Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted at holding what the Washington Post has described as the “world’s most important election in 2023,” on May 14. This would put the date of the election just over one month earlier than the mandated June 18 deadline. It is also a symbolic date, representative of Turkey’s first free and fair elections in 1950 when the nascent Democrat Party of Adnan Menderes defeated the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party of Ataturk) in a landslide. Seventy-three years later, the irony could not be louder: Sevket Sureyya Aydemir, a veteran chronicler of the early republic and author of biographies of both Ataturk and his successor, Ismet Inonu, wrote that the Turkish Armed Forces in May 1950 stood ready to uphold the leadership of the CHP, regardless of the electoral outcome. According to Aydemir, it was Inonu who insisted that the CHP’s greatest defeat (at the ballot box) would also be its greatest victory—facilitating, for the first time, the peaceful transfer of power from the founding party of the republic to the popularly elected party chosen by the people.
Erdogan does not appear to be interested in repeating history. The 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections are an occasion where Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) are seeking to retain power and are not interested in achieving this goal by democratic means. Instead, the elections are under the shadow of a rapidly maturing authoritarian landscape. One of the most likely presidential candidates that stands a decent chance of defeating Erdogan is Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu. To prevent him from challenging Erdogan, the pro-Erdogan courts have slapped down a political ban on Imamoglu that could very well prevent him from assuming the presidency if he were to run and win. Moreover, the country’s top court—the Constitutional Court—is poised to shut down the second most popular party in the opposition ranks: the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). As it stands, the HDP polls between 12-15 percent. Closing it down would mean that its share of votes would be redistributed to the remaining parties and candidates in the race. There are other factors that will likely prevent a free and fair election from taking place: a largely pro-Erdogan mainstream media that actively shuns and delegitimizes all shades of the political opposition landscape.
Added to this punch bowl is a rapidly expanding economic strategy that Erdogan is unleashing day by day to increase his chances of electoral victory. This is Erdogan and the AKP’s soft underbelly: a disastrous economy plagued by unbridled consumer inflation, officially running at 65 percent. The unofficial rate is far higher—and likely closer to reality—at 170 percent. Beginning in 2023, the government has offered up a barrage of spoils intended to please a diverse body of voters: increases to the minimum wage, increases to pensions, lowering of interest rates for borrowers, and widespread availability of credit opportunities for businesses. These are haphazard economic measures that will no doubt saddle the country with further debt, but everything is intended for the short term and to one end: woo enough voters to vote for Erdogan and worry about the consequences later.
However, to achieve the threshold of victory—50 percent of the vote, plus one—Erdogan is hoping for the continuity of one factor that is not directly under his control: the continued incompetence of the opposition parties that joined together as the Nation Alliance.
Spearheaded by the CHP and the Good Party (IP), the opposition alliance of six parties appears intent on handing over victory to Erdogan on a silver platter. Since its inception, the alliance, which was designed to remove Erdogan from power and reinstate the country’s parliamentary governance structure, has held many summits to discuss strategy and select a presidential candidate to challenge Erdogan. This has yet to happen, but circulating rumors suggest that the alliance is under tremendous pressure from the CHP to nominate its chairman, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as its presidential candidate. This is the worst possible choice. Polls consistently demonstrate that Kilicdaroglu is the least favored individual to defeat Erdogan. A wiser choice would either be Imamoglu or the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas. While Imamoglu faces the prospect of a political ban that could bar him from taking office, Yavas is bedeviled by his lack of appeal to Kurdish voters owing to his political roots as a Turkish nationalist. (In contrast, it is likely that Imamoglu can deliver the Kurdish vote, judging by the Kurdish support he received for his Istanbul campaign in 2019.) Kurdish voters are a vital part of the rod to victory, as they account for 12-15 percent of the total vote share. Added to this is the most important point which the opposition is decidedly overlooking: Imamoglu is the only person who has defied Erdogan at the ballot box; he won the Istanbul mayoral race twice in 2019, despite Erdogan’s efforts to nullify his victory.
So why does the alliance not nominate Imamoglu? There are two possible explanations. Frustratingly, the Nation Alliance is second-guessing itself. The opposition fears that if it nominates Imamoglu, and he runs to claim victory, he will ultimately be barred from taking office due to legal bans. A political ban is exactly the same problem Erdogan faced when the AKP won the general election in November 2002. Erdogan had to wait until March 2003 before he could assume the office of prime minister. The second and perhaps more worrying reason is ego. Kilicdaroglu, either by himself or the political groupies he is coddled by within the CHP, thinks he deserves to be the nominee. This is despite the fact that he has not scored one electoral victory against Erdogan since becoming chairman of the CHP in 2010. Meral Aksener, who leads the IP, is opposed to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, but it remains to be seen whether she can sway his mind.
This election, as far as the opposition alliance is concerned, is supposed to be about doing what it takes to vote Erdogan out of power, restore the rule of law, re-anchor Turkey as a parliamentary democracy, and distance it from the shadow of one-man rule that Erdogan has imposed. If the opposition is interested in seeing this become a reality, it would do well to nominate Imamoglu as the alliance’s candidate. Let Erdogan do his very worst! If Imamoglu is nominated, Erdogan will likely pull out all the stops to prevent his victory. In the likely event that Imamoglu wins the presidency, Erdogan will be tempted to rely on illegitimate bans to prevent him from taking office. But Erdogan knows he cannot count on that. Public pressure from an Imamoglu victory would likely be so great that that insistence on upholding his political ban in the courts is likely to falter. It is way past time for Turkey’s opposition to make the right choice. Imamoglu represents the best chance for a democratic Turkey.
Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). He is also an Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Command and Staff College-Marine Corps University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He tweets @sinanciddi.
Image: Lumiereist / Shutterstock.com