Turkish elections: Can Erdogan maintain his grip on power?
The outcome of Turkiye’s upcoming vote could determine whether Ankara returns to a western-oriented foreign policy, or if Erdogan strengthens the country's autonomous direction.
By Mohamad Hasan Sweidan
March 02 2023
Photo Credit: The Cradle

As the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic approaches, Turkiye faces one of the most important elections in its history. Most importantly, the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, currently slated for May, could lead to major shifts in the country’s foreign policy.

But the February earthquakes that devastated swathes southern Turkiye have compounded the pressures on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was already dealing with a number of internal and external vulnerabilities that could lead to his electoral ousting.

Erdogan has described the earthquake as “the largest disaster the country has witnessed since the Erzincan earthquake in 1939.” Currently presiding over a deteriorating domestic economy, he has become an easy target for negative media campaigns, faces an unusually united front of opposition parties, and is the subject of constant attacks from the west, who support the Turkish opposition both politically and in the media. Despite these challenges, Erdogan is looking to cling to power by any means necessary.

Turkiye’s Military Coups

In modern Turkiye, one well-trodden path to abrupt power shifts has been the “military coup”: the country experienced four of these between 1923 and 2000. All were preceded by some common factors, including domestic economic deterioration and improving ties with the Soviet Union or Iran, especially after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The combined result of these coups was to reaffirm Turkiye’s loyalty to the western axis and to halt rapprochement with Moscow or Tehran.

Two decades ago, when Erdogan was first elected as prime minister, Turkiye was governed under a parliamentary system. But a 2017 constitutional referendum transformed it into a presidential one, where the authority of the parliament and cabinet diminished in relation to the presidency. Erdogan understood from the onset that the key to his survival in power was to prevent economic decline and to contain the influence of the military over civilian authority.

Consequently, his government has implemented policies to reduce the powers of the Turkish military, extend full state control over the army, and reduce its grip on political power. This has inhibited the army’s ability to overthrow civilian power centers whenever it wants.

Erdogan used the pretext of joining the EU to launch a reform process in Turkiye, enacting national laws that were more compatible with European standards, including respect for freedoms. Through these reforms, a body of laws was amended, limiting the powers of military justice and subjecting military personnel to common law. The Erdogan government has also ousted secular military figures over alleged links to terrorist organizations.

The ruling  Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued to work towards limiting the role of Turkiye’s armed forces, and after a long and taxing process of normalizing civil-military relations, Erdogan was able to gain full civilian control of the Turkish military following the 2016 coup attempt.

This move limited the military’s traditional status and role as guardian of the republic, and after achieving this milestone, economic pressure became Ankara’s only tool for change. The ballot box has thus become the only means of overthrowing the Turkish president, as the military, which was previously a means of reorienting Turkiye whenever it veered from its pro-west orientation, is now subordinate to political authority in Ankara.

A western or independent foreign policy

It is worth noting that Erdogan’s Turkiye is no longer viewed as the “Turkish model,” which was once widely lauded as a democratic, Islamic leadership in a secular, pro-western country. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Turkiye was seen as an example of a western-allied Islamic power, and its positive relationship with the US provided evidence for Washington that its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were wars against terror, and not Islam.

However, today, Turkiye has lost this vaunted ‘status,’ and the US and EU increasingly view Erdogan as helming an undemocratic authority. As a result, Ankara was not invited to attend the Summit of Democracies held by Washington in December 2021, because countries like Turkiye have been “undermining their democratic systems for years.”

A report issued by the European Commission on 19 October, 2021 also criticized the performance of Turkish institutions, stating:

“There are serious deficiencies in the functioning of Turkiye’s democratic institutions. Democratic backsliding continued during the reporting period…The constitutional architecture continued to centralise powers at the level of the Presidency without ensuring a sound and effective separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary.”

The west’s primary concern with Erdogan is his pursuit of an autonomous foreign policy that may clash with western interests. Erdogan’s policies after the 2011 Arab uprisings, which conflicted with western interests in Libya and Egypt – as well as his support for Turkish Cypriot independence, ongoing tensions with Greece, Turkiye’s growing ties with Russia and Iran, and rejection of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO – have all contributed to growing western dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s leadership.

In order to pursue his foreign policy goals, Erdogan has strengthened his position domestically, notably through the 2017 referendum that transformed Turkiye’s government into a presidential system and consolidated his power.

This has left the west with few options to influence change in Turkiye, limiting their options to supporting a fragmented opposition, applying economic, political, and media pressure on the AKP, and working toward establishing an opposition coalition that can defeat Erdogan at the ballot box.

As US-European policies begin to re-unify after the Trump era, and with the year-old conflict in Ukraine still escalating, Erdogan’s independent policies are increasingly seen as unacceptable, with demands that Turkiye reposition itself within the western axis. This is despite the fact that the west recognizes the world order is shifting toward a more inclusive, multipolar one. According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “we’re no longer in the post-Cold War era. There’s a competition on to shape what comes next.”

