Political Polarization:

On 27 April 2023, Turkish citizens living abroad began casting their votes for their country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, and will continue to vote over the following twelve days. The number of Turkish absentee voters is estimated to be around 3,416,000 people. Voting has begun just as the controversy over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s health has receded. Two days after falling ill during a live TV interview, Erdoğan participated via video conference in the inauguration of a Turkish nuclear plant. This comes at a time when Turkish parties across the political spectrum are ramping up election campaigns before heading to the ballot box on 14 May 2023. These elections are the most important in Turkish history, and the international community is watching closely to see who will emerge victorious, especially given concerns about future directions for Turkey’s regional policy in light of rapid global and regional geopolitical shifts.

Key Issues

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council announced the final list of candidates for the country’s parliamentary elections, which include candidates from 24 parties on joint lists in addition to 152 independent candidates. Voting for parliamentary elections will take place over the course of a single day, concurrently with the first round of presidential election on 14 May 2023, from 8:00am to 5:00pm. The second round of presidential elections will be held on 28 May. In late March 2023, four leading presidential candidates launched their electoral campaigns: current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the 68-year-old candidate for the People’s Alliance; 74-year-old opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for the Nation Alliance; Muharrem İnce, leader of the Homeland Party; and Sinan Oğan, the candidate for the Ancestral (ATA) Alliance. These candidates have divergent stances on various issues, including the following:

1. Economic Incentives: Erdoğan officially launched his electoral campaign in Istanbul, calling for a "Turkish century" under a leader determined to work. He promised to protect Turkish national security, combat terrorism, increase the volume of foreign trade to $1 trillion, attract 90 million tourists, and raise the per capita annual income to $16,000 during the coming period. Over the past two months, Erdoğan outlined various economic incentives for supporting his candidacy, which some have described as "election bribes." Half of workers in Turkey earn around the minimum wage, which Erdoğan announced he would raise to $443 per month. On 20 April 2023, he also celebrated the arrival of a shipment of natural gas from the Black Sea to an onshore plant by promising up to 25 free cubic meters of natural gas per month to households for up to a year.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, held a rally in Çanakkale in northwest Turkey. He promised to restore and strengthen democracy, end one-man rule, improve the standard of living, and ensure no family was living below the poverty line. Kılıçdaroğlu also committed to restoring the independence of Turkey’s Central Bank, reestablishing parliamentary governance, and amending the constitution. Kılıçdaroğlu has also made economic promises to attract more than $300 billion in foreign investments, which Erdoğan has criticized, accusing his rival of trying to collaborate with the IMF. Kılıçdaroğlu has also promised to improve internet speeds to 1000 mbps (megabits per second).

2. National Megaprojects: Erdoğan has intensified efforts to launch national megaprojects as electoral propaganda during his campaign. He announced the production of Turkey’s first locally-manufactured electric car, and inaugurated the first phase of the Istanbul Financial Center. Erdoğan also unveiled the locally-manufactured aircraft carrier TCG Anadolu, which crossed the Bosphorus Strait for the first time. Furthermore, he claimed that domestic production in defense industries had reached 80%, and launched the Akkuyu nuclear energy plant, which was built by Russia. Erdoğan took advantage of the catastrophic earthquake that struck Turkey on 6 February 2023 and announced that building code violations would be considered criminal offenses and would not be subject to construction amnesties, in order to hold contractors accountable. He traveled to an earthquake-stricken area of Turkey to attend a ceremony to lay the foundation for 17,902 housing units.

Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu outlined his plans for his first 100 days in office, which focused on providing relief to earthquake survivors, improving conditions for civil servants, farmers, small businesses, and retirees, as well as combatting corruption and recovering the alleged $418 billion that has been smuggled outside the country. He also promised to strengthen the value of the Turkish lira, take a stand against the mafia, drug-dealers, and criminal building contractors, and expand the construction of schools in villages.

3. Stances on Kurds and Alevis: Kılıçdaroğlu announced for the first time that he was part of the Alevi minority in Turkey, which makes him the first Alevi presidential candidate in the country’s history. This minority of around 15 million (of Turkey’s 80 million people) has been subject to societal discrimination and systematic governmental oppression. Erdoğan has previously accused Alevis of trying to control the judiciary and of inventing a new religion. With regard to Kurds, Kılıçdaroğlu stated that he hoped to make Kurdish a second national language and finally resolve the Kurdish issue in parliament. As a result, Erdoğan accused his opponent of backing terrorism and suggested that Kılıçdaroğlu would release Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned since 1998 on charges of terrorism; Kılıçdaroğlu denied that he would do so.

Kılıçdaroğlu has made clear his stance on Alevis and Kurds, who have been subject to systematic oppression and discrimination during the last decade, in order to try to gain support from those voting blocs. However, this has also lost him the vote of religious conservatives and right-wing nationalists, which Erdoğan will try to attract in greater numbers. Erdoğan also attended the traditional Romani iftar in Istanbul, promising to address their grievances, and criticizing racism towards this group in order to justify his stance on the Kurds and Alevis.

4. Controversies over Refugee Policy: Erdoğan launched his electoral campaign on 31 March 2023 in Gaziantep, a location he chose for two reasons: it is a province where many buildings were destroyed during the earthquake and it is on the border with Syria. It contains a significant number of Syrian refugees who support Erdoğan, who had granted citizenship to 120,000 Syrians, enabling them to vote in elections. These voters will support Erdoğan because he has promised he would only return them to Syria under "safe and voluntary" circumstances, and after discussions with the Syrian regime. In contrast, opposition parties have developed an anti-refugee discourse: Kılıçdaroğlu vowed to send back Syrians over a two-year period if he won, along with Afghan and Turkmen refugees. Sinan Oğan also stated that his party would return Syrians to their country, even if against their will. Meral Akşener, the head of the Good Party and an ally of Erdoğan, said that Syrians would have to go and that it was her duty to ensure that Syrians left Turkey.

5. Erdoğan Stands Out in Foreign Policy: Erdoğan has been successful over the last two years in achieving regional rapprochement between Arab countries and Israel, as well as in renewing talks with Greece. He has been able to maintain balance in foreign relations between Moscow and Washington, and has been the chosen intermediary during the crisis in Ukraine. Turkey has strengthened its regional role in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia, and Erdoğan has used this to bolster his popularity. Kılıçdaroğlu has called for strengthening Turkish-Western ties and promised to meet all requirements to join the EU and to hold a quadrilateral meeting between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to counter terrorism and the PKK. Kılıçdaroğlu has denied claims that he supports the PKK.

Foreign policy and defense are the weakest areas of Kılıçdaroğlu’s platform, which does not provide clear direction in this regard. He also lacks experience in the international sphere, unlike Erdoğan, whose experience has enabled him to constantly exploit regional crises for his own benefit. Kılıçdaroğlu has criticized the close ties between Moscow and Ankara without providing an alternative. Given Turkish-Russian entanglements on regional issues, it would be difficult for Turkey to cope with the economic and political fallout of cooling relations with Russia. Kılıçdaroğlu has not taken a clear stance regarding Turkish military forces in northern Syria and Iraq, while Erdoğan has affirmed that these forces must stay in order to defend Turkey against terrorist groups.

The parameters of Erdoğan’s foreign policy are therefore clearer. He has created an independent Turkish foreign policy focused on balancing between rival powers in order to further Turkey’s own interests. If Erdoğan wins the election, this policy will continue. However, if the opposition wins, it is not yet entirely clear what directions Turkish foreign policy might take, or whether it would realign with Western policies in the region.

On the Campaign Trail

The upcoming Turkish presidential elections are of utmost importance since they will not only determine the next president of Turkey but also what mode of governance the country will pursue and what foreign and domestic policies it will adopt. These issues have appeared in electoral campaigns in the following ways:

1. Sharp Polarization between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu: The electoral campaigns have become sharply polarized between the two leading candidates. On the one hand, current President Erdoğan is aware of how important these elections are for him and will endeavor to win in order to ensure his continued political future after a combined two decades in office. A victory for Erdoğan would make him the longest-ruling president of Turkey. On the other, National Alliance opposition leaderKılıçdaroğlu has promised to amend the constitution if he wins and return to a parliamentary system, which would mark a fundamental shift in state policy. As a result of their political differences, Erdoğan did not shake hands with Kılıçdaroğlu during the National Sovereignty Day celebrations, for which he was criticized in some circles. Meanwhile, Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ went as far as to say that voting for the People’s Alliance meant voting for "terrorism." Önder Aksakal, head of the Democratic Left Party and an ally of Erdoğan, labeled the Turkish opposition "infidels."

This polarization is also evident from how the candidates’ electoral campaigns have been run. Erdoğan has tried to communicate directly with citizens and has visited all the Turkish provinces. Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu addresses voters on social media through video messages recorded in his kitchen. Although these videos have garnered 3.3 million views, Kılıçdaroğlu did not reach the half of the country’s population that does not have social media. This means that he is not always communicating as directly as Erdoğan, which has limited the former’s ability to mobilize voters. The candidates have also exchanged insults and accusations: Erdoğan regularly describes his opponent as aligned with "coup-plotters and global imperialism." For his part, Kılıçdaroğlu has called Erdoğan an authoritarian dictator. Erdoğan continues to use populist strategies to build his voter base and has made an effort to visit all Turkish provinces, especially in central and southern Anatolia.

2. Escalating Violence: Several party headquarters have been shot at, including the AKP headquarters in Istanbul and Adana. The same was true of the opposition’s Good Party headquarters in Istanbul, after which Akşener accused Erdoğan of inciting violence against the Good Party. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) headquarters in Istanbul was also targeted by an attack and fired on twice. There have also been threats of violence, including by mafia member Yousef Dia, who