Described as ‘2023’s most important election’ by Western media, the Turkish presidential election was also the most dramatic one. It was a battle between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s far-right President since 2014, and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the country’s primary opposition leader. Three days before the election, a candidate suddenly withdrew. Unlike what opinion polling suggested, Erdoğan won the first round of the election and neither candidate secured more than 50% of the vote. After intense arguments about ballot irregularities and the third-place candidate’s open endorsement of Erdoğan, the runoff election was held on 28 May. Erdoğan won with just 52% of the vote, successfully securing his two-decades-long grip on power.
It seems that there were a lot of dramatic ups and downs in Turkey last month — yet not much changed. So why was the Turkish presidential election so important?
This presidential election was crucial because it determined whether Turkey could escape authoritarianism. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been ruling Turkey since 2002. In 2016, the Turkish military launched a bloody coup which failed to unseat Erdoğan. The government subsequently declared a state of emergency, dismissing hundreds of thousands of civil servants, judges, and academics for alleged links to the coup. This signalled the democratic reversal to come.
Erdoğan started his violent onslaught on democracy after the coup. In 2017, he reformed the constitution, allowing himself to run for another presidential term and giving presidents the power to appoint a higher share of justices to Turkey’s courts. He further restricted freedom of speech by imprisoning journalists and social media users for spreading “disinformation”. Over 20 news websites have been blocked since 2016, and 40 journalists were imprisoned in 2022. Thus, Turkey’s placing in the World Press Freedom Index fell from 151 to 165 between 2016 and 2023.
Democracy and gender equality might not be everyone’s concern, but Erdoğan’s economic policies have spelled disaster for all Turkish citizens
Feminist and LGBTQ+ activists also fell victim to Erdoğan’s attacks on civil society. Gender inequality is severe under Turkish Islamic tradition. Nearly 400 women were murdered by men in 2022, but Erdoğan shows no interest in solving femicide. He has arrested many feminist activists and outlawed the annual Pride demonstration. In 2021, Turkey was the first Council of Europe member to quit the Istanbul Convention: the international treaty combating gender violence. This move marked Erdoğan’s denial of universal norms of human rights, even in the face of international pressure.
Democracy and gender equality might not be everyone’s concern, but Erdoğan’s economic policies have spelled disaster for all Turkish citizens. Accelerating economic growth by stimulating demand, Erdoğan has brought about devastating inflation and budget deficits. Inflation hit 105% this year, and shops stopped putting up price tags because prices would change from morning to afternoon. The Turkish currency devalued dramatically, and people found it more difficult to afford daily necessities.
The influx of Syrian refugees aggravated the economic crisis. Turkey is home to the largest number of refugees in the world. Hosting refugees is a strong bargaining chip for Turkey in its relationship with the European Union. To stop refugees entering Europe via Turkey, the EU gave Turkey €10 billion worth of assistance to host the refugees. Hence, Erdoğan continued to grant the refugees citizenship despite the vulnerable economy and growing public hostility towards the migrants.
The elections results look set to determine the development of Middle East politics and the Russian-Ukrainian war
Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the largest rival party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), gave hope to the Turkish people in light of an eroded democracy and economic crisis. He promised voters parliamentary democracy, judicial independence, and economic recovery. He also pledged to “send all Syrians back to their country within two years”. Many Turks envisioned a return to freedom if Kılıçdaroğlu won, and outright autocracy if Erdoğan succeeded.
The election not only changed the national development of Turkey, but also affected international politics. Erdoğan has aggressively expanded his military power in the Middle East in recent years. He has also been relatively pro-Russia and anti-West, purchasing Russian air defence systems and objecting to Sweden’s and Finland’s entry to NATO after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey has been a vital part of a broader global shift towards authoritarianism. The election results look set to determine the development of Middle East politics and the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Since Kılıçdaroğlu promised to save Turkey from the political and economic catastrophe, he was particularly popular in major cities like Ankara and Istanbul. His loss raises a question about authoritarianism — why do autocratic leaders like Erdoğan remain popular despite their failures of governance?
