Turkish theatre and wishful non-fulfilment

Mary Southcott reports that Erdoğan now presides over a deeply divided country with an opposition on the rise

Since its foundation in 2001, AKP, the Justice and Development Party, has won every election with its own populist blend of conservative Islamism and neo-Ottomanism. Its co-founder, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former Istanbul mayor (1994 to 1998), Turkish prime minister (2003 to 2014) and, when constitutionally barred from standing after a referendum which divided opinion between presidential and parliamentary systems, president since 2014.

AKP’s affiliation to the European Union charts their political development from democratic Islam to autocracy: first, as observers to the liberal group; then, in 2005, to the European People’s Party; and then to their more natural home, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, from 2013 to 2018.  

The presidential elections on 14 May 2023 saw AKP link up with the Grey Wolves ultra-nationalists and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the People’s Alliance in the second round.  The voting system demands that the winning candidate gets over half the votes in the first or final round of elections.

The opposition National Alliance was formed around the CHP (the Republican People’s Party), the oldest and second biggest party, a member of the Socialist International, pro-EU and NATO. In the past, it has been accused of being more secular than democratic. But their candidate, CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, an Alevi Muslim, put democracy and the parliamentary system on the ballot paper. He was anti-corruption; although either of CHP’s mayors, from Istanbul or Ankara, might have been a better choice. However, Erdoğan had moved against Ekrem İmamoğlu, who won the rematch in Istanbul in 2019. The HDP, the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, wisely decided not to split the anti-Erdoğan vote. Their former leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, tweeted from prison to vote against Erdoğan. 

The Economist, the Financial Times, and the BBC coverage mostly predicted an Erdoğan loss, emphatically demonstrating how important Turkey is to the UK, the money markets, the region, NATO and the Ukraine–Russian war. Turkey has been shipping Ukrainian food from the Black Sea. The EU also paid Turkey to keep refugees trying to get to the West. High stakes were also in play for Turkish Kurds living in their own country, in exile over Europe, fighting against IS in Syria and for Sunni Islam in most other places. 

In simultaneous general elections, the coalitions stood as separate parties, with AKP winning the majority of the 600 seats (268, or 35.62%) in the Grand National Assembly with CHP second (169, or 25.33%). Turkey has a majoritarian PR voting system. To avoid a legal ban, the HDP stood under a Green Left banner, making it the third party with 61 seats. The MHP came next with 50, and IYI, led by Meral Akşener, part of the CHP coalition, got 41.

In the first round of the presidential election, there was no victory for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as polls had predicted. Erdoğan almost won and was leading with over half the votes until the urban votes came in. He even won in the earthquake-affected areas where corruption had been exposed, but some people there may have found it difficult to return to their collapsed homes to vote. Because the third ultra-nationalist candidate had 5% of the vote to be redistributed, Kılıçdaroğlu made the mistake of tilting to the right, losing some of the Kurdish vote. 

But this is the closest the opposition has come to defeating Erdoğan, and they split Turkey in two: 27,117,669 (52.18%) to 24,954,920 (47.82%). Considering the takeover or closure of most media outlets by Erdoğan’s supporters, the imprisonment or threatened legal actions against people speaking out against Erdoğan, the lack of visibility of anyone but Erdoğan on the TV screens, and the bribes and actual payments in the pre-election period, CHP did well. 

It remains to be seen if they can keep the momentum of the first round up in local elections scheduled next year. But it is clear that Erdoğan oversees a divided country which may need the West more than Russia, concede Swedish membership of NATO, head back to the EU and possibly even reach an accommodation in the Eastern Mediterranean on the energy front, which could necessitate a Cyprus settlement.  Erdoğan has already conceded change by his choice of technocrats as ministers, signalling a return to more orthodox economics, but he is no longer invincible.

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