Elections in Türkiye: what they mean for Ukraine

Elections in Türkiye: what they mean for Ukraine

On May 14, Türkiye is holding regular presidential and parliamentary elections. 

What roles do these institutions play in the Turkish political system? In 2017, the country held a referendum on constitutional amendments that strengthened the presidency. 51% of voters supported these changes.  

Since then, in addition to the existing representative powers, the president has become the head of the executive branch and gained more influence over the Council of Judges and Prosecutors. As a result, the post of prime minister was abolished, and parliamentary control over the executive branch became weaker. Since then, presidential and parliamentary elections have been held on the same day. 

At the time, the OSCE mission noted that the authorities had used administrative leverage to support the referendum. For example, ballots not stamped by election commissions were still counted in the overall tally. 

In addition, another referendum was held in 2009, which, among other things, changed the mechanism for electing the president. Since then, the head of state and government has been elected at elections rather than by a vote in parliament.

The changes adopted in the two referendums affected only the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as he was elected in the first direct presidential election in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. In addition, before his victory in 2014, he had served as Prime Minister (since 2003).

Erdogan has been the head of Türkiye's executive branch for 20 years, with a short break between his election as president and the abolition of the post of prime minister. According to The Economist's Democracy Index, Türkiye has become about 20% less democratic between 2006 and 2022

In the 2014 elections, Erdoğan received 51% of the vote. In 2018, combined presidential and parliamentary elections were held for the first time. Erdoğan received 52% of the vote, and the Justice and Development Party, founded with his participation, received 49%. 

However, opinion polls for 2023 show that the next elections will be more difficult. In April, the Justice and Development Party averaged 35%, and Erdogan as a presidential candidate 44%. 

This year, the government and the opposition have formed electoral alliances. The social-democratic Republican People's Party forms the basis of the opposition. Its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is a presidential candidate from the united opposition. However, the opposition alliance also includes right-wing forces: The Democratic Party and the Happiness Party. At the same time, there are also far-right forces in the pro-government camp, including the Islamist party Hür Dava. 

In addition, two other presidential candidates are not part of these alliances — Muharrem Ince from the Homeland Party and Sinan Oğan from the far-right coalition.

— Recep Erdoğan. 

He has been in politics since the eighties. The facts of his biography from an earlier period caused scandals, for example, whether he received a university degree. For 15 years, the opposition has criticised Erdoğan for refusing to show his original diploma. Instead, the copy of the diploma published by the presidential administration spokesperson contained information that did not match the data from open sources. Throughout his political career, Erdoğan has been advocating nationalist and moderate Islamist positions, and in 1999 he even spent four months in prison for a public speech of this nature. 

— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. 

He was a civil servant for 30 years before running for office as a left-wing candidate. He has been leading the opposition for more than ten years. Due to his lack of success during this period, some opposition voters havErdoğane a negative attitude towards Kılıçdaroğlu. He used to pursue a centre-left policy, but has tried to flirt with more conservative voters in this election. Although he insisted on the need to stand by Ukraine, he did his best to convince Russia that he would not change the vector of the Turkish policy.

— Muharrem Ince. 

This politician has also opposed Erdoğan and his party for 20 years. He used to be a member of the Republican Party and tried unsuccessfully to lead it several times before leaving in 2020 and forming his party. When the full-scale invasion began, Ince called for the war to end with negotiations based on the principle of territorial integrity. He also criticised Erdoğan's diplomacy based on personal relationships between leaders rather than institutions. However, he received no more than 5-8% in opinion polls.  

— Sinan Oğan.

Candidate of an alliance of several far-right parties. Political scientist defended his dissertation at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. During the election campaign, he gave interviews to Russian propagandists. However, his rhetoric was not overtly pro-Russian. He stated that Türkiye and Russia need each other and that Istanbul should mediate between Kyiv and Moscow. He comments on the war, which leads to funny incidents: when the Kremlin held so-called "referendums" in the temporarily occupied territories, Oğan said that afterwards, Putin would declare "the end of the war". In opinion polls, he gained no more than 2-5%.

To understand these intricacies and their implications for Türkiye's foreign policy, Svidomi turned to Dr Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. In the past, he was also a researcher at the University of North Carolina and the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University. In 2005, Bechev defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford.

Your book Türkiye Under Erdoğan lists several structural reasons that made Erdogan's rise to power possible in the long run. These include the end of the Cold War, economic instability, outbreaks of violence between different religious communities, and media attention to corruption. Do you think some of these circumstances could also lead to Erdoğan's downfall? 

— Yes, to a certain extent. Over the past few years, the Turkish economy has performed poorly, and high inflation has been worsening living standards. It is a critical factor driving voters away from the ruling Justice and Development Party to other parties.