Erdoğan not only secured most of his votes from the conservative religious groups, but also successfully gained ground from the working class with his populist economic policies. Most ordinary citizens, especially the low-income group, do not understand complex financial dynamics, but they know whether the government is giving them money. Erdoğan used this to his advantage. For example, he announced a pay rise for public sector workers, launched a debt-relief program, and reduced the retirement age before the election. As a result, many voters from less prosperous cities backed Erdoğan. They believed that Erdoğan was a great leader who stood in solidarity with them and could make Turkey great again by refusing to align with the West.
More than 210,000 Syrians have been naturalised since 2011, so they became a strong force contributing to Erdoğan’s victory
Erdoğan’s populist approach also helped him defy the challenge brought about by the deadly earthquake in February. The affected population was furious about the government’s slow response, but they were thankful for the state’s aid. Their major concern was not democracy, but whether their homes could be rebuilt. While Kılıçdaroğlu appeared moderate, Erdoğan seemed to be a strong leader who could help them. Therefore, Erdoğan secured many votes from the Gaziantep region where the earthquake occurred.
Refugees were another pivotal support group for Erdoğan. As the opposition parties were anti-immigration, naturalised Turks voted for Erdogan to secure their citizenship. More than 210,000 Syrians have been naturalised since 2011, so they became a strong force contributing to Erdoğan’s victory.
Erdoğan’s control of the media helped him gain support from voters who did not have a strong political stance too. Erdoğan controls 90% of the Turkish media. According to the Reporters Without Borders, Erdoğan had exactly 60 times more coverage on Turkey’s public TV channel than Kılıçdaroğlu from 1 April to 1 May. Voters who did not look for alternative news sources were left under-informed about the candidates’ visions because of the impartial reporting and unfair allocation of airtime. Consequently, they were more likely to vote for Erdoğan.
Erdoğan will probably continue and even amplify his autocratic rule after his victory on 28 May. Two days after the election, the government began investigating six opposition TV channels for “insulting the public” through reporting the election. He also openly said that he would not release Selahattin Demirtas, a Kurdish politician imprisoned since 2016, in his victory speech. Furthermore, his victory brought the financial sector immense fear, reflected by the nosedive of the Turkish lira to its fresh record low following the election.
The result shows that there is no consensus regarding issues of gender, religion, the economy, and refugees in Turkish society
On 3 June, Erdoğan announced his new cabinet. While the cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of a new finance minister hinted at a step towards orthodox economic policy and muscular anti-West diplomacy, he has not announced any detailed plans about domestic or foreign policies. He further explained that the appointment of a new finance minister does not imply “a serious change in interest rate policies” on 14 June, leaving many doubtful about his plans for economic reform.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the election has left the nation divided. Erdoğan’s marginal victory means that nearly half of the population was dissatisfied with him. The result shows that there is no consensus regarding issues of gender, religion, the economy, and refugees in Turkish society. Strong opposition from either side will easily occur no matter what Erdoğan’s next move is. Serious social divisions will weaken the legitimacy of Erdoğan’s government and social stability.
There is also division amongst the opposition. Kılıçdaroğlu faces questions about his leadership from members of the opposition alliance following the defeat. Since he sided with the radical pro-Kurdish parties which demanded self-determination of the ethnic minority Kurds before the election, arguments about the Kurds’ goals and use of violence have been growing amongst the opposition. Erdoğan’s victory and continuous crackdowns on democracy may create a sense of pessimism, discouraging civil society from fighting for greater freedom. Strengthening the unity of the opposition forces is a paramount task for Kılıçdaroğlu and the CHP ahead of next year’s local elections.
The Turkish presidential election demonstrates the power of autocracy to the rest of the world. An authoritarian government can keep its governance failures out of the public eye through populism and control of the media, thus securing public support despite a dire economic crisis. On the other hand, the Turkish people have showcased the power of democracy, with a turnout rate of over 80%. At the end of the day, democracy is vulnerable, but it is the only hope for change.