Turkey on the Eve of Presidential and Parliamentary Elections: Balance of Political Forces in the Country

The next presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey are scheduled for May 14, 2023. The voting will take place amid a challenging socioeconomic environment, aggravated by the aftermath of February’s natural disasters. Deadlines for a number of promising projects have been pushed back, and the country has proved unprepared for the problems it is now facing. The ruling coalition’s hopes for a convincing victory often seem dubious, with the struggle for power accompanied by fierce disputes over how to resolve the current problems and proceed with political and economic development. Meanwhile, old and forgotten cards are being played along with new ones as external interference in national affairs has become more frequent. It is difficult to say unequivocally what the outcome of this complicated electoral process might be. We shall try to identify the most likely scenarios of the political dynamics as well as the outcome of the upcoming elections, which, according to many experts, promise to be the most competitive in the entire history of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.

Today, power in Turkey is held by the People’s Alliance (“Cumhur İttifakı”) coalition led, in fact, by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The coalition consists of the AKP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Great Unity Party (BBP) and the New Welfare Party (YRP). The need to form this coalition is fostered by the risks of repeating the scenario of June 2015, when, in the absence of political allies, the ruling AKP lost its majority in parliament, despite winning the elections. This led to a political crisis in the country, as no government was formed and the vote had to be repeated in November of the same year. According to the Turkish constitution, to form a government alone, a party must secure more than half of the seats in parliament, which, under current conditions, is an unattainable goal for existing political parties. Thus, in the current political configuration, supporters of the ruling party expect to form a government in alliance with other conservative forces, while supporters of other parties in the ruling coalition intend to

In addition to the People’s Alliance, at least four other political blocs will participate in the elections. The main opposition coalition force is the Nation Alliance, the so-called Table of Six, consisting of the following parties: 1) Republican People’s Party (CHP), led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, one of the favorites in the presidential race; 2) the Party of Humanity, Innovation and Goodness (Good Party), led by Meral Akşener; 3) the Felicity Party (PS) led by Temel Karamollaoğlu; 4) the Party of Democracy and Progress (PDP) led by Ali Babacan; 5) the Future Party (PB) led by Ahmet Davutoğlu; 6) the Democratic Party (DP) led by Gültekin Uysal.

The third coalition, also comprised of six parties, is known as the Alliance of Labor and Freedom. It includes the following political forces: 1) the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP); 2) the Workers’ Party of Turkey (WPT); 3) the Labor Party (EMEP); 4) the Labourist Movement Party (EHP); 5) the Social Freedom Party (TӦP); and 6) the Party of Greens and the Left Future (YSGP).

Another coalition is called the Union of Socialist Forces. This political association consists of parties ideologically similar to those in the Alliance of Labor and Freedom, although united under much more radical political views, slogans and programs. The coalition includes the following parties: 1) the Left Party (ӦDP), 2) the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), 3) the Communist Movement of Turkey (TKH), 4) the People’s United Revolutionary Movement or HBDH and 5) the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (DSİP).

Finally, the fifth coalition that managed to nominate its own single presidential candidate (Sinan Oğan) is the Ancestral Alliance (ATA İttifakı), consisting of the Victory Party (PP), the Justice Party (JP), My Country Party (MCP) and Turkey Alliance Party.

Thus, five political coalitions have been formed several weeks prior to the elections. Yet, not all parties of the Republic followed the path of coalition engagement, though this is an exception rather than the rule. One such party is the Homeland Party established and led by Muharrem İnce, who, running for president from the PPR in 2018, won just over 30% of the vote, while his main opponent, R.T. Erdoğan, received over 52% of the vote. In other words, we can say that the practice of coalition formation keeps on taking root in the political life of Turkey, as it becomes an integral part of both the current election and the electoral process as a whole.

The Table below gives the most graphical representation of the current balance of political forces in the Turkish parliament that has 600 seats.

