Written by Jayaditya Sinha
Edited by Annika Lilja
The 2023 Turkish Presidential Elections marked a pivotal moment in the country's political landscape, with significant implications not only for Turkey but also for the region and the international community. The elections showcased a fierce contest between the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Despite concerns about Turkish democracy and human rights under Erdogan's tenure, he remained popular with his conservative base and defied pre-election forecasts cementing his decades-long rule.
In May 2023, Turkish voters went to the polls for a highly contested presidential election. Although Erdogan outperformed expectations, he failed to reach the 50% threshold required to win outright, securing 49.51% of the vote against Kilicdaroglu's 44.88%. This presidential contest took place at a crucial time for Turkey, grappling with issues such as high inflation, the aftermath of the devastating February earthquakes, and growing concerns about democracy and human rights. The runoff election took place on May 28, which saw Erdogan extending his rule to the third decade by securing 52.18% of the vote in a historic election that saw a turnout of 87.04% and 84.5% of the electorate in the first and second round respectively.
Verdict on Turkish Secularism
The concept of secularism in Turkey can be traced back to the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His vision for Turkey was a modern, democratic, and secular nation-state that was a contrast from the previous Islamic Ottoman Empire. He believed that the separation of religion and state was essential for the progress of the country. These principles of secularism were then enshrined in the Turkish constitution, which established the country as a secular parliamentary democracy.
Erdogan's Islamist conservative policies have been at odds with these values, ever since he came to power in 2002. The introduction of Islamic education in public schools, the lifting of the ban on the Islamic headscarf, and the jailing of many secular opposition leaders are all seen as threats to Turkey's democratic values. Furthermore, he has been also criticized for his increasingly authoritarian tendencies and has raised concerns about the future of the democratic and secular values of the nation. Many fear that the results of this election may further empower him to erode the secularist and democratic principles.
Throughout the election campaign, Kilicdaroglu, the head of Ataturk's Republican People's Party (CHP), worked tirelessly to transform the election into a referendum on those secular ideals. He accomplished this by constantly citing Ataturk and emphasizing Erdogan's two-decade-long leadership as a threat to democracy. This contrasting approach was seen during the end of the campaign as Erdoğan paid a visit to the great mosque of Hagia Sophia while Kilicdaroglu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.
The six-party coalition called the Nation Alliance which was formed with the ultimate goal to dethrone had put up Kilicdaroglu as the joint presidential candidate. Despite these parties coming from a different slate of ideologies, their defeat exposes the challenges which the country’s secular forces face over the Islamist nationalist base, which Erdogan has been able to consolidate during his rule. Kilicdaroglu managed to secure significant support, securing support from the Kurdish HDP party and the ultranationalist far-right Victory Party at the same time, with hopes of building and attracting support from all sections of Turkish society. However, it wasn’t enough to fend off Erdogan, raising questions over preserving those values and the country's future course, particularly amongst the younger generation, who voted for Kilicdaroglu in large numbers.
What it Means for the World
The outcome of the elections in Turkey has significant implications for the country's foreign policy, especially towards the West and Arab neighbors. Turkey’s approach is expected to remain largely unchanged following Erdogan’s victory. Turkey will likely continue fulfilling its commitments within NATO while also creating some difficulties for the alliance, ultimately dashing the hopes of the West for a Kilicdaroglu victory which potentially meant a return to democratic norms, pro-NATO foreign policy, and increased cooperation with the U.S. and Europe.
The Biden administration has avoided picking sides in the Turkish elections, with President Biden stating that he hoped "whoever wins wins" and that there were "enough problems in that part of the world right now." However, Erdogan has capitalized on previous criticism from Biden, who had called Erdogan an autocrat and suggested the U.S. should support the opposition. Erdogan used this criticism to galvanize his public support and consolidate his voter base during the election campaign.
Turkey's relations with its Arab neighbors have evolved dramatically in recent years, particularly following Ankara's détente with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The election results signal a continuation of his détente with former Arab and Gulf foes. Moreover, normalizing ties with Syria and transferring Syrian refugees back to their country may no longer be as urgent as it was previously, given that this was an opposition issue that Erdogan appropriated because it was popular. Turkey will likely also continue to inhabit a gray zone between Russia and Ukraine, develop relations with the Gulf states in pursuit of investment from their sovereign wealth funds, use warming ties with Israel to improve Turkey's standing with the United States, and seek a reset with the U.S.
Concerns over the “Kurdish Question”
Under the rule of Erdogan, the Kurdish community has gone under severe crackdown and has thus raised concerns over the Kurdish political movement. The Kurds makeup 20% of the electorate and therefore remain a crucial political force in the country. Erdogan has often exploited the historical rift between Turks and Kurds, heightening societal anxieties and riding the ensuing nationalist wave to consolidate his power. During the campaign, he used fake videos to link Kilicdaroglu to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and made false claims about Kilicdaroglu's intentions regarding the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to galvanize his nationalistic base.
Moreover, his administration also forced HDP to rebrand itself under the name of YSP with fears of dissolution further alienating the Kurdish electorate. These concerns about human rights, sidelining of the community, and arrest of prominent leaders led the main Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to not put forward its candidate and endorse the joint opposition candidate in hopes of defeating Erdogan and a more sensitive government. As a result, they heavily backed Kilicdaroglu which enabled him to decisively win in the Kurdish majority south-eastern provinces of the country.
With the defeat of their preferred candidate, the issues are expected to be largely unresolved and further accelerate the crackdown on Kurdish leaders and activists under Erdogan’s presidency. With influential leaders like Abdullah Oclan of the Kurdistan Workers Party and Selahattin Demirtas of the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP still behind bars, the “Kurdish Question” is expected to be unresolved with the defeat of Kilicdaroglu.
With Erdogan being able to fend off a close contest, the concerns over human rights, authoritarianism, and Turkey’s secular principles are here to say as he will see his victory as a mandate for a continuation of his Islamic, increasingly authoritarian, and unorthodox economic policies. Further, it is also expected that the Turkish foreign policy approach which maintains a delicate balance between various regional and international powers is likely to be continued. While it was a close contest where opposition unity was largely visible, people who voted against Erdogan, including the Kurds, will hope the election results lead to Erdogan softening his stance and trying to address these concerns to some extent. In the end, a majority of young voters backed the opposition, revealing the appetite for change among the upcoming Turkish electorate. This might send a strong signal to Erdogan, about the upcoming elections, that he is not invincible. What his future approach will be particularly regarding the economy, religion, and authoritarianism will be interesting to see, although those who opposed him did not hold out much hope.
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