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Turkey elections: More than just a change of government

May 7, 2023

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled Turkey for more than 20 years. For the first time, he isn't the favorite to win an election. Who are his rivals, what electoral alliances are there and how fair is the campaign?

Türkei Wahlkampf l Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Präsidentschaftskandidat, Opposition in Van
Voters in Turkey attend a rally for opposition candidate Kemal KilicdarogluImage: Alp Eren Kaya/Depo Photos/ABACA/picture alliance

On May 14, Turkey will elect a new parliament and a new president. And after 20 years in power, the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the clear favorite. The polls also show his electoral alliance trailing behind that of the opposition.

What is Turkey's political system?

According to its constitution, the Turkish Republic was established in 1923 as a parliamentary democracy. Erdogan, however, was keen to change this — and in 2017, his governing AKP party amended the constitution with the support of its ultra-nationalist partner, the MHP.

They introduced an executive presidential system with the 2018 elections. Since then, the president has not only the country's head of state, he also heads the government. The office of prime minister has been abolished.

The president is directly elected by the people for a five-year term, and under the new system he has wide-ranging powers. He appoints and dismisses ministers and high-ranking civil servants at his own discretion, and he also heads the cabinet.

The ministers appointed by him can, in turn, appoint governors and state representatives in the provinces and administrative districts, which allows the president to exert his influence all the way down to local government.

The head of state also has the power to issue presidential decrees and to fill many posts in the judiciary, as well as in specific departments such as finance or education. The most important offices of the secret service and the powerful religious authority Diyanet also report directly to the president.

Furthermore, the requirement of non-partisanship was abolished with the introduction of the presidential system. This has meant that, as president, Erdogan has been able to continue as chairman of his conservative Islamic ruling party, the AKP. There is now very little in the way of separation of powers.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks into a microphone
After 20 years in power, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not the clear favorite in this month's electionImage: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Who is running for president?

There are four candidates running in the presidential election. However, it is the incumbent president, Erdogan, and his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of the largest opposition alliance, who will be going head to head. Many polls put Kilicdaroglu in the lead, making Erdogan and the government camp increasingly nervous.

The approval ratings of the other two candidates hover between 2-6%. Their candidacies are more likely to mean that the presidency will be decided only after a run-off, in a second round of voting.

Does the parliament carry any weight?

During his time in office, Erdogan has tailored the apparatus of state to his own ends by repeatedly extending his powers.

Although the number of delegates increased from 550 to 600 when the presidential system was introduced, Erdogan has relegated the Turkish parliament to insignificance. It can still debate and pass laws, but the government camp, with its predominant majority, has blocked every opposition project in parliament and simply forced through its own political agenda.

The government has also used its majority to stymie opposition demands, such as the establishment of committees of inquiry in response to major disasters or allegations of corruption. In most cases, the government has not even responded to the opposition's inquiries.

At present, there are 14 parties represented in parliament. Many of these were able to pass the seven-percent hurdle by forming electoral alliances.

 Kemal Kilicdaroglu raises his hand in greetings along with others from his party at a campaign event
Turkey's opposition has united behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu (center)Image: Alp Eren Kaya/Depo Photos/ABACA/picture alliance

What are the political alliances?

Three electoral alliances are playing a decisive role in the parliamentary elections: Erdogan's People's Alliance, the National Alliance of the biggest opposition block and the Labor and Freedom Alliance, led by the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, or HDP.

For years now, in addition to the AKP, Erdogan's People's Alliance has included the ultra-nationalist parties MHP and BBP. They were recently joined by the New Welfare Party, which has its origins in the Islamist Milli Gorus ideology.

Erdogan's alliance is also supported by the radical Islamist pro-Kurdish party HUDAPAR, which has close connections with the terrorist organization Turkish Hezbollah. Several large orthodox Muslim communities are also openly campaigning for Erdogan and his alliance; they risk losing the numerous privileges they currently enjoy under this president if he loses.

The biggest opposition alliance consists of six parties from very different parts of the political spectrum. Their presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was able to unite them, and he commands respect among many government critics. The Kurdish-Socialist Labor and Freedom Alliance also favors Kilicdaroglu.

The driving force behind this third alliance is the pro-Kurdish HDP. Legal proceedings aimed at banning this party are currently underway. Thousands of its members are in prison on terrorism charges, and almost all HDP mayors have been removed from office.

The HDP's former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been detained in a high-security prison for the past seven years, has been waging an effective campaign against Erdogan and his government from behind bars. His lawyers convey his messages to the public, which have also helped to influence the course of the election campaign, especially on the Kurdish issue.

How many people are eligible to vote?

According to official figures, over 64.1 million people are eligible to vote in the 14 May elections. More than 3.4 million of them live abroad. This makes the overseas vote the fourth largest bloc after the big Turkish metropolises of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Voting abroad opened on April 27.

Turkish diaspora in Germany heads to the polls

Turnout in the 2018 elections was higher than 86% in Turkey itself. Among overseas voters, it was around 50%. Erdogan won the presidency in the first round with 53% of the vote, and his election alliance received almost 54% of valid votes cast in Turkey. Both were more successful among overseas voters, scoring over 60% among that group.

According to the Turkish electoral authority, 167,000 Syrians are also eligible to vote in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. So are 23,000 people from Afghanistan, 21,000 from Iran, 16,000 from Iraq, and 6,000 from Libya. With the exception of the pro-Kurdish HDP, all the political parties are running on an election promise to send refugees back as quickly as possible.

Election campaign rhetoric

The devastating earthquakes in February and the timing of the fasting month of Ramadan meant that campaigning got off to a late start. The biggest opposition alliance and its presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, only went on the offensive a few weeks ago.

Erdogan's election campaign is primarily focused on the opening of large-scale state projects, such as the unveiling of the first aircraft carrier, or the inauguration of the first nuclear power plant on Turkish soil, thanks to Russian technology. But he is also fond of making appearances in mosque courtyards and likes to rely on disinformation.

All the media channels are diligently toeing the government line. TRT, the state radio and television broadcaster, and the Anadolu news agency have accompanied Erdogan and his allies every step of the way. The opposition calculates that the incumbents have had 3,600 minutes of airtime in the past four weeks; meanwhile, their competitors have been allocated a grand total of 42 minutes, all for negative reporting.

Elections in Turkey: Is Erdogan losing power?

This article has been translated from German.

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas