The people of Turkey will vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14. Elections are usually about policies but in Turkey, they are more about personalities than policies. At the centre is Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has ruled Turkey for 21 years. Not surprisingly, the opposition is clamouring for change.
Erdogan enjoys the benefit of incumbency. During his 21 years in power, he has built a strong constituency for his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) or Justice and Development Party. His power base is primarily rural although many of the rural dwellers have now moved into the cities. In recent years, the Turkish economy has suffered badly and food prices have risen sharply amid a steep decline in the value of the Turkish lira. There are both internal and external factors for these developments.
First, however, let us look at the various contenders for power. Instead of individual parties contesting polls, there are alliances that have emerged in recent years. There are three major alliances in Turkey today. The ruling People’s Alliance of which the AKP is the principal component, faces a strong challenge from the pro-west opposition Nation’s Alliance. The latter is led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) whose head Kemal Kilicdaroglu is considered a strong contender for presidency against Erdogan.
There is also a third alliance, the Labour and Freedom Alliance, led by the Green Left Party (Yeşil Sol Parti – YSP). Polls show that it might garner about 10-12 percent of the vote and could tilt the balance in favour of the opposition Nation’s Alliance in a tight race.
Before highlighting the issues that dominate this election, let us first consider the Turkish electorate. There are 64.1 million registered voters in Turkey. Of these, 3.4 million, accounting for more than five percent of the total, live outside the country, mainly in Germany. They are eligible to vote. In fact, they have already started to cast ballot two weeks before polling starts in Turkey. Polling stations have been set up in 73 countries. This includes 15 new countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan added to the list for this election.
With polls showing Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu running virtually neck-and-neck, the overseas vote may prove crucial. It is interesting to note that in Turkey, the voter turnout is around 85 percent. Compare this to the west’s self-described democracies where a 50-60 percent turnout is considered very high.
Turnout among Turks living abroad usually hovers around 50 percent. The limited number of polling stations and people having to take time off work to cast ballot act as impediments. In Germany, for instance, where more than half the overseas Turks reside, only 16 polling stations were allowed by German authorities despite the Turkish government requesting 26 stations, all of them in their embassy and consulates.
For Erdogan, the overseas vote is crucial. In 2018, he garnered 60 percent of their vote. His supporters hope for the same result or higher because they say, he is the only candidate who has the ability to solve Turkey’s problems. His opponents hold a different view. They believe the electorate has soured on Erdogan who has been in power for 21 years and his policies have caused many problems so they want change.
If no candidate wins 50.1 percent of the vote in the May 14 presidential election, there will be a runoff in two weeks’ time. The opposition seems confident that it will garner more than 50.3 percent of the vote in the second round since there is only one opposition candidate for presidency: Kilicdaroglu. The third alliance, the Labour and Freedom Alliance, did not put up a candidate for presidency thereby boosting Kilicdaroglu’s chances.
In every country, the economic situation, inflation, and unemployment play a major role in shaping people’s perception of a candidate or party. When the AKP first came to power, it empowered the downtrodden and boosted the country’s economy. In recent years, however, the economy has tanked. Further blows were delivered by the February 6 earthquake that devastated hundreds of towns and villages. An estimated 58,000 people perished.
The World Bank estimate put Turkey’s losses at $34 billion but the Wall Street Journal said actual losses were $84 billion. Even with the lower figure of $34 billion, it was a major blow to the Turkish economy that had already been battered by high inflation and unemployment.
In a cynical move, the opposition parties launched a campaign to drive the estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees out of the country calling them a major drain on the economy. True, looking after the refugees cost Turkey $5.59 billion in 2022. This accounted for 0.86 percent of its GDP, which makes it a world leader, according to a report by Development Initiatives.
In order to undercut the opposition’s anti-refugee campaign, Erdogan supporters unleashed far-right parties, like the Zafer (Victory) party, to run campaigns raising funds for bus tickets to deport Syrians. Victory Party leader Ümit Özdağ even tried to channel public anger toward Syrian refugees accusing them of ‘looting’ in areas affected by the earthquake. This is a cynical policy and does Erdogan no good.
The Syrian refugee problem is the direct result of Erdogan’s faulty policy on Syria. He jumped on the west-Arab bandwagon to oust Bashar al-Asad from power. It has turned out to be a disaster. Erdogan is now trying to extricate himself from the Syrian fiasco with Russian help but Asad is standing firm on his demand that Turkish troops must first pull out of Syria before he would agree to meet Erdogan. The Turkish president only has himself to blame for this disaster.
When it comes to the question of Palestine/Israel, there is little to differentiate between Erdogan and his opponents. While the Turkish president espouses pro-Palestinian slogans, he continues to cultivate close links with the zionist occupiers. Kilicdaroglu is even more pro-Israel, and indeed pro-US. This is where he differs in a significant way from Erdogan who has tried to present himself as a true Turkish nationalist standing up for its rights.
Erdogan is also playing up the narrative of the “Century of Turkey” as a major campaign slogan. His campaign emphasizes technological achievements such as Turkey’s first amphibious assault ship, TCG Anadolu, “as the world’s first armed unmanned aircraft carrier,” the country’s “first domestically produced electric car” TOGG and of course the Beyrakdar drone.
Will these be enough to return Erdogan to power? He has shown signs of failing health in recent days that might convince enough people to say it is time to retire him so that he can recuperate. May 14 will provide the answer.