Erdogan’s vision for his country’s place in the new world order differs from Washington’s: He seeks to position Turkiye as a regional power with interests in both the east and west, while the US wants Turkiye’s regional clout to be exercised in concert with western interests, and aligned against Russia and Iran.

To achieve western objectives, Turkiye must return to being a secular, pro-western state. Thus, Erdogan’s defeat in the next election is crucial for Ankara to return to the western fold as a fully committed ally.

The quake’s aftershocks

The devastating earthquakes in Turkiye have had far-reaching political and economic impact, with Erdogan’s opponents leading charges that his government lacked all basic emergency preparations for the disaster. Influential media outlets, both domestic and international, have heavily criticized Ankara’s earthquake response initiatives, which have morphed into a wider campaign against Erdogan.

In a way, the catastrophe was an unexpected gift to Erdogan’s opponents, who, from the very outset, blamed the Turkish president. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who leads Turkiye’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said:

“If there is anyone responsible for this process, it is Erdogan. It is this ruling party that has not prepared the country for an earthquake for 20 years.”

To counter the criticism, Erdogan has initiated steps to help those affected by the earthquake, promising to rebuild damaged buildings within a year, and pay rents while the reconstruction is underway. He has also been filmed and photographed while participating in the burial of victims and inspecting the conditions of affected families, particularly by pro-AKP media.

However, the economic impact of the earthquake – a loss of $2.9 billion in manpower, according to a report by Turkish business group Turkonfed – and damage to infrastructure, including roads, electricity grids, hospitals, and schools, estimated at $84 billion, constituting around 10 percent of Turkiye’s GDP – will have severe repercussions for the Turkish economy.

Who is Erdogan up against?

The 2019 local elections in Turkiye demonstrated the opposition’s ability to win in municipalities previously dominated by the AKP, notably in Istanbul and Ankara. Erdogan’s surprise and discontent with voting results were evident in his demands for re-election in Istanbul. Instead, the rerun resulted in a significant increase in votes for the opposition at the expense of Erdogan’s candidate.

Image 1: Map distributing the results of the 2019 municipal elections in Turkey
Image 1: Map distributing the results of the 2019 municipal elections in Turkiye

For Washington to be rid of Erdogan, it will be necessary to establish a strong alliance against the Turkish strongman. The “Alliance of Six,” which includes six opposition parties seeking to agree on a single candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, is an example of this strategy.

The following is a table of the key political parties in Turkiye:

The different orientations of these parties, as shown in the table above, are perhaps one of the main reasons why the Alliance of Six has failed to rally around a single candidate. To minimize competition within the opposition, it is likely that CHP leader Kilicdaroglu and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu will be the top contenders for the position, with the former currently most in favor.

If the Alliance of Six wins power, it could lead to a more western-aligned Turkiye that is less inclined toward foreign policy autonomy. The opposition coalition’s manifesto, which spans 240 pages and includes 2,300 points, highlights the importance of restoring “mutual trust” with the US, pursuing Turkiye’s goal of “full membership in the European Union,” and seeking the reinstatement of Turkiye’s involvement in the F-35 fighter jet program. Ankara was ejected from the program after it purchased Russian-made S-400 missiles following the failed 2016 coup attempt, which is often viewed by Turks as being US-instigated.

The following chart depicts the positions of opposition parties on a number of foreign policy topics:

The survival of Turkiye’s autonomous foreign policy

Erdogan is acutely aware that the upcoming elections will pose the greatest challenge of his political career. In order to secure a victory, he may have to make bold decisions that were previously unimaginable.

This conviction is further reinforced by the west’s support for the Turkish opposition and their desire to replace Erdogan with a more compliant candidate. With the Turkish elections expected to take place between May and July, and with ongoing western pressure on the Turkish leader, Erdogan has been forced to strengthen cooperation with those who want him to remain in power.

This is one of the main reasons why Turkiye’s relations with Russia have strengthened both economically and politically, and why Erdogan has sought to normalize relations with the Syrian government and improve ties with Iran.

Erdogan realized early on that he would not be the west’s favored candidate in the upcoming elections. In response, he shifted his foreign strategy to increase his chances of retaining power in Ankara. In 2022, he paid visits to the UAE in February and Saudi Arabia in May, and launched initiatives to improve relations with Israel, Egypt, and Syria.

Erdogan has also recognized that his political survival is aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests, as his successor would likely be a candidate fully compliant with the west. This was one of the primary reasons for the continued Russian-Turkish rapprochement.

That, and the fact that Turkish public sentiment has broadly shifted in favor of Russia – and away from the US – as revealed in a December 2022 poll, where nearly two-thirds of Turks supported relations with Moscow.

Undoubtedly, the earthquakes that struck Turkiye and Syria have complicated matters for Erdogan. However, he has long demonstrated his ability to turn threats into opportunities by shifting tactics advantageously. His ace for many years has also been to capitalize on his opposition’s weaknesses, fragmentation, and inability to unite effectively against him.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.
Mohamad Hasan Sweidan
More from this author
Most Popular