As Turkish voters head to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, the biggest question is whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan power for two decades can be challenged.
Turkey’s main opposition parties have made a series of pledges, including boosting the economy, democratizing the political system, separating religion from affairs of state and improving the country’s ties with the West.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are significant differences in the positions of each party in the opposition coalition. Serious questions remain about how much change to expect even if Erdogan is defeated.
Many Turkish citizens would like to see a new policy to lift Turkey out of one of the most serious economic crises it has experienced in the past two decades. But the political issues are even more complicated. All issues related to the political system, secularism and foreign relations have become more polarized as Erdogan has consolidated his power in recent years.
A divided opposition
Turkey’s largest opposition party is the Republican People’s Party (Turkish acronym is CHP). Formed by the founder of the secular republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, this party remains faithful to the ideology of Turkish nationalism and is considered center-left in politics.
CHP has joined other nationalist and conservative forces in a coalition called the Nation Alliance, whose combined vote shares could be enough to defeat Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (aka the AK Party).
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While there is widespread skepticism about polls in Turkey, the most recent surveys have shown it The position of CHP is relatively strong in the presidential race. In the parliamentary elections, however, Erdogan’s conservative policies seem to serve the AK party well.
This is a problem for the opposition, which has not done enough to counter the conservative policies of the ruling alliance.
The leader of the opposition is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has been nominated as the presidential candidate by the Nation Alliance. This is despite Kilicdaroglu’s relatively low credibility with the public, compared to other CHP figures.
Kilicdaroglu has promised to deport the large number of refugees who have sought refuge in Turkey since 2011, when the war in Syria began. The opposition has argued that this is a primary reason why Turkey is suffering economically, despite Turkey’s widely recognized role Erdogan’s disastrous monetary policy.
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However, other nationalist and leftist forces with significant public support have decided to stay out of the Nation Alliance.
On the nationalist side, the opposition candidate for the 2018 presidential election (Muharrem Ince) is running on behalf of his new Homeland Party. Ultranationalists are also represented by the Ancestral Alliance coalition, led by Sinan Ogan.
Left parties, on the other hand, do could only participate in parliamentary elections. Potential candidates from Turkey’s large Kurdish minority have had a particularly difficult time running in the presidential race. Many of them have been put in prison on charges of ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Their only option is to support Kilicdaroglu, which some have done.
Erdogan is, of course, the AK Party’s presidential candidate. The party has been in power since 2002, when it won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections for the first time. Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and then won the presidential election in 2014 before being re-elected in 2018. If elected, this would be his last term.
The AK Party is a conservative party of Islamic origins, currently in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement that has become fragmented and unpopular. Despite this unpopular coalition, Erdogan himself has managed to maintain somewhat favorable ratings among the public.
No control over the president
One of the biggest commitments the Nation Alliance has made is to returning Turkey’s presidential political system to a parliamentary one. Since Erdogan pushed through a referendum to abolish the office of prime minister in 2017, the president has been able to wield an unprecedented level of power.
Many observers blame the referendum removing crucial checks on presidential power.
Moreover, the opposition has also assured voters that it is repair fences with Europe after ties deteriorated sharply under Erdogan’s rule. It would seek to freeze accession negotiations with Turkey to the European Union, which have stalled since 2018 due to the country’s democratic decline. Turkey economic and political partnerships with Russia have also been a problem for the EU.
Perhaps more importantly, in terms of foreign policy, the opposition is promising to promote better relations with countries in the Middle East. These ties have frayed because of Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy and incidents such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, sparking a rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The opposition also vows to speed up the country’s rapprochement with Israel, the Gulf states, Egypt and Syria.
Erdogan has yet to fully normalize relations with these states, as they remain wary of Turkey’s regional influence under AK Party rule. Erdogan has positioned Turkey as a middle power with strategic influence in the Middle East and the wider region, especially after the Arab Spring. It is unlikely that this influence will disappear anytime soon, regardless of the election.
So, will a change in Turkish leadership transform Turkey and the region?
The answer is not easy. But most likely much will remain the same. Many important institutions in Turkey, such as the parliament, the judiciary and the press, lost their independence during the Erdogan era.
Erodgan’s party has become very influential in both domestic and foreign policy, meaning his footprint won’t disappear immediately even if he doesn’t get re-elected. On the contrary, Erdogan will have a lasting social, economic and political legacy for both Turkey and its neighbors.