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Europe Monitor
Turkey’s Elections: Unravelling the Political Spectacle of 2023

  Rishika Yadav and Nityashree RB
Research Assistant and Research Intern, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore

About the Authors
Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS, Bangalore. Her area of interest includes the impact of Europe's Foreign Policy, and domestic politics. She is currently working on an issue brief on elections in Turkey 2023. Her other areas of interests include South East Asia and East Asia.

Nithyashree RB is a Research Intern in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS, Bangalore. She is currently a postgraduate scholar at Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her areas of interest include Europe's climate action initiatives. She is currently working on an issue brief on Germany's energy crisis post nuclear power.

The Rise of Erdogan: A brief note since 2002
On 03 November 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won the general election and emerged as a successor to previous Islamist parties that were barred from running for parliament. In March 2003, he was elected prime minister, leading the first single-party government since 1987. This also marked the first time a two-party parliament had been formed since 1961.

On 28 August 2014, Erdogan became the 12th President of Turkey. He appointed his former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, as the new prime minister.

On 14 May 2023, Turkey witnessed highly contested general and presidential elections. Erdogan, who represented the AKP-Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition, competed against his primary rival Kilicdaroglu of the Nation Alliance, which included the IYI, SP, and DEVA parties. The first round of elections concluded with Erdogan securing 49.5 per cent and Kilicdaroglu securing 44.9 per cent.
On 24 May 2023, Victory Party leader Umit Ozdag endorsed the opposition, Republican People's Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Throughout the campaigns, Erdogan accused Kilicdaroglu of colluding with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), while Kilicdaroglu was anti-migrant and pro-LGBTQ and expressed pro-European interests. The Kilicdaroglu-led opposition party, Republican People's Party (CHP), won 169 seats in the first round of elections. Initially, AKP's alliance with the Islamist New Welfare Party and the Kurdish HUDA-PAR jeopardized his win. 

On 28 May 2023, Erdogan won the run-off elections securing 52.16 per cent. The opposition leader Kilicdaroglu secured 47.84 per cent. Despite the inflation, which surged 86 per cent in 2022, the devastating earthquake and growing opposition, Erdogan secured a third term. Erdogan has said that this will be his last term. Following his victory, Erdogan said: "I thank our nation, which gave us the responsibility of governing again for the next five years." He reaffirmed his party's pro-family objectives and called the opposition "LGBTQ sympathizers." Kilicdaroglu, after the election, said that they were "unfair" and added that the ruling party controlled the media. The Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP) party won 267 seats out of 600 in the Parliament.

Major Issues in the Elections: Economic crisis, Earthquake, Gender Questions, Opposition and ratings
Turkey experienced a deepening economic crisis following the Covid pandemic in 2020, with inflation at its highest level since 2002, reaching 36 per cent in December. Despite the central bank's interest rate hikes the Turkish lira's value against the US dollar dropped by over 40 per cent. The February earthquake in Turkey impacted the elections. It exposed the government's inability to implement safety regulations and emergency planning, resulting in fatalities and criticisms directed towards President Erdogan's party. The electoral process was also disrupted, with calls to postpone the elections due to damaged polling stations and campaign activities being limited. The earthquake also shifted public attention, with people more concerned about survival and recovery than their political preferences, potentially affecting voting behaviour. The withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention provoked outrage among women's rights groups and sparked a gender debate in the elections. Only 17.4 per cent of the candidates for parliament are women, and the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) is the only party with a female presidential candidate. The AKP's campaign highlighted traditional gender roles and family values, while the opposition advocated for women's rights and challenged Erdogan's decision on the Istanbul Convention. On 11 May, Homeland Party’s presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, withdrew his candidacy. The withdrawal of Ince was advantageous for the National Alliance coalition under Kemal Kilicdaroglu as it helped him win in the first round. According to Metropoll, 49 per cent of Ince’s support shifted towards Kilicdaroglu while 22 per cent shifted towards Erdogan. On the same lines, AKP’s alliance with the Islamist New Welfare Party and the Kurdish HUDA-PAR (an extension of Kurdish Hizbullah) jeopardized his win. Erdogan also faced nationalist allies' pressure for a more hardline stance against the Kurdish issue and military intervention in regional conflicts such as Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Eastern Mediterranean. According to MetroPoll's "The Pulse of Turkey'' survey, President Erdogan's approval rating declined in July despite efforts to improve his popularity. Erdogan's disapproval rating rose to 53.7 per cent, while his approval rating fell to 41.5 per cent, 2.7 per cent less than June. The incumbency provided Erodgan control over 90 per cent of the media. According to BBC News, Erdogan was featured in Media for 32 hours and 42 minutes while the opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu got only 32 minutes in April. Erdogan accused Kilicdaroglu of colluding with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the height of the campaigning, Muharrem Ince withdrew from the elections as a purported sex tape emerged in the media. He accused AKP of tarnishing his reputation by releasing a deep fake video. Throughout the campaigning AKP and the media undermined the opposition which turned out to be advantageous for Erdogan.

