As the Turkish republic marks its centenary this year, President Erdoğan completed his two decades at the helm of affairs. Last weekend, Türkiye’s voters re-elected incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in two rounds of elections for the third time as the president of Türkiye (also written as Turkey) against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate backed by the United Opposition Movement.
Erdoğan’s AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi translates as the Justice and Development Party) along with a coalition of other small parties known as the People’s Alliance, also won 266 in the parliament while Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s opposition coalition won 166 in the 600-seat parliament. The opposition leader alleged election rigging and the use of state machinery to change the outcomes of the elections. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu accused that the ruling government had mobilized all the means of the state against him and he did not explicitly admit defeat.
The day before the country headed for elections most of the opinion polls were putting Kemal in a more favourable position than Erdoğan. These polls had suggested that the six-party opposition led by the centre-left Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, from the Republican People’s Party, would be able to win a majority or, at the very least, enter the second round with an advantage over Erdoğan.
Many political analysts both in Türkiye and abroad, predicted the defeat and even rout of President Erdoğan and his party in this election. They had valid reasons to believe that. Erdoğan failed to improve the country's economic condition (especially high inflation) and the cost of living in the country grew over the years. The prolonged Syrian Refugee Crisis with no clear road map for its resolution also dented Erdoğan’s reputation in the region. The situation further deteriorated after the deadly earthquake in February 2023, which killed more than 50 thousand people. Government authorities were heavily criticized for their mismanagement during relief and rescue operations. All these led commentators to conclude that Erdoğan would find it difficult to win this time round.
In contrast, the opposition, composed of a coalition of six parties (National Alliance or Millet İttifakı) led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promised the people of restoring the parliamentary system, which was changed by Erdoğan in 2018, institutional independence and the rule of law. He also promised to improve Türkiye’s relations with the West and make Turkish foreign policy less personal. Many in Turkey believed that this new alliance would have a good prospect in the elections. However, as the final results would reveal, Erdoğan continues to hold majority support, although his support base might be shrinking.
Voting Patterns in the 2023 presidential elections
During the first round of voting on May 14, neither President Erdoğan nor his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu cleared the 50% threshold needed to avoid a second round. They both received 49.51 and 44.89 percent respectively of the total votes. Other presidential candidates Sinan Oğan and Muharrem Ince were able to fetch not more than 5.17 percent and 0.43 percent votes respectively.
2023 Turkish Presidential Election vote share by province.
Source/Courtesy: Haber Turk
During the second round of Elections, Oğan extended his support to Erdoğan. In the finally tally, Erdoğan managed to secure 52.18 percent, while his opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu received 47.82 percent of the total valid votes. Compared to the votes Erdoğan received in the 2018 elections this time his performance was certainly less assuring for him.
Although the percentage of total votes declined from 52.59 percent in 2018 to 52.18 percent in 2023, the vote shares in many provinces dropped drastically. The provinces that contain Ankara and Istanbul voted for the opposition. They had both voted for Erdoğan in the previous elections in 2018. As can be seen in the above map, the Central Provinces of Türkiye continued their allegiance to Erdoğan and overwhelmingly voted in his favour. The Kurdish population which mostly lives in the Southeastern provinces voted for Kılıçdaroğlu. The country’s coastal areas voted as usual in favour of the opposition.
Interestingly, during the recent election, the Diaspora Turkish community settled in many parts of the world, especially in Europe and North America also played a very active role and voted in large numbers. More than 5 million people of Turkish descent live in Europe. During this election, the Turkish Diaspora appeared sharply divided on its support for the candidates at home. The newly immigrated youths voted largely in favour of the opposition while the more established and older members of the Diaspora in Europe preferred incumbent President Erdoğan. As shown below, the map of the diaspora population in Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria suggests that they voted in favour of Erdoğan. These countries host some of the oldest Turkish diaspora communities. The red part in the map shows the support for the Opposition.
Overseas voting during the 2023 Election. Source/Courtesy: Anadolu Agency
What led to Erdoğan’s Victory?
After triumphing in a contentious election that tested his leadership, Türkiye's longest-serving leader secured yet another term as president and garnered support for his populist political style. However, the opposition coalition led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was seen to be putting up a very close fight. But still, many believe that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an Alevi minority Shia in a predominantly Sunni country, was not the right choice of candidate. Rather than him, the opposition should have gone for the high-profile Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, if it wanted to defeat Erdoğan.
Two decades ago, Erdoğan came to office, positioning himself as a champion of the marginalized, working-class individuals and religious conservatives who had felt neglected and oppressed by successive previous secular governments.
Erdoğan, after assuming office, made several laws to uplift the discriminatory laws, which marginalised the religious and conservative section of the society. He has still been seen as the liberator of the oppressed and the voice of the marginalised.
In contrast, the unconditional support to Kılıçdaroğlu by the West even though he was embracing a far-right position on refugees and immigrants, made him look like a puppet of the West. His anti-immigration rhetoric and slogans of sending Syrians back to Syria led to violence against the Syrian refugees in many cases. Erdoğan condemned his inflammatory rhetoric and promised to send refugees back to Syria after assuring their safety. This promise sounded more convincing and the Syrian refugees also looked at him more sympathetically.
The opposition-led alliance also had many structural and ideological problems. The coalition included conservative Islamists, Labour, Kemalists, and ultranationalist far right, to pro-Kurdish parties. They had no ideological proximity to each other. For example, Ümit Özdağ of the Victory Party’s endorsement of Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidature was not well-received among the Kurdish voters. This bouquet of ideologies made it difficult for the opposition to take a common position on any issue.
