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Turkey’s recent presidential election witnessed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s victory, raising concerns about authoritarian consolidation. Despite facing a diverse opposition alliance led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Erdoğan successfully diverted attention from economic woes, utilized nationalist sentiments, and delegitimized the opposition. Erdoğan’s win presages potential attacks on democratic institutions, while European leaders prioritizing strategic interests over Turkish democracy further compounds the situation. The opposition needs to regroup and strategize for future elections, such as the 2024 local elections, to effectively challenge Erdoğan’s regime.


Mehmet Yavuz

June 9, 2023


On the surface, Turkey’s recent presidential election was a race between Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the candidate of an alliance of six ideologically diverse opposition parties, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who over 20 years has transformed the country from a democracy into a competitive authoritarian regime. But, in fact, it was rather a referendum on democratization or authoritarian consolidation and also on whether the regime should be punished for the financial crisis since August 2018. With Erdoğan winning 52.18 percent in the second round, as well as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) securing a majority in the parliament, the majority of voters did not call for the end of his regime, nor his policies—albeit in a playing field that was highly uneven.


How Did Erdoğan Win?

Erdoğan’s campaign overwhelmingly had an anti-pluralist tone and tried to shift public attention away from the country’s real problems. It was also personalistic, with its main slogan—The Right Time and Right Man—indicating that only he could solve the economic crisis. To divert attention from economic problems, he emphasized mega projects, such as housing ones in areas affected by the February earthquake, and the achievements of the regime in the aircraft industry through Baykar, a company owned by his son-in-law.

Using nationalist sentiments was also crucial for Erdoğan’s campaign, which went as far as showing fabricated videos that suggested the leadership of the terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) supported Kılıçdaroğlu. Erdoğan also tried to delegitimize the opposition by claiming that his opponent was supported by the leftwing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which he accuses of being a satellite of the PKK. Claiming that the opposition alliance was a “LGBT” alliance, Erdoğan also played on the conservative sentiments of Islamist voters.

Before the first round, Kılıçdaroğlu emphasized the rising cost of living, the increasing lack of meritocracy, and economic mismanagement. He also emphasized human rights with an inclusionary agenda toward the “others” attacked by the regime, such as the Alevis and the Kurds, as well as pious Muslims who feared that center-left rule would lead to the diminishing of their rights.

Ahead of the second round, however, Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign took a drastic nationalist turn. While he got 44.8 percent in the first round, the far-right nationalist Sinan Oğan, who was the candidate of the ATA coalition led by the Victory Party, Turkey’s leading anti-immigrant party, got 5.17 percent. The latter’s unexpectedly high support may have made Kılıçdaroğlu’s team conclude that capturing these votes could make him the winner. He started to use ultranationalist rhetoric, such as claiming that sending back the 13 million  predominantly Syrian and Afghan refugees within two years would be central to his presidential agenda. He reached an agreement with the Victory Party in exchange for an endorsement. Since Kılıçdaroğlu only increased his votes by three percentage points in the second round, it seems that this turn did not pay off.

Throughout the campaign, polls said that Erdoğan was less popular than Kılıçdaroğlu. According to KONDA, a research company (see Figure 1 below), the challenger was in the lead at least since early April, and just one week before the election he was predicted to have 49.3 percent of the votes and the president 43 percent. As it turned out, it was Erdoğan who got 49.52 percent in the first round. After Ogan went against the decision of his party to support Kılıçdaroğlu and endorsed Erdoğan instead, the latter’s victory was predictable.


Figure 1: Candidate Preferences Over Time During the Electoral Campaign Period. Source: Konda

Why did the polls fail to predict the results? First, no polling company is fully transparent about its sampling strategy and all primarily focus on urban areas for logistical reasons. Since Erdoğan lost in major cities like Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir but did very well in the Anatolian cities, including those hurt by the earthquake, it is possible that the polls failed due to poor sampling. A second reason could be that, given the undeniable intensity of the economic crisis and human rights problems, those who eventually voted for Erdoğan lied to pollsters for reasons of social desirability. One clear lesson for the opposition parties is that they should invest in more reliable data collection about voter preferences.


What Does this Mean for Turkish democracy?

The critical question is whether Erdoğan’s winning anti-pluralist campaign will be followed by anti-pluralist rule for the next five years.

In his inaugural speech, Erdoğan said that changing the constitution would be a priority. Although the AKP lacks the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to do so, his statement presages further attacks on democratic institutions. Since earlier amendments tipped the balance between the branches of government in favor of the executive, new changes could lead to more centralization.

Erdoğan won in a landscape where the political rights of dissidents are under attack and any move toward liberalization is unlikely. To name a few issues, there is the ongoing closure case against the HDP and the jailing of the Turkish Workers Party’s representative Can Atalay after the “Gezi Trial”, based on no substantial evidence, for “trying to remove the government through unconstitutional means”. Considering the courts’ lack of independence from the executive, it is likely that the HDP will be dissolved and that Atalay will stay in prison.

Erdoğan’s latest appointments also suggest that any political liberalization is unlikely. The new cabinet consists mostly of technocrats, meaning that decisions about political institutions will no doubt be concentrated in his hands while ministers will only have power over economic governance. What is more, the security elite appears to be gaining in importance. Former chief of intelligence Hakan Fidan is the new foreign minister, and Yaşar Güler, the head of military forces during Turkey’s recent operations in Syria, the new defense minister.

Erdoğan’s parliamentary coalition includes the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which argues that the only solution to the Kurdish “question” is more military action rather than political solutions, as well as HUDAPAR, a party accused of being related to the Turkish branch of Hizbullah, and the far-right Islamist New Welfare Party. One should thus expect more illiberal laws to be proposed and passed over the next five years.

Finally, it seems that the European political elite will be of no help to Turkish democracy. Leaders—including European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholtz, and the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte—congratulated Erdoğan shortly after his victory, emphasizing strategic partnership and bilateral relations. Doing so after an election in a competitive authoritarian regime means that such European democrats prioritize strategic issues, like keeping a large number of refugees in Turkey, over the future of the country’s democracy.


What Is Next for the Turkey’s Democracy?

 Right now, there seems to be no positive signs for Turkey’s democracy. Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat in the presidential election could be the last warning for the opposition to develop better strategies and to choose a better candidate against Erdoğan in the next presidential contest before it becomes impossible to contest against Erdogan under meaningful conditions.

However, the March 2024 local elections could allow the opposition to gain momentum. If it carefully addresses its mistakes in the elections and reforms, it could win in places where the race was close this time. This would reduce Erdoğan’s patronage networks and give the opposition opportunities to show the public it is capable of good governance.


Mehmet Yavuz is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Central European University in Vienna.


The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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