The opposition is aware of this fact. It is, therefore, no coincidence that it includes people like Ali Babacan, who is praised for some of Türkiye's economic successes in the early Erdoğan era. [Ali Babacan is one of the co-founders of the Justice and Development Party. In the years 2002-2007, he was Minister of State for Economic Affairs in Erdogan's first government. In 2019, he left the ruling party and founded the Democracy and Progress Party, which is now part of the opposition alliance – ed.] 

The earthquake [on February 6, 2023, an earthquake struck Türkiye, killing at least 50,000 people – ed.] also revealed massive shortcomings in public administration. The same thing happened in 1999. One circumstance that differs in these situations is the media: 20 years ago, there was media pluralism in Türkiye.

The desire to join the EU also played a role then. [In its first elections in 2002, Erdoğan's party put forward a European integration programme. However, since 2005, negotiations on Türkiye's accession to the EU have been frozen. At that time, some EU countries were hostile to granting Türkiye membership. Instead, Türkiye refused to change its policy towards Cyprus, as demanded by the EU. In 1974, a coup d'état took place in Cyprus with the support of Greece. Its goal was to unite with Greece. After that, Türkiye invaded Cyprus and seized its northern part. In 2004, Cyprus joined the EU, and Türkiye closed its ports and airports to transport from the south of Cyprus - ed.] So now the issue of EU accession is not a vital issue for the elections.

Many Ukrainians felt empathy for the victims of the earthquake. But people in Ukraine perceived the earthquake as a purely humanitarian issue rather than a political one. Could you explain its significance for the elections?

— The earthquake demonstrates the failure of the authorities to take care of basic safety standards and to implement effective response mechanisms. As a result, many people worry about what will happen if a natural disaster strikes Istanbul, which is also located on a geological fault line. 

It tarnished any remaining perceptions that the Justice and Development Party could govern effectively and sparked anger among the people for months after the earthquake. 

Some analysts have called it a "Turkish Chernobyl". Erdoğan, on the other hand, is trying to call for unity in a crisis, promising rapid recovery and financial payments to the victims. We will see how much this will affect public opinion.

Russia's full-scale invasion has affected European countries trying to maintain relations with the Russians. However, as you write, Turkish foreign policy remains "two-faced". Politicians close to the opposition leader told Middle East Eye that Türkiye has been "quite successful" in its relations with Russia. Ukrainian expert on Türkiye Yevheniia Haber believes that Kılıçdaroğlu's foreign policy towards Russia may not differ from Erdoğan's. Do you share these views?

— Yes. Kılıçdaroğlu will have to take into account Türkiye's dependence on Russian energy resources. Getting rid of this dependence has been delayed, as the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant will be built only in 2025. [Rosatom is building the nuclear power plant. Sanctions have slowed its construction - ed.]. 

The situation in Sūriyā, which Russia controls, is also critical [since 2011, the country has been in a civil war. Russia provides military, economic, and diplomatic support to the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Congressional Research Service believes using Russian aircraft allowed the al-Assad regime to regain control over large parts of the country. After the start of the full-scale invasion, the contingent of Russian troops in Sūriyā has decreased, but it can still use the situation to its advantage - ed.].

At the same time, Türkiye will balance relations by helping Ukraine, Georgia, and, to some extent, Moldova to resist Russian pressure. In addition, if Kılıçdaroğlu wins, the relationship will be institutionalised rather than based on personal ties between the leaders. As a result, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have more influence than under Erdoğan.

In your analysis, "Türkiye's Black Sea strategy amidst the Russian-Ukrainian war", you note the difficulties the grain deal is going through. The volume of Ukrainian products shipped is constantly falling. According to estimates by the Institute for Black Sea Strategic Studies, in September 2022, up to six ships arrived at ports every day. In April 2023, the figure did not even reach two. Could this change after the election? Will Erdoğan's and Kılıçdaroğlu's approaches to the problem differ?

— I don't expect any significant changes. Russian inspectors are delaying the passage of ships through the Bosphorus Strait. Erdogan could reach an agreement with the Kremlin and even put pressure on Putin. However, I am not sure that Kılıçdaroğlu will have the skills and leverage to influence the Russians.

Between "internal" and "external"

At first glance, this similarity of alliances is somewhat paradoxical because the government and the opposition are radically different in their domestic political dimension. Because of this, the alliances compete for every vote and encourage Turks to participate in elections in every possible way. 

However, this situation is not unique: political parties can often share the same understanding of the country's foreign policy priorities, although, in domestic politics, they consider each other mortal enemies in domestic politics. 

The victory of one or the other camp in the short term may not have dramatic consequences for Türkiye's policy towards Ukraine.