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The Portrait of Turkish Politics: Two Decades of a “One-Man-Show” and a Prospect of Hope 

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For the past two decades, Turkey has faced a “one-man rule” of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With consistent use of political violence, corruption, and legal manipulation, he has built an empire that intimidates the opposition and helps him preserve the presidential rule for years to come. But in just a couple of months, Turkey will be holding its general election. Following years of economic despair and refugee crises, the country’s opposition has united to fight Erdogan and the ruling AKP party in order to transform the state once and for all. But in a system that’s been riddled with corruption and lies, is it really possible? 

Defining history: Turkey’s political system and Erdogan’s rise to power 

The Turkish form of government is based on a constitutional republic and a presidential system. Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a name known to many – is the current president of Turkey. From 2003 up until 2014 he served as the prime minister of the country. For 11 years, Erdogan led the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – by the end of his third term as a prime minister, accusations of his growing authoritarianism started to mount. However, despite large demonstrations against his rule, he dismissed the protesters as vandals and decided to run for the presidential elections of 2014. 

The 2014 presidential elections marked an important milestone in Turkey’s political history. This was the first time that the president of the nation was elected directly by the people as opposed to being elected by the parliament. Erdogan won 51,79% of the votes – a victory that marked his greed for power and a never-ending fight for becoming a president for life.[1] In 2017, a constitutional change abolished the post of prime minister, giving Erdogan even more powers.  The amendment enabled him to issue decrees with the force of law, appoint senior judges, unelected vice-presidents, and the cabinet without almost any parliamentary approval.[2]

After this major constitutional change was implemented, Erdogan took over the leadership of the AKP. The party’s power in the parliament has been changing throughout the years, but its strength and power are undeniable. In November 2015, AKP won back its parliamentary majority despite failing to win it in the 2015 June elections. Suspiciously, the party received an additional 4.5 million votes compared to the June elections.[3] According to OSCE, the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization, the opponents’ ability to campaign successfully had been restricted by increased violence and intimidation.[4] Another contributing factor was the massive wave of terrorist attacks in Turkey. Between June and November, several suicide bombings and incidents of state violence took life of more than a 100 people, decreasing support for the opposition (e.g.: the Kurdish party, HDP) and sparking higher support for Erdogan and the AKP.[5][6] After winning the 2015 November election, the AKP proceeded to dominate the 2018 elections while throughout these years Erdogan has also managed to remain in power.

A worsening political climate for Erdogan

In light of this, it seems that the AKP and Erdogan are consistently helping each other out by fueling support for one another and helping each other stay in power. The 2023 general election was scheduled a month earlier than planned and clearly, with a reason: the opposition parties are still looking for strong candidates who could stand against Erdogan.[7] In spite of this, it could be one of the most challenging elections that the incumbent has ever faced. The Turkish economy is suffering from a collapsing lira and soaring inflation. In 2022, the local currency lost almost a quarter of its value putting the Turkish population in an appalling situation as millions struggle to cover the most basic expenses.[8] The consistently worsening Syrian refugee crisis is also fueling anger within the country, causing the electorate to become more and more upset with the government in power. Most importantly, the horrendous earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria in February has also sparked mass anger.

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The earthquake has already taken 41,000 lives but its death toll is expected to mount as special forces continue their rescue missions.[9] Erdogan has large support bases in the affected areas but the cost of relief efforts and reconstruction will cost the government a lot of money.[10] Despite the government’s successes in helping people during previous natural disasters as such, the Turkish electorate is left to question whether it has done enough to save lives. The local and central governments had been warned about the potential large-scale earthquake but no prevention measures had been taken.[11] This, together with the fact that 3 months before the election thousands of voters are displaced, could seriously damage Erdogan’s as well as the AKP’s positions. And rightfully so. The government has been accused of corruption as it cannot explain where the tax revenues collected after the 1999 earthquake are and why they weren’t invested in making buildings more resistant as was planned. Simultaneously, arresting individuals responsible for the collapse of buildings can only go so far – the government itself failed to enforce regulations that would oblige property owners to build strong foundations for the housing units.[12] In light of this mass tragedy that has left thousands of families in shambles, the government itself can be considered guilty and must bear responsibility for its (in)actions.

A violent battle with the opposition

Erdogan’s government is known for not tolerating political opposition and issuing arrests against anyone who comes its way. Following the 2016 coup attempt during which a faction of the Turkish military tried to overthrow Erdogan, the regime has intensified its political repression. During this bloody event, 251 individuals were killed and more than 2,200 were injured. The government tightened its grip on Turkey by sentencing more than 3,000 individuals to life in prison, convicting over 35,000 people for relations with the Gulen movement that is believed to have plotted the coup, and expelling 24,000 individuals from the military.[13] It soon became clear that Erdogan would do anything to stay in power and his violent approach to politics has continued to this day.

