Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to consolidate his regime by jockeying a third term at the helm of the country. The general elections this spring will take place amidst a severe economic crisis. To increase their odds, the Islamists have resorted to electoral handouts and sabotaging the opposition. The elections take place in a very special year: 2023 marks a century since Mustaka Kemal Atatürk proclaimed the republic, a republic which today is facing a full-blown crisis and is drifting further away from the vision of its founder.
The centenary of the Turkish secular republic, marked by the Islamist grip on power and Turkey’s slide deeper into authoritarianism
On October 29, Turkey celebrates a century since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic. However, the centenary anniversary comes at a moment when Turkey is drifting further away from Atatürk’s vision of a secular parliamentary republic. The slide into authoritarianism, particularly after the failed coup of July 2016, peaked with the April 2017 referendum, whereby the presidential system was adopted. Officially established in January 2018, the system provided the president of the Republic with virtually limitless prerogatives, unchecked by any state institution. In practice, the new system created multiple disturbances and led to countless violations of the fundamental principles of any democracy, albeit illiberal. And recent academic research has found it hard to prove that Turkey can still be called “an electoral democracy”.
The latest sign of Turkey’s transition to authoritarianism came on January 18, when president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly announced that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held jointly on May 14, although such a decision is not the remit of the president. And that’s merely the half of it: Erdoğan will be seeking a third term as president, although the Constitution stipulates a person can only serve for two five-year mandates at the helm of the republic. The solution Erdoğan’s acolytes have found to fool the system (one which however falls well outside the letter of the law) is to organize snap elections. This is how Erdoğan would justify winning a third mandate, claiming he did not bring his second mandate to its term.
Although there are sound arguments against Erdoğan seeking a third presidential mandate, history suggests Ankara will disregard them. After all, the Constitution also states that the country’s president – and by extension all candidates running for the office of president – must have higher studies, although Erdoğan’s staff were not able to prove to this day beyond a reasonable doubt that the Turkish strongman graduated college. A public debate on the authenticity of his bachelor’s degree remains unsolved ever since Erdoğan was first elected as president of Turkey in 2014.
May 14 was chosen as the date for the elections for two reasons, one that has to do with logistics, the other being symbolic. First of all, elections were normally slated for June, which will see a Muslim religious holiday, followed by the school break. Therefore, this would impact the turnout for the second round of presidential elections. May 14 also has a certain symbolic meaning, as it is the day when the first multi-party election was held in Turkey in 1950, marking the end of the era of the single party (1923-1950). The winner of the election back then, with over 50% of the vote, was a conservative party led by a charismatic leader, Adnan Menderes, whom Erdoğan took as his role model. Years later, Turkey saw its first military coup, an extreme solution to what the army saw as corruption and policies at odds with the secular state during Menderes’s conservative administration. The Turkish leader would be tried and hanged alongside his foreign and finance ministers.
With its approval rating on the wane due to the economic crisis, the Erdoğan regime relies on electoral handouts and sabotaging the opposition
Beyond the purely political reasons behind the decision to organize the elections one month ahead of schedule, the ruling coalition is also considering the negative evolution of the economy and hopes to win the elections before the situation further deteriorates. Consumer price inflation will probably increase again and even exceed the 80% mark, after a relative drop to 65% in December, according to data published by the National Statistics Institute, TÜRKSTAT. However, the estimates of an independent academic group, ENAG, show that real inflation is actually much higher than the official figures for both months. What is certain is that living standards have dropped significantly in the last five years. Foreign investment has also shrunk due to several factors, one of them being soaring inflation, but also due to the government’s economic policies and the unprecedented degradation of the quality of justice and the human rights context in Turkey. Despite reporting an upward trend, exports have failed to offset the rampant growth of imports the industry and agriculture sorely need. We should also factor in the developments in Europe, which is the top destination of Turkish exports and where growing inflation is doubled by the relative drop in demand for certain products and by shrinking markets, as well as by some problems generated by the war in Ukraine. Turkey’s economy and living standards are plummeting, and this is also transparent in opinion polls, where the AKP-MHP ruling coalition and the president himself have been bleeding votes to their opposition rivals for the last couple of years.
In this broader context, Ankara was quick to come up with popularity-boosting measures. It increased the minimum wage and pensions twice and even dropped the retirement age requirement, allowing over 2 million people who entered the labor market prior to 1999 to retire early. The government also introduced various state-subsidized schemes for underprivileged categories, which now include tax breaks that allowed people to take out cheaper loans, as well as plans to restructure public debt. Such populist measures, which are sure to impact the state budget the country’s long-term development, have produced little change in opinion polls, where the ruling coalition is still slightly behind the opposition. Nevertheless, under Erdoğan’s iron-fisted rule, AKP has managed to stay at the top of the party standings, which evaluates parties’ individual performance, outside political coalitions. And the president remains the number one option as long as possible contenders with real chances of defeating him – the Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, or the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaș – have not officially announced their candidacies. Furthermore, Imamoğlu, who is commonly considered Erdoğan’s most serious challenger, is currently plagued by court trials, and his presidential candidacy might be withdrawn if the court passes a final ruling before the May elections.
