On Sunday, 14 May, Turks voted in a much-awaited and much-observed general election— both for a new parliament and a new president. So crucial were the elections that The Economist had billed it as "The Most Important Election of 2023.”
They were meant to determine the fate of strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who for more than two decades, has been dominating Turkey’s political life, winning five parliamentary and two presidential elections. His defeat would have set the country on a different trajectory than the one he had been pursuing. The opposition led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his Republican People’s Party (CHP) was expected to have won the elections.
Labelled "Turkey’s Gandhi” party, its manifesto had promised a slew of measures different from that currently followed by Erdogan. In the end, he demonstrated his tenacious hold on power but greatly eroded. A run-off is now scheduled for 28 May to choose the country’s president.
Turkey Under Erdogan's Rule
A wily politician, Erdogan and his Justice and Peace Party (AKP) had taken Turkey on a path quite different from that envisaged by the country’s father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. While promising to restore the glory of the Turks, under Erdogan, Turkey embarked on a marked Islamist path, truly winning hearts and minds across the Muslim world, including in India.
Turkey has intervened in Arab affairs, including occupying Northeastern Syria, helped spread the ideology of the Muslim brotherhood in the region, angering those like Saudi Arabia and Egypt; gained a decisive foothold in the South Caucasus and has widened the Turkish footprint in both South and Southeast Asia under the "Asia Anew Initiative."
Under Erdogan, Turkey drew closer to Pakistan, and military and defence cooperation deepened, with Turkey upgrading Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets, supplying the famed Bayraktar Akınci drones, and manufacturing MILGEM-class corvette ships for the Pakistani navy. At the same time, Erdogan raked up the Kashmir issue a number of times at the UN.
Turkey’s relations with NATO became strained, as after the failed coup of 2016, he cosied up to Russia, procuring the S-400 Triumf missile system, infuriating his Western allies. As the Ukraine crisis broke out, Erdogan maintained a degree of independence, supplying ammunition to Ukraine on one hand, and helping Russia evade sanctions on the other. On occasions, he has tried to play the peacemaker in the conflict. He has blocked the entry of Sweden and earlier of Finland to NATO, and at different times roiled Israel, Iran, and Greece.
At home, Erdogan has tried to position Turkey as the rightful heir and inheritor of the Caliphate legacy, articulated in a speech he made in 2016 to commemorate the centenary of the Kut Al Amara Victory (in modern Iraq). His administration lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions — with the exception of the judiciary, military, and police — ending a decades-old restriction; tried to (unsuccessfully) criminalise adultery, and introduce "alcohol-free zones”. “No Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning. We will multiply our descendants,” Erdogan — who is a father of four — said in May 2016. Educational reforms were initiated which banned Darwin’s 'Theory of Evolution' from curricula, while incorporating Islamic teachings. He also attempted to split the Muslim ummah but failed. The media has been censored and hundreds of dissidents incarcerated. In 2020, with his support, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul turned into a mosque.
Poor Policies Riddle Governance
None of this, however, translated into economic success for Turkey, even though Erdogan forged close alliances with energy-rich countries like Qatar and Azerbaijan. The Turkish lira has plummeted, inflation is at an all-time high, at 85.51% in October 2022, and much of the devastation that the earthquake caused in the country earlier this year, is believed to have been a result of the poor policies of the incumbent government.
There was widespread expectation, therefore, that the opposition coalition Alliance headed by Kilicdaroglu would win the expectations. The policies promised by him sought to bring back Turkey to its path of secularism, make it a parliamentary democracy and do away with the presidential system, mend ties with NATO, without upsetting Russia, but prioritise relations with the West, fix the economy, ensure press freedom and independence of the judiciary.
In the end, however, Erdogan’s AKP-headed People’s Alliance became the majority group in the parliament, securing 321 seats, while the Nation Alliance, led by the CHP, secured only 213 seats. While this is enough to win the legislative elections, it falls short of 50 percent, and therefore, 28 May runoff elections will decide the outcome for the post of president.
According to Rich Outzen, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council In Turkey and a geopolitical analyst and consultant, “The outcome was a choice for many Turks between pain tolerance (Erdoğan’s poor economic performance and heavy hand domestically) versus risk tolerance (an ideologically diverse coalition with untested personalities, scant unifying principles other than opposing Erdoğan, and a lot of policy unknowns)….."
The elections have proved that most Turks remain right of centre, and that the economy and earthquake devastations did not play a significant role. Alongside this, there are allegations that Erdogan prevented fair and free campaigning by the opposition. He retained his main support base, which includes religious conservatives, while including Islamist parties in his coalition who drew substantial votes.
His economic promises have also resonated with sections of people as well as his promotion of Islamic values, Turkish pride, and nationalism. Added to that has been the opposition’s poor communication skills, and Kilicdaroglu’s ability to win any elections save one, and lack of experience in governance, while the Kurdish vote considered the swing vote was negligible with low voter turn-out.
The eyes of the world will now be riveted on the upcoming 28 May elections. Observers believe it is highly unlikely that Kilicdaroglu will win the presidential race. If he did, there was a possibility of rapprochement with India. If Erdogan becomes President again, then his grip on Turkish polity and social life will tighten further, with Turkey pursuing the same policies it now is. That would also include the partnership with Pakistan, which is then bound to deepen. With Pakistanis also greatly rooting for Erdogan, India will be among those watching out for 28 May run-off polls.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)