With the elections just around the corner, Erdogan seems to be ready to use all measures possible to shut down the opposition. Recently, his main challenger – Ekrem Imamoglu – was sentenced to two years in prison on the charge of insulting public officials. The leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – Selahattin Demirtas – has been imprisoned since 2016. Ever since the coup, Erdogan has been mastering political purges by getting rid of thousands of civil servants and keeping only the loyalists.[14] Under his rule, the prison populations have been exploding leading to completely overcrowded institutions. In 2022, the number of inmates reached record numbers – 314,502 individuals in only 384 facilities.[15] But for Turkey’s autocrat this does not matter – the political climate has turned into a one-man show where criticism is not tolerated.

The prospects of the upcoming election

Considering the level of political repression, this election will not be easy for the opposition parties. However, the recent changes in Turkish election law which allow the parties to form political alliances in order to compete in the parliamentary election might come to the benefit of the opposition. The AKP has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The opposition parties have formed an alliance between the Republic People’s Party (CHP), the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), the Democrat Party, the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), the Future Party (GP), and the Good Party (İYİParty). Apart from these two alliances, the pro-Kurdish HDP will be running alone.[16] The opposition alliance, also known as the Table of Six, seeks to defeat Erdogan in the upcoming election, reduce the presidential powers, and increase the role of the parliament.[17]

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It seems as though this electoral reform was passed in the hope to crush opposition by making it weaker than the People’s Alliance between AKP and MHP. However, Erdogan might have overestimated his strength. Erdogan’s political strategy was based on the idea that given the ideological differences, the opposition parties would not be able to form an effective alliance. But despite these disparities the Table of Six is working together to bring Erdogan down – the CHP has helped the İYİParty to fulfill all the legal requirements to be able to run in the election. Simultaneously, all opposition parties are cooperating to bring the parliamentary system back.[18] Thus, despite the president’s expectations and strategies, the tables have turned not in his favor.

As mentioned before, Turkey faces a continuously worsening economic situation which, combined with the recent tragedy that destroyed thousands of lives, has taken a major toll on the population. Despite this, there are plenty of factors driving the support for Erdogan and the AKP. Some voters are alienated by the ideological differences and disagreements within the coalition alliance. The recent early retirement regulations and increases in minimum wage seem to have gathered more support for the incumbent party as well.[19] There generally seems to be a belief that the current government is capable of dealing with the economic problems plaguing the country, despite these issues persisting for years.

In spite of this, some AKP supporters are considering switching sides having witnessed the government’s inability to solve the persistent problems. Generally, the electorate seems to be very polarized. The AKP appears to be the most popular party on an individual level, holding 28% of the total support. However, the Table of Six alliance is 4 points ahead of the People’s alliance, claiming 36% of the popular support. This, together with the fact that 59% of the Turkish population believes that “things in Turkey are headed in the wrong direction”, gives hope that the AKP and its alliance may not be the ones controlling the parliament in the upcoming years.[20]

Despite the authoritarian tendencies, elections in Turkey can still be considered free to some extent, especially when we consider the fact that back in 2019 the AKP lost in local elections around the country. This means that there is still hope for the Table of Six to win this election. Another important factor is the date of the elections. Originally, these were supposed to take place on June 18 but Erdogan had made a proposal on holding the elections earlier, on May 14. Now, following the recent earthquake tragedy, there are talks about keeping the original date.[21] Such a change is important, as it would give more time for the opposition to strengthen its campaign and better prepare for the day of judgment. However, as of now, the date remains unclear.

After two decades of control, Erdogan has reached a point where his and the AKP’s power will be contested by an opposition that has united for a single goal – to overthrow him and his regime. In light of his previous supporters – GP and DEVA – splitting and joining the opposition, the Turkish dictator might have just reached the end of his era. While support for the incumbent regime remains high, the worsening economic climate and recent tragic events might make the current supporters think twice and switch sides. In a regime that has turned a president into an autocrat and has consistently oppressed the opposition, the incumbents’ victory is always possible. But despite all this one thing is for certain – there is still hope for Turkey to break off from its AKP chains and build a new regime that is ruled by those who had been shunned for decades.

[1] Shaheen, Kareem. “Turkey Elections Q&A: Was the Vote Free and Fair?” The Guardian, 25 June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/25/turkey-elections-result-erdogan-amnesty-was-vote-free-and-fair.


[3]Deliveli, Emre. “Was the Turkish Election Rigged?” The Independent, 6 Nov. 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/was-the-turkish-election-rigged-a6724226.html.