The issue of corruption and the failure of the government to deal with relief work after the earthquake was not raised by the opposition adequately during the campaign. The only factor the brought and kept the opposition together was their shared desire to defeat Erdoğan. However, internal differences among the coalition partners never allowed them to come up with a strong alternative to counter Erdoğan. Their electoral campaign centred around Erdoğan and did not focus on evolving an alternate narrative that would attract the people. It would not be wrong to say that it was not Erdoğan who won but it was the opposition which lost due to its poor electoral strategy and planning.
Turkish Economy under Erdoğan
During the past decade, Türkiye's economy has faced significant challenges, leading to a precarious situation for millions of Turks due to soaring inflation and a deteriorating currency. In September 2021, the exchange rate stood at 8 Turkish Lira per US dollar, but currently, it has crossed 20 Lira per dollar. Over the past two years, the value of the Lira has declined above 60 percent against the dollar. It is true that this descent is not something that started recently. The Turkish Lira has been depreciating for quite some time. For example, in 2014, the exchange rate was around 2 Lira per US dollar. But under Erdogan, because of his imprudent fiscal policies, the decline has been faster. For example, Erdoğan ordered the central bank to lower the interest rates, which he believed would boost economic growth and lower the inflation rate.
When the central Bank head Murat Centinkaya resisted his pressure to lower the interest rate, Erdoğan fired him from his post and appointed Murat Uysal. This tactic undermined investors’ confidence in the independence of the central bank, which caused the value of the Lira to fall further. While repeated drops in the Lira previously were a sign of investors’ faltering confidence in Türkiye’s economic course, the latest slump appears to be the result of the government’s decision to no longer defend the currency’s value by selling foreign exchange reserves. The recent currency exchange rate manipulation during the elections is a major concern, which could lead to further devaluation of the Turkish Lira. The only solution to the crisis is that the government should abandon its rigid attitude towards financial management. Erdoğan believes that the devaluation of the Turkish Lira acts as a means to boost Turkish exports, allowing importing countries to capitalize on the situation. In theory, this idea is right, but it also has its limits.
There is a view that the decision to raise interest rates to address inflation or to devaluate Turkish Lira to boost export should have been left to the central bank and its experts. The continued political experiments with economic matters under his watch could further worsen the situation in Turkey.
Erdoğan's reelection and Turkey’s foreign policy
The strategic location of Türkiye in the Middle East, as well as its membership to NATO, made this election crucial, especially for the West. Erdoğan's leadership has proven to be a source of concern for NATO, particularly concerning the conflict in Ukraine and the subsequent inclusion of countries like Sweden and Finland into the NATO alliance. The complex relationship between Russia and Türkiye has become a significant source of worry for Western nations. Erdoğan's reluctance to align with Western positions in the region and within the NATO alliance is worrisome.
During his tenure, much of Turkish foreign policy has become personally associated with him as he has proved to be a necessary, but problematic — and at times puzzling — partner of the West. On the Middle Eastern front, Erdoğan may have to embrace the reality of the changing landscape of the region. The absolute dominance of the United States in the region is diminishing with the rise of new regional and international players. The Iran-Saudi rapprochement and the readmission of Syria into the Arab fold are significant developments. Türkiye and Russia were in opposing camps in the Syrian conflict.
Now both Ankara and Moscow will have to work on a common ground for bringing about a mutual solution to the Syrian refugee crisis and the issue of Kurdish separatism. These two issues have a deep impact on Turkish security. Iranian support is also crucial in this direction. Erdoğan, during his recent election campaign, assured the Turkish people of taking significant steps in this direction. Türkiye has also taken steps towards improving its relations with Saudi Arabia (which had reached its zenith during the Jamal Khashoggi incident) and the United Arab Emirates (which accused Türkiye of supporting political Islam in the region).
Turkish Russian relationship can be described as an example of adversarial collaboration. Both Ankara and Moscow compete with each other in various theatres of wars like Syria, Nagorno Karabakh and Libya; at the same time, they coordinate and cooperate with each other at the expense of other external actors, including NATO partners and the USA. Erdoğan always flaunts his warm relations with Putin and Xi Jinping to Western countries. For this hyper flexibility in its foreign policy, Putin assured support for building a nuclear reactor in Akkuyu, Turkey.
Understanding Türkiye's priorities is crucial. For Ankara, Washington and Moscow are both significant international players and it wants to build relationship with both, may be in a de-hyphenated manner. The European countries do not have the same level of influence as they used to have in the past And their consistent opposition to Erdoğan and his style of politics and absolute support for the opposition candite may now have a significant impact on Erdoğan’s approach towards Europe. Whether the West ern countries like it or not, they have no other choice than embracing Erdoğan, as his victory in the recent elections would show.
As regards India, Türkiye's stance on Kashmir has come up as a rub in bilateral relations. Under Erdoğan, Türkiye has taken a very strong stance on Kashmir against India in the UN and international fora. Turkey joined Saudi Arabia and China in boycotting the Youth 20 meeting on climate change in May 2023. However, even as the relationship has been tense, trade between the two countries has picked up considerably with the balance favouring India. There is also a tacit understanding to take defence and security cooperation forward. While there may not be any change in Turkey’s policy on Kashmir, it is expected that bilateral economic relations may continue with its own pace and may moderate the existing differences two countries creating future opportunities for better understanding between them.
Afroz Khan is pursuing his Ph.D. in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is a Research Assistant in a Project at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.