The Turkish Presidential Election: Erdogan’s Toughest Test Yet

The Turkish presidential election on May 14 has become one of the most pivotal moments in Turkey’s modern history, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing his toughest test yet.[0] Erdogan, who has been in power for two decades, has dominated Turkish politics and played a key role on the world stage, but his grip on power has weakened the country’s democracy, with allegations of authoritarianism and a slide towards fundamentalism. His main challenger is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has campaigned on a pledge to reverse years of authoritarianism and bring back the rule of law.[1] Kilicdaroglu has a narrow lead in the polls and is backed by six opposition parties in the Nation Alliance.

While Erdogan has commanded a loyal base of supporters, including Muslim conservatives whose rights and place in public life he has championed, his failure to solve Turkey’s economic woes, including skyrocketing inflation, and his steady accumulation of power over virtually all the levers of state, have put off some of his supporters. During his rallies, he incites his audience with harsh language directed towards his political adversaries, denounces individuals who identify as LGBTQ and those belonging to minority groups, and attributes the nation's problems to suspicious external forces that he alleges are manipulating the value of the lira on international currency exchanges.[2] The communication has been tailored to attract his core supporters, who are long-excluded Turks residing in impoverished urban areas and traditional rural communities.[2]

If Kilicdaroglu can beat Erdogan by double-digit figures, his victory would be difficult to dispute.[2] But if he wins by a slim margin, Erdogan is almost certain to contest the result.[3] According to certain analysts, in the event of Erdogan's narrow defeat in the vote, there is a chance for him to challenge the outcome. Erdogan has changed electoral boundaries and tinkered with candidacy rules to the disadvantage of the smaller parties in the opposition coalition, and during a 2017 constitutional referendum, the Turkish electoral board changed the rules as votes were being counted so that unstamped (and therefore unverified) ballots could be counted.[2]

The election will be free, but not likely fair, with much electoral logrolling and manipulation of politics at the local level that could play to Erdogan’s advantage. Furthermore, it would bestow additional authority upon the electoral commission of the nation.[4] This is happening as concerns arise that Erdogan may possess sufficient authority, either through his government position or his supporters in public, to disregard any election results that do not favor him.

Kilicdaroglu’s campaign indicates he would try to smooth things over.[4] In the event of his victory, he asserts that he will strive to enhance Turkey's political, economic, and cultural ties with the West, and endeavor to renew the efforts to become a member of the European Union which had lost momentum during Erdogan's rule.[4] He would be required to provide assurance to global leaders who are worried about Turkey's transition from democratic to authoritarian rule.[4]

Should Erdogan lose this election, lots of Turks and most Western governments will be delighted. But most Turks also harbor deep suspicions of Western political intentions towards Turkey.[5] It would be erroneous to assume that a change in leadership will significantly alter Turkey's geopolitical direction in the long run, as this would indicate a lack of understanding regarding the swift redistribution of power in the Eurasian region on a global scale.[5] Under Erdogan, Turkey has proven to be a valuable ally to the West.[6] Ankara played a crucial role last year in facilitating a significant transaction between Ukraine and Russia for the export of grains. Additionally, Ankara supplied Ukraine with drones that were instrumental in deterring and responding to Russian assaults.[6]

The race is being closely watched around the world, with Erdogan’s fate potentially determined by Turkey's Kurds.[7] Erdogan's biggest contender lies in Kilicdaroglu, who pledged to reinstate orthodox economic policies and cool Turkey's sky-high inflation rate.[3]

0. “Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu square up for likely 2nd-round clash in Turkey” POLITICO Europe, 14 May. 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/turkish-election-turkey-istanbul-ankara-erdogan-vote-count-high/

1. “Turkey's Crucial Election Is Coming. Here's What to Know” TIME, 11 May. 2023, https://time.com/6279098/turkey-election-2023

2. “Turkey's Election Is Its Last Best Chance to Avoid Dictatorship” The Atlantic, 13 May. 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/05/turkey-erdogan-presidential-election-earthquake/674042/

3. “As Turkey heads to the polls, currency traders are bracing for absolute chaos” CNBC, 12 May. 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/05/12/turkish-lira-currency-traders-bracing-for-erdogan-election-chaos.html

4. “Turkey's president has built vast power over 20 years. But he may lose on Sunday” NPR, 12 May. 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/05/12/1175250666/turkey-elections-erdogan-kilicdaroglu

5. “Turkey's elections: What’s at stake?” Responsible Statecraft, 13 May. 2023, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2023/05/13/turkeys-elections-whats-at-stake/

6. “Turkey’s upcoming elections could unseat Erdogan. Here’s everything you need to know” CNN, 12 May. 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/12/middleeast/turkey-general-election-explainer-mime-intl/index.html

7. “Erdoğan’s grip on power tested as Turkey votes in pivotal election” The Guardian, 14 May. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/14/erdogans-grip-on-power-tested-as-turkey-goes-to-the-polls