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[4] “Turkey Election: OSCE Says “Serious Concerns” over Vote.” BBC News, 2 Nov. 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34704834.

[5] Crisis Group. “A Timeline of ISIS Attacks in Turkey and Corresponding Court Cases.” Crisis Group, 29 June 2020, http://www.crisisgroup.org/timeline-isis-attacks-turkey-and-corresponding-court-cases.

[6] Tombus, Ertug. “The Tragedy of the 2015 Turkish Elections.” Public Seminar, 10 Nov. 2015, publicseminar.org/2015/11/the-tragedy-of-the-2015-turkish-elections/. 

[7]News Wires. “Turkey to Hold General Election on May 14, One Month Earlier than Planned.” France 24, 22 Jan. 2023, http://www.france24.com/en/europe/20230122-turkey-to-hold-general-election-on-may-14-one-month-earlier-than-planned.

[8]Strohecker, Karin. “Turkey Caught in a Spiral of Lira Crises.” Reuters, 10 June 2022, http://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/turkey-caught-spiral-lira-crises-2022-06-10/.

[9] VOA News. “Death Toll in Turkey and Syria from Earthquake Tops 41,000.” VOA, 15 Feb. 2023, http://www.voanews.com/a/death-toll-in-turkey-and-syria-from-february-6-earthquake-rises-above-40-000/6963726.html.

[10] Ant, Onur. “Turkish Quakes Complicate Road to Elections.” Bloomberg.com, 8 Feb. 2023, http://www.google.com/url?q=www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2023-02-08/turkish-quakes-complicate-road-to-elections&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1676751760541580&usg=AOvVaw21_5XcbgaWW6mEmkabqddl.

[11]Ozdemir, Ozge, and Paul Kirby. “Turkey Earthquake Failures Leave Erdogan Looking Vulnerable.” BBC News, 11 Feb. 2023, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64594349.

[12]Hemming, Jon. ““Rotten Buildings”: Corruption in Spotlight after Turkey Quake | Context.” http://Www.context.news, 13 Feb. 2023, http://www.context.news/money-power-people/rotten-buildings-corruption-in-spotlight-after-turkey-quake.

[13]Ibrahim, Arwa. “What Was Turkey’s Failed Coup about – and What’s Happened Since?” http://Www.aljazeera.com, 15 July 2022, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/15/turkeys-failed-coup-attempt-explainer.

[14]Murtaza Hussain, and A. “Turkey’s next Elections Could Be the Country’s Last Real Democratic Vote.” The Intercept, 23 Jan. 2023, theintercept.com/2023/01/22/turkey-election-erdogan/.

[15]Ahval. “Prisons Population at Highest in Turkey’s History.” Ahval, 10 Apr. 2022, ahvalnews.com/turkey-prisons/prisons-population-highest-turkeys-history.

[16]Ünlühisarcıklı, Ozgur. “Upcoming Elections in Turkey: Unfair but Real and Competitive.” GMFUS, http://www.gmfus.org/news/upcoming-elections-turkey-unfair-real-and-competitive.

[17]DW. “Turkey’s Opposition Unveils Plans to Defeat Erdogan – DW – 01/30/2023.” Dw.com, 30 Jan. 2023, http://www.dw.com/en/turkeys-opposition-unveils-plans-to-defeat-erdogan/a-64560720.

[18]Ünlühisarcıklı, Ozgur. “Upcoming Elections in Turkey: Unfair but Real and Competitive.” GMFUS, http://www.gmfus.org/news/upcoming-elections-turkey-unfair-real-and-competitive.

[19]Yalçın, Zübeyde. “President Erdoğan, AK Party Enjoy Vote Boost ahead of Turkish Polls.” Daily Sabah, 20 Jan. 2023, http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/elections/president-erdogan-ak-party-enjoy-vote-boost-ahead-of-turkish-polls.

[20]Al-Monitor. “Al-Monitor/Premise Poll Finds Tight Race for Erdogan in Turkey’s Elections – Al-Monitor: Independent, Trusted Coverage of the Middle East.” http://Www.al-Monitor.com, 7 Dec. 2022, http://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/12/al-monitorpremise-poll-finds-tight-race-erdogan-turkeys-elections.

[21]Coskun, Orhan, and Daren Butler. “Explainer: How the Earthquake Threw Turkey’s Election Plan into Turmoil.” Reuters, 14 Feb. 2023, http://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/how-earthquake-threw-turkeys-election-plan-into-turmoil-2023-02-14/.

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Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history, and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments, analysing global developments, and investigating a variety of topics through writing.

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