Table 1: Distribution of Seats in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey

No.Party NameLeaderChairpersonPositionNumber of seatsRelation to coalition
1Justice and Development Party (AKP)Recep Tayyip ErdoğanNaci BostancıRight-wing populism, conservative democracy285People’s Alliance
2Republican People’s Party (CHP)Kemal KılıçdaroğluKemal KılıçdaroğluCentre-left social democracy, kemalism134Nation Alliance
3Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)Mithat Sancar & Pervin BuldanPervin BuldanLeft-wing, radical democratic socialism56Labour and Freedom Alliance
4Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)Devlet BahçeliDevlet BahçeliFar-right ultranationalism, idealism48People’s Alliance
5Good Party (İYİ)Meral Akşenerİsmail TatlıoğluCentre-right Turkish nationalism36Nation Alliance
6Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP)Erkan BaşFar-left socialism, Marxism4Labour and Freedom Alliance
7Democratic Party (DP)Gültekin UysalCentre-right Liberal conservatism2Nation Alliance
8Homeland Party (MP)Muharrem İnceCentre-left Kemalism, patriotism2
9Great Unity Party, BBPMustafa DesticiFar-right Turkish Islamic synthesis1People’s Alliance
10Democracy and Progress Party, DPP or DEVAAli BabacanCentre Liberal democracy1Nation Alliance
11Democratic Regions Party, DBPSaliha Aydeniz & Keskin BayındırLeft-wing Democratic socialism1
12Felicity Party (SP)Temel KaramollaoğluFar-right, political Islam, Millî Görüş1People’s Alliance
13Innovation Party (YP)Öztürk YılmazCentre-left, civic nationalism, patriotism1
14Victory Party (ZP)Öztürk YılmazCentre-left, Turkish nationalism, anti-immigration party1Ancestral Alliance (ATA İttifakı)

We would like to call your attention to another table, which highlights the current balance of political forces in the country. Thus, Table 2 shows the results of sociological surveys recently conducted in Turkey. The first column indicates the sociological companies which conducted the polls.

Table 2. The Results of Turkish Citizenry Political Preference Surveys (Average Numbers)

Average Results of the Latest Election Polls

Justice and Development Party (AKP) — 32.8%
Republican People’s Party (CHP) — 27.6%
Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — 10.7%
Good Party (İYİ) — 10.5%
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — 6.5%
Homeland Party (MP) — 2.9%
Democracy and Progress Party, DPP or DEVA — 1.6%
Future Party (PB) — 1.6%
New Welfare Party (YRP) — 1.3%
Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) — 1.2%
Victory Party (ZP) — 1.1%
Felicity Party (SP) — 0.9%

Thus, according to the average results of the latest polls, the ruling coalition may garner about 41% of the votes, while the opposing coalition may reach just slightly over 45%. In other words, the balance of power in parliament may change in favor of the opposition bloc.

As for the position of Recep Erdogan himself, most experts believe that the incumbent President feels more confident than the ruling bloc. This state of things became especially clear after the political parties from the main opposition alliance decided on a single candidate, namely K. Kılıçdaroğlu. But how justified is such overconfidence?

Indeed, as per the results of opinion polls conducted by pro-government companies, Mr. Erdogan can get more than 50% of the votes already in the first round. Building on this, predictions speculate that the president will likely repeat the success of 2018. However, the results of opinion polls conducted by companies closely associated with opposition forces generally show that the main candidates will still have to contend in the second round to be held on May 28. Notably, the main favorite in the presidential race is Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu.

Proceeding from the above-mentioned data, one should admit that forecasts made on the basis of sociological surveys conducted by the opposition forces look more realistic. This state of affairs makes us turn to the current realities and come up with forecasts taking into account not only the results of the opinion polls, but also the current reality and the processes taking place in modern-day Turkey.

First of all, the diverse position of the opposition parties united in the Nation Alliance is what catches the eye. To understand the actual incapacity of the Nation Alliance, it would suffice to recall a series of last year’s fruitless meetings of the opposition Six, as well as the incident with Meral Akshener, when she actually left the six-party platform for a while, having stated that the alliance “has lost the ability to express the people’s will.” Indeed, this assessment is not an overstatement as the parties in the Nation Alliance are far from developing a unified and consistent political program, the main agenda of these opposition meetings revolving around two topics—the collective opposition to Erdogan and the proposal to strengthen the parliamentary system.

In other words, the coalition’s members do not share a political platform, with each promoting their own political agendas and cherishing their own plans for distribution of powers and authorities in a possible coalition government. So far, there is no reason to expect a compromise between the leaders of the main opposition parties on these key issues, which is alarming, because it could lead to another political crisis. This is the last thing Turkish voters want. Quite indicatively, more than half of those polled expressed doubts in the ability of the main opposition bloc to solve the country’s current economic problems, according to a survey conducted by the Metropoll agency.

