Why could the 2023 Turkish election be Erdogan’s breakdown?

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By Francesco De Fazio

Today, Turkish people will choose their new President. Two are the contestants: Erdogan, who’s been in power since 2003 and Kemal Kilicdarouglu, backed by a broad coalition, the ‘Table of Six’. Many scholars claim this could be the country’s last chance to avoid a so-called ‘Putinisation’ that already started with Erdogan’s illiberal policies. Despite his long hegemony, the President may lose this election due to the hard times Turkey is now facing under his rule: the earthquake that in February devastated a wide area of the country and inflation galloping to dizzying figures: will this be Erdogan’s downfall?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: who’s the longest-serving leader of Turkey?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s been Turkish Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014 and then President since 2014, is the longest-serving leader of the country. He founded his own party in 2001, named “AK”, in English “Justice and development Party”, creating a space for many Turkish center-right politicians by underlying the importance of a more Western and, economically speaking, liberal vision of the country. The President is a great orator and a convincing politician. After serving as Mayor of Istanbul, he presented himself back in 2003 as an underdog, an alternative to the Turkish establishment.

In his first years in office, the Turkish economy was growing: Erdogan liberalized the labor market, invested in modern infrastructures and projects which brought to the country the attention of many international investors and capitals and gave the chance to many Turkish people to overcome poverty entering the middle class. In addition to that, he promised to handle the Kurdish situation more democratically than other heads of State had previously done. Moreover, he welcomed 3.7 million Syrian refugees and started to negotiate agreements to join the EU.

This promising start took an unexpected turn after Erdoganbecame President in 2014. Indeed, claiming it was necessary to guarantee political stability, he promoted an institutional reform which centralized the power of the government in his hands. Furthermore, he assured himself control over previously independent Turkish institutions such as the Central Bank and the judiciary. At the same time, press freedom was limited and the access to many websites and social networks, among others Wikipedia and Twitter, was blocked. Analysts worldwide grew worried about the conditions of Turkish democracy and the country’s chance to join the European Union.

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How are the opposition and its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu trying to regain power?

Now, Kemal Kilicdaroglu is Erdogan’s contender at the ballot that will take place on May 28th. He is the leader of the biggest center-left party in Turkey. He is described as the very opposite of Erdogan: a bureaucrat who worked many years in the Ministery of Finance and is not a compelling politician. The journalists have been indeed divided on the effectiveness of the opposition’s choice to nominate him: many claim his calmness may reassure the Turkish moderate voters, while others believe he is not the radical anti-Erdogan nominee Turkish people were looking for. Indeed, He was defeated by Erdogan in the 2011 general election. However, this year he is backed by a broader coalition, called by the press ‘Table of Six’, since it is consisting of six different parties.

Many claim that in case of victory this coalition would have a very hard time forming a government due to their very different positions: the second strongest party, in English ‘The Good Party’, has populist and nationalist views, very far from Kilicdarouglu’s positions.

In addition to that, the HDP, the Kurdish left-wing party, announced that they would not present any candidate for the presidential election: although not being part of the coalition, this has been a clear sign of solidarity to Kilicdaroglu’s nominee. This led to tensions in ‘The Good party’ since now they fear a post-election opening to the progressivist Kurdish left they have always criticized.

However, despite the differences, the coalition became a symbol for Turkish democracy: they are promising to return to a parliamentary system which guarantees representation and the independence of Turkish institutions. Moreover, they plan to follow an orthodox monetary policy to reassure investors and to lower inflation, so as to save the country from a possible default. 

The 2023 Presidential elections: why is Erdogan’s re-election at stake?

There are many reasons why Erdogan’s established dominance may come to an end.

The first major problem the country is still facing is the reconstruction of the areas hit by the massive earthquake this February. Official data report that there have been almost sixty-thousand deaths, and many opposition leaders are accusing the Turkish government of not having been able to rapidly provide first aid and assistance. Moreover, it has been contested that building security rules have not been followed throughout the President’s years in office. Despite that, the affected area, located in the South-East of the country, has always been an Erdogan’s electoral stronghold, and polls did not register any remarkable drop in consensus.

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Another huge issue Erdogan is facing is the Turkish economy. Since the institutional reform passed in 2014, the Turkish Central Bank ceased to be an independent authority as it conventionally is in stable democracies, and over the years Erdogan fired three central bankers.  

As previously mentioned, the Turkish economy was thriving in the first years of Erdogan’s rule. This was due to the many investments financed through public debt.

However, this policy was not sustainable in the long run: in 2018 the value of the Turkish lira dropped and a big crisis began, the GDP fell by 16%. The only effective monetary policy in this case would have been to raise interest rates to control inflation, but Erdogan refused to do so since raising interest rates would have meant slowing down the economic growth, therefore resulting in a not politically efficient move.

Due to this decision, inflation has kept getting higher and currently Turkish families are facing a halving of their purchasing power, as inflation is skyrocketing to 80%, according to Turkish official reports.

In spite of everything, Erdogan is not out of the loop yet. During these last months, the President decided to increase minimum wages and civil servant’s salaries, while remarking his massive investments in the defense and security sector. Moreover, he stressed the importance fo the country to have a strong and authoritative Muslim President. Because of these electoral moves, during the campaign he gathered in one of his rally in Istanbul over 1.7 million people and managed a few days after, on May 15th, to reach 49.24% of the votes in the first round of the elections.

Will Erdogan’s islamic-nationalism and populism prevail over the desperate Kilicdarouglu’s attempt to save the Turkish democracy?

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Author profile

BOSDIC, Bocconi Students for Diplomacy and International Cooperation, is a student-led association which aims at creating a tight network between the students interested in the fields of diplomacy, international cooperation and humanitarian aid. It also provides a forum for discussion for the members over geopolitical issues.

Moreover, it offers to its members and, more in general, to the students of the University the opportunity to directly interact with experts on the subjects by organizing meetings and conferences with professionals operating in these fields.

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