The second round of Elections and the return of Erdogan
On 11 May, Homeland Party’s presidential candidate Muharrem Ince withdrew from the elections. On 14 May, the first round of presidential elections in Turkey concluded. The Kilicdaroglu-led opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 169 seats in the first round of elections. As no party secured more than 50 per cent, on 16 May the supreme election council announced that the top two contenders will go for a second round of election. Despite the economic crisis and tragic losses of lives and infrastructure during the earthquakes, voters preferred Erdogan in both rounds of elections. With the unexpected endorsement from Ogan, support for Erdogan increased, leading to his return.

Responses from across the world
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Erdogan over a call. He said: "The election victory was a natural result of your selfless work as the head of the Republic of Turkey, clear evidence of the support of the Turkish people for your efforts to strengthen state sovereignty and conduct an independent foreign policy."

US President Joe Biden tweeted, "I look forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges."

The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, tweeted, "Congratulations to President Erdogan on re-election and to Türkiye's voters on high turnout, reflecting a long democratic tradition. Türkiye is a valued NATO Ally and partner. I look forward to our continued work together with the government chosen by the Turkish people."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted, "Congratulations President (Erdogan) on your re-election. I look forward to continuing our work together and preparing for the NATO summit in July."

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani tweeted, "My dear brother Recep Tayyip Erdogan, congratulations on your victory. I wish you success in your new term, and that you achieve through it what the Turkish people aspire to in terms of progress and prosperity, and progress and growth for our strong bilateral relations."

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted, "My dear brother Recep Tayyip Erdogan, congratulations on your victory. I wish you success in your new term, and that you achieve through it what the Turkish people aspire to in terms of progress and prosperity, and progress and growth for our strong bilateral relations."

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, "France and Turkey have huge challenges to face together. Return of peace to Europe, future of our Euro-Atlantic Alliance, Mediterranean Sea. With President Erdogan, whom I congratulate on his re-election, we will continue to move forward."

EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted, "France and Turkey have huge challenges to face together. Return of peace to Europe, future of our Euro-Atlantic Alliance, Mediterranean Sea. With President Erdogan, whom I congratulate on his re-election, we will continue to move forward."

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted, "France and Turkey have huge challenges to face together. Return of peace to Europe, future of our Euro-Atlantic Alliance, Mediterranean Sea. With President Erdogan, whom I congratulate on his re-election, we will continue to move forward."

Israeli President Issac Herzog tweeted, "Congratulations to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on his election victory. I am convinced that we will continue to work together to strengthen and expand the good ties between Turkey and Israel."

Pakistan Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, tweeted, "Heartiest congratulations to my dear brother H.E. President Erdogan on his historic re-election as President, Republic of Turkiye. He is one of few world leaders whose politics has been anchored in public service. He has been a pillar of strength for the oppressed Muslims & a fervent voice for their inalienable rights."

What next for Erdogan and Turkey?
The elections have indicated three things. First, the growing need for democracy and democratic institutions among people. Second, despite Erdogan’s authoritative leadership, and decreasing vote share compared to the 2018 election, he won. Third, the major influence of incumbency in Erdogan’s wins. Under Erdogan, Turkey has forged a path for itself. Turkey’s role as a regional and international player is growing. For the region, Erdogan’s stance against the Kurds, being a hotspot for refugees, his interest in leading the Muslim coalition and reconciling with neighbouring countries will continue to surge. The constitutional referendum of 2017 gave Erdogen unilateral decision-making powers as his party has always been the majority in the parliament except for a brief period in 2015. Freedom of the press and speech is decreasing while the detainment of journalists is prevalent. Turkey, which was once seen as a sick man of Europe, now holds the key to Euro-Atlantic integration. 

Although Erdogan’s win was not preferred by the West, through his assertive foreign policies he proved himself as an ally of both the West and the East. Ankara’s role as a mediator in the Black Sea Grain deal and good relations with both Russia and Ukraine qualifies it as a possible mediator in the Ukraine war itself. For the West, however, Erdogan’s win is likely to stall Sweden’s accession to NATO.

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