Photo: Begum Zorlu
Turkey’s 2023 elections granted President Erdoğan another victory. Not only did he secure another five-year term as president, but the People’s Alliance he led obtained the majority of parliamentary seats. What are the fundamental dynamics and outcomes of the election process? How did Erdoğan and his coalition manage to claim victory? The view from PSA Turkish Politics for the PSA Blog.
Seda Demiralp (Isik University) argues that the election results were quite disappointing for opposition parties. She proposes that “opposition parties hoped to see that even in hybrid regimes where elections are not entirely free and fair, it is possible to change autocratic incumbents via elections.”
“Also, most observers had thought that Erdoğan had never been this close to losing an election over the past 20 years, mainly because of the major economic crisis Turkey has been going through and the February earthquake that destroyed various cities and took nearly 50,000 lives.”
Demiralp also proposes that many observers wrongly assumed that the structural conditions were so ripe for change that any opposition candidate could win.
She adds: “The opposition’s decision to form an alliance and pursue a campaign that focused on economic problems was promising. This new focus on economic issues contrasted with former campaigns prioritising a return to republican principles (such as secularism) and Western values, which hardly brought new voters in the past. However, the campaign had important shortcomings too.
Too many and diffused promises, lack of coordination among opposition leaders, and perhaps most importantly, opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu’s lack of charisma to beat Erdoğan were among the main disadvantages of the opposition campaign.
Furthermore, Erdoğan’s campaign appeared relatively weak to many observers, raising hopes for the opposition. The massive economic crisis limited Erdoğan’s ability to focus on daily economic needs, in contrast to his past campaigns. Instead, he pointed at past accomplishments and presented himself not as a mere political figure but as a subject of love. Campaign videos asked voters to choose love (for Erdoğan) over material benefits and emphasised that Erdoğan could still pull the nation out of the economic crisis. Yet, Erdoğan’s killer move came later. In a rally one week before the elections, Erdoğan showed a doctored video demonstrating PKK militants cheering for Kılıçdaroğlu. Erdoğan claimed that Kılıçdaroğlu had allied with the PKK. His new message was that voters faced a choice between national survival and other issues. Kılıçdaroğlu failed to react to these accusations in a timely and effective manner. On May 14, to the surprise of many polling companies, Erdoğan and his People’s Alliance took the first-round lead.”
To end, Demiralp states that “with a desperate effort, Kılıçdaroğlu made a radical turn before the runoff. Not only did he adopt a harsh nationalist discourse, but he also embraced a negative campaign targeting Erdoğan. Yet, with his ill-prepared speeches, awkward masculinity performance and overly eclectic messages that made him look spiritless, he failed to turn the tables and lost in the second round.
Turkey’s 2023 elections failed to provide a model to change autocratic incumbents via elections. Yet, it provided important lessons about limits of economic voting, the role of agency, and the power of emotions over reason.”
Buğra Güngör (Geneva Graduate Institute) proposes that migration has shaped the debate. He argues that: “Even though millions of registered refugees and thousands of irregular migrants constitute one of the most simmering public and political debates, we observed that both incumbent and opposition leaders did not significantly bring them forth before the first round of the presidential elections.
However, as Dr Sinan Ogan, an opposition candidate who the right-wing and nationalist Ata Alliance nominated, has received more than five per cent of the votes that Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu could not secure the majority in the first round, Kilicdaroglu and other leaders of the Nation Alliance drastically switched to an anti-irregular migrant/refugee rhetoric to garner the support of the nationalist electorate – especially in Central Anatolia and Black Sea.”
“Although this strategy did not help Kilicdaroglu to win, it is highly likely that policies and rhetoric concerning the repatriation of irregular migrants and refugees will come back before the March 2024 municipal elections.”
“The existing level of political polarisation in the country would extensively shape the discourse surrounding the millions of refugees and thousands of irregular migrants. Therefore, certain parties would further use the migration issue in Turkey, making a better electoral performance.””
Begum Zorlu (City, University of London) argues that the international dynamics that shaped the electoral process deserve more attention. She states that: “especially how populism transcends borders and foreign policy becomes an arena where the incumbent claims competence has been vital in this electoral cycle.”
She underlines that primarily “the AKP’s populism at home is shaped by its global contestatory frames contributing to a boundary between us and them. Since the Gezi Protests of 2013, but especially after the 2016 coup attempt, the construction of the other has been vital in justifying securitisation, as the AKP elites link the political opposition with foreign threats through a populist framing.”
She adds: “Furthermore, the AKP elites repeatedly underlined how they had transformed Turkey into a global player and praised that they could negotiate with both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war.
While Erdoğan dominates the AKP’s foreign policy outlook, the opposition was more fragmented in raising a strong voice on where they stand on foreign policy.
This contributed to the incumbent framing itself as the solo agent that can maintain Turkey’s national interest.