The Progressive Post

Two Turkeys and the opposition at a crossroads

Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow in the Turkey Program of the European think tank ELIAMEP, based in Berlin
30/05/2023

The Turkish election results mean continuity in domestic and foreign policy with a tendency to more authoritarianism at home and an eastward-looking foreign policy. For the opposition, the cards are being reshuffled and it seems that for now, the time of more liberal experiments is over.

The result of the second round in the presidential elections was closer than most expected. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won with 52 per cent against his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who reached 48 per cent. With this result, the polarisation and division of the country were once again manifested. However, President Erdoğan can govern for at least four years with the absolute majority in parliament his alliance reached in the parliamentary elections on 14 May. 

Thus, the signs point to continuity. This also applies to the authoritarian tendencies that have characterised Turkey since at least 2016. For many, especially young people who are close to the opposition, four more years might be too long. Many will probably try to get a job or start university studies abroad. After the first round of elections, the word ’emigration’ came up a lot in conversations with opposition voters.

The participation dropped a little from 89 per cent to 85 per cent. While before the election, pollsters had thought that the higher the participation, the better the chances for the opposition, this lower turnout did not seem to harm the opposition. While the result in mainland Turkey was even closer, it has been the votes from abroad, especially those from Western Europe, that made Erdoğan win with this margin. Overall, the results, and especially those of the second round were a respectable result for the opposition, who is excluded from the mainstream media, has much fewer resources and was faced with accusations of collaborating with terrorists, for the first time even using deep-fake videos. 

With these results, there are a few questions that remain open. One is who will be the ministers in the third Erdoğan presidency. 16 of his former ministers became MPs on 14 May. If they become ministers again, the AKP will lose these seats in parliament. Therefore, it is expected that only a few of them will do so. Hence, there will be many new ministers. The selection of these new faces could show in which direction the new government is heading, and whether also more liberal politicians will enter the government. But Erdoğan’s alliance also contains some small extreme Islamist and ultranationalist parties, which could lead to an even more conservative course on social issues, and a more religious approach for example to the banking sector

However, the outcome of the elections will bring about major changes for the opposition and the Turkish party landscape. The currently dominant, more liberal current within the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), will lose weight. Kurds will lose political space. And overall, the political system will move from far-right to even further right. 

After 21 years of Erdoğan’s reign, within the Turkish opposition hopes had been high that this time they could really win the elections. The disillusionment will now be correspondingly deep. Some of the party leaders might face harsh criticism for their election strategy, among them also CHP chairman Kılıçdaroğlu, but the party leaders of the small conservative-religious parties Saadet, Deva and Gelecek will have to justify themselves too, because they were precisely the ones who were supposed to draw votes from the AKP, which did not work. In the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu’s more liberal approach of trying to reach out to Kurds and Conservatives could end and the traditional Kemalists could gain weight again. 

The list of losers within the opposition is long. It also includes the pro-Kurdish HDP. Compared to 2018, the party lost votes, and the strategy to cooperate with leftist micro-parties does not seem to have paid. The overall result represents another setback for the Kurds. Since at least 2016, after the failed coup attempt, the air to breathe for Kurdish politics and civil society has become steadily thinner. Hundreds of Kurdish associations have been banned, numerous HDP MPs have been stripped of their immunity, and almost all of the HDP mayors elected in 2019, mainly in Eastern Turkey where the share of the Kurdish population is higher, have been replaced by so-called ‘state trustees’. These trustees are waging a veritable war against Kurdish culture, language and local traditions. They mostly come from western Turkey or the Black Sea region and specifically promote businesspeople from these regions. This policy will now continue. 

Foreign policy will mostly stay the same. Turkey will continue to try to dance on several high tides and play an alternating policy between the EU and Russia, the West and the (Middle) East. However, it will tend to increase its distance from the West and its institutions. Not everyone will regret that. In the EU, many will be happy about Erdoğan’s re-election. Many in Brussels know Erdoğan, and they know that they can negotiate with him. Agreements can be reached on migration and energy policies, there are no imponderables, and there is no need to come back to the arduous EU-accession process that has been stuck for decades. Greece could benefit from this situation, handing the country a more prominent role to play for the US and the entire West in the eastern Mediterranean.

Other elections are already looming large: next year, in roughly nine months, municipal elections are scheduled. The May 2023 elections also confirmed a trend from 2019: that the opposition can beat the government parties in the big cities. President Erdoğan and the AKP will put much effort into winning them back, especially Istanbul and Ankara. This could lead to a political ban for Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, to his removal and increasing criminalisation of the opposition. 

In short: continuity in domestic and foreign policy with a trend towards more authoritarianism at home and eastward-looking policies abroad. For the opposition, the cards are being reshuffled and it seems that for now, the time of more liberal experiments is over. The youth, who want to live in a democratic, European country, have mainly two options: keep quiet or emigrate. Most of them will choose one of these options.

Photo credits: Shutterstock.com/Dilara Acigkoz

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