partners for the new president would quickly fall away. Other members of the opposition alliance would begin to eye the presidency themselves, especially if they perceive that they are unable to influence the (most likely) CHP president’s policy direction. The CHP has a strict internal hierarchy, and there is potential once in power for it to ignore the wishes of its alliance partners. Disputes have already emerged among the alliance members. The head of AKP splinter party Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister responsible for the economy (2009-14) and previously touted as a possible opposition unity candidate for the presidency, has already sparred with the IP.

Kilicdaroglu has already stated that within the first 100 days of coming to power his party would launch investigations into contracts awarded by the AKP government to companies with which it has ties. In reality, a CHP government would be unlikely to engage in a sweeping revision of these contracts, fearful of scaring off foreign investment and upsetting vested interests, particularly large conglomerates with media arms, whose support the party would seek to acquire. However, there is potential for it to revise a small number of contracts to demonstrate that it is taking action. Combined with coalition infighting, this would drive uncertainty for businesses and investors.

Departing kicking and screaming

In an unlikely – but plausible – outlier scenario, Erdogan could resort to other means to cling to power. This scenario would most likely see the government use its power over the Supreme Election Board (YSK) and tight control of the south-east to influence the electoral outcome. In 2019, the government effectively forced the YSK to call a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election after the AKP candidate lost, only accepting the result after its candidate lost the re-run. Security forces have a heavy presence in the Kurdish-majority south-east and at the 2018 elections there were credible allegations of results from the region being tampered with. However, this scenario is unlikely. An electoral outcome too divorced from reality would likely trigger mass protests across the country and could even prompt pushback from government officials.

Another plausible but less likely scenario could see the government postpone the election citing a security crisis, for example over mounting tensions with Greece. Such a move would likely also trigger massive protests and, especially if combined with a continued worsening of the economy, could lay the ground for government defections.