Let us talk about the main advantages of Erdogan in the context of the current electoral process. First of all, the incumbent president is actively pursuing the idea of establishing Turkey as a major regional hub for logistics and energy as well as an international transport artery for food freights. The almost simultaneous launch of all these transit initiatives in 2023 can provide Turkey with a brilliant prospect, resulting in a viable way of replenishing the state treasury. Mr. Erdogan is already garnering certain political dividends from the practical implementation of these large-scale regional projects, and we have to admit that their monetization will not be long in coming. The Turkish leader is aware of that, making great effort to ensure that these initiatives start working at their full capacity within the set deadlines.

Second, the commissioning of some major infrastructure facilities is anticipated this year, including those in the industrial, energy and logistics sectors. It is planned to expand some of the already existing large-scale projects in both infrastructure and high technology (civil, military and dual-use), which were launched during the AKP rule, bringing them to a new quality level.

Third, the Turkish president seriously expects his monetary policy to start bearing fruit already by the end of this year. It should be mentioned that his insistence on restraining and even lowering the key rate of the central bank does not fit into the generally accepted laws of economic theory, according to which one of the ways to tackle inflation is the central bank raising the key interest rate. In other words, the usual course of action should look as follows: the central bank raises the rate, while banks adapt their interest rates on loans and deposits to match the Central Bank’s higher rate. As a result, loans become more expensive, and deposits—more profitable. Accordingly, the funds of the population are drawn to deposits, the money supply is compressed, which ultimately leads to a slowdown in inflation.

However, according to Mr. Erdogan, inflation could be reined using the opposite method, which is the reduction of the Central Bank’s interest rate. This should increase the availability of cheap money in the country, boosting the production of domestic goods and services, which are then exported in exchange for foreign currency. Foreign currency is sold on the domestic market, strengthening the Turkish lira exchange rate and slowing the rate of inflation. The government expects that there will be a slowdown in annual inflation to some 20% by the end of 2023. Accordingly, in the medium term, the growing trade surplus should strengthen the national currency, as is forecast by the government. Today, the refinancing rate of the Central Bank in Turkey is going down in the face of severe pressure, amounting to 8.5% (last year it stood at 14%). If this approach, based mainly on promoting the exports of goods and tourism, is successful, Mr. Erdogan might rest on the laurels as the “innovator economist,” which will automatically make him the main author of the Turkish model of economic development, as he displaces Turgut Ozal from this pedestal, who was the father of the “Turkish miracle” and initiator of socioeconomic reforms in Turkey in the late 20th century.

Critics of this economic policy warn that the growth-oriented policy pursued in the run-up to the elections is unstable and could cause a systemic economic crisis. In turn, Turkish voters do not share the optimism of the authorities, albeit seeing no real alternatives from the opposition either.

Today, about 42% of respondents approve of what Erdogan does as president. It should be noted that this is not a bad indicator in the current difficult economic situation, but it may not be enough for Erdogan’s coalition to win the upcoming elections. Perhaps, that was the reason why the Turkish authorities were going to launch military operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Another successful operation, which could have resulted in a crushing blow to the plans of a “Syrian Kurdistan,” could have strengthened the position of Erdogan and his party on the eve of the upcoming elections. In the meantime, the Turkish media review shows that public opinion is now least concerned about a new Syrian front. Moreover, the military operation is seen mostly in the context of a possible influx of new refugees. Under such circumstances, the normalization of relations with Syria looks like a much better prospect.

The incumbent President has been pointing to Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s weakness and even incompetence in foreign policy as well as security matters in every way possible. After Mr. Erdogan was announced the official candidate of the People’s Alliance for president, he addressed 10 questions to the leader of the CHP, which cornered him, as he was confronted with a difficult dilemma. These questions remained unanswered, which gave the Turkish president grounds for stating that the opposition acts not in the best interests of the Turkish electorate but to promote the interests of external forces.

It is obvious that Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu turned out to be “the most convenient” presidential candidate for Mr. Erdogan in comparison with other possible contenders—the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara. Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavaş were once the favorites among the opposition, garnering the support of 60.4 percent and 50.7 percent of voters, respectively. But in the words of Kılıçdaroğlu, these surveys are now “irrelevant.”

Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu has led the CHP, the oldest Republican Party of Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for 13 years. Under his leadership, Ataturk’s party has evolved from a nationalist and Kemalist party into a more progressive and leftist force. The party leader abandoned opposition to the hijab and tried to build bridges with other political movements, including Islamists and conservative democrats. He also managed to convince Turkey’s nationalistic Good Party and the pro-Kurdish HDP to support the same candidate in the 2018 mayoral elections, when the opposition defeated the ruling AKP in Istanbul and Ankara for the first time in nearly two decades.

Kılıçdaroğlu promised to send millions of Syrian refugees back home and to restore relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad as part of his election program. The CHP leader does not approve of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, believing it has caused a rift with Washington. He also stated that, if elected, he would review the Central Bank’s management and stop interfering in its policies. Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s position on the Kurdish question is not so clear-cut. This may be due to the disputes between the nationalist and social-democratic wings of the AKP over this issue. In 2013, the politician condemned the peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as part of a plot to create a Great Kurdistan, and the party consistently supported military action against the group and its Kurdish-Syrian allies until recently. By 2021, however, Kılıçdaroğlu had changed his position, stating that the former co-chairman of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, was “unjustly” put behind bars. In September 2021, he declared that the HDP was a “legitimate body” and called it a viable partner to “address the Kurdish question”.

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Today, none of the main contenders for presidency in Turkey has a clear advantage. The electoral process is quite tense, while the arguments of the parties are multifaceted, spilling over from foreign policy into economic and domestic policy domains and vice versa. Supporters of political parties often resort to polarizing society in an attempt to strengthen their base.

An important feature of the current election race in Turkey has been a blatant interference of the U.S. in the process. Even before his election, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “We need to make it crystal clear that we support the opposition leaders and that we have a road map. We have to speak louder about what we think. Erdogan needs to be overthrown by way of elections. He was kicked out in Istanbul, and his party was kicked out as well.” Notably, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jeffrey Flake held meetings with all representatives of the country’s main opposition political forces. The Turkish president openly accused him of an unprofessional approach.

Amidst the growing anti-American, anti-NATO and anti-Western sentiments in Turkey, fostering cooperation with Russia looks quite advantageous practically in all areas. As for this track, all the parties (both members of the ruling alliance and members of the opposition bloc) hold on to a similar position, generally speaking. Most likely, this has to do with a clear demand existing in the Turkish society. There is an understanding that Turkey is a player that is to a certain extent dependent on Russia—particularly, in economic, trade, energy, tourism and other domains. Turkey remembers very well that the entire tourism industry of the Republic was seriously impaired with the sharp decline in tourist flows from Russia in 2015-2016, with hundreds of hotels closed and resort areas suffering huge losses. The Russian market is extremely attractive for Turkey; this explains the fact that recently, with the departure of Western brands from Russia, the Turks have been actively building up their presence in almost all sectors. The country understands that Russia’s position largely determines the level of its presence in a number of regions, including Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Black Sea region, etc. Russia and Turkey interact effectively within the framework of international formats to negotiate settlements in Syria, Libya, Karabakh.

Turkey is seeking to play a mediating role in the Ukrainian crisis. Ankara sees this as an opportunity to strengthen its position in the international arena. As an initiator and mediator in implementing the new regional mechanism under the auspices of the UN, aimed at addressing issues related to global food security, Turkey gets an additional opportunity to assert itself as a responsible global player. This is a completely new perspective for the country, which followed from permanent contacts with Russia. Today, Ankara has become virtually the only player in the Collective West, who is capable of maintaining a normal dialogue with both Moscow and Kiev. Turkey has not joined the anti-Russian sanctions and currently enjoys Moscow’s trust. It is making the most of this privilege in its communication with Western countries by demanding certain concessions from them. Such diplomatic maneuvers have provided Turkey with important advantages that its other potential competitors on the issue of the Ukrainian settlement do not possess. In other words, the growing engagement with Russia can guarantee the incumbent Turkish government success, both domestically and internationally. This circumstance is certainly taken into account by both the incumbent authorities and the opposition forces. Thus, cooperation with Russia promises to be an important and constant topic of discussion in the Turkish presidential election race.

From our partner RIAC

Amur Gadzhiev
Amur Gadzhiev
PhD, Research Fellow, Turkish Sector at the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, Director of the Centre for Modern Turkish Studies