Another major blow dealt to the opposition would be to ban the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition party. Accused of collaborating with the PKK terrorist organization while many of its leaders and members are already in prison and the party’s funds were frozen under a Constitutional Court ruling passed on January 5, 2023, HDP will be brought to court on March 14. In the case of an unfavorable ruling, the party might be outlawed by the authorities just two months before the election. Such an outcome might however be fatal for the power itself and president Erdoğan. The Kurds and the Alevi religious sects, both oppressed for generations by the Turkish authorities, have a large share of the population, accounting for some 15-20 million out of the total of 50 million voters. And, as local elections have shown, particularly the 2019 ballot in Istanbul, the Kurds can defeat any candidate backed by the current regime and the president himself.
The Erdoğan regime seems to have chosen autocracy to the detriment of democracy. Will Turkish society validate this option?
The aforementioned elements will mark the context and the internal developments in Turkey in 2023, with possible serious consequences for the entire region. Turning to populist nationalism, for lack of other achievements, Erdoğan and his staff have significantly contributed to the exacerbation of certain domestic issues and have destabilized the region. Turkish troops continue to occupy large parts of Syria and Iraq, the official reason being a response to the Kurdish militias on the ground. Beyond the support provided to the Tripoli government, which currently enjoys regional support only from the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s agreements with Libya have turned the Eastern Mediterranean into a bone of contention with Egypt. This hampers European development projects as well as other regional actors, particularly in terms of energy transports to Europe. Additionally, Ankara remains hostile to Greece in the Aegean, as well as towards Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. As I have warned in previous articles for Veridica, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ankara’s trepidation about the possibility of losing the election might push the Erdoğan regime to radical gestures regarding the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Turkey’s attitude towards Russia and the Russian invasion in Ukraine has also prompted many speculations, many voices accusing Ankara of dealing in double standards. Few pundits, however, have noticed, for instance, the fact that the much-vaunted agreements allowing Ukraine to export its grain through the Bosphorus have actually ensured Russia’s control of any shipment coming through the Strait. Never in the last hundreds years has Russia exerted such influence in the Bosphorus. At the same time, Turkey continues to own S-400 Russian anti-air systems, at the cost of having been expelled from the US F-35 programme and other serious consequence that undermine the unity of the Western coalition against the Russian aggressor. Adding to that is Turkey’s growing reliance on natural gas and oil, as well as on technology for its nuclear power plants, all provided by Russia. Moscow and Ankara have also made headway in their joint projects of building large natural gas hubs on Turkey’s European territory. The completion of such a project could turn the entire region into an important hub that would undermine Western policies towards Russia as a provider of natural gas and might negatively impact Eastern Europe in particular.
Such details along with others paint the image of a Turkey at the very least oblivious to the top concerns of liberal democracies and their alliances right now. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the past of some of Ankara’s top leaders, in a system marked by deeply anti-Western education and political activism. And greater attention should also be given to aggressive, at times offensive statements of some Ankara officials about Europeans and North-Americans. Their commitment to this path is the very trump card they hope will win them the upcoming May elections. Many, if not the majority of Turkish voters, are susceptible to this strand of anti-Western national conservatism, because they have been exposed for generations to state-directed educational policies in this vein. “Erdoğan’s revolution” in this field starting 2012 has further radicalized the idea of a conflict between Turkish-Islamist values and the rest of the world, Europeans and Americans first and foremost.
We should also consider that, in the first half of 2023, elections will also be held in Greece, Cyprus, as well as in some states in the Western Balkans, where Turkey, Russia, China and some Western entities, including the European Union and the United States, are all competing for influence. Against this backdrop, also marked by the anti-Western war Moscow is fighting in Ukraine, the logic of conflict is not just terrifyingly vast in geographic terms, but also disarmingly simple. Deeply corrupt and irresponsible autocracies struggle to survive, sacrificing the liberties, prosperity and even the lives of their own citizens. In hot spots around the world, such as Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean or the Western Balkans, countries are forced to pick sides. In Turkey, the current regime has for many years been showing signs that it has already made its choice. The May elections will determine whether Turkish voters opt for the same camp or for a return to the path of Western-inspired democratization, a target now more distant than ever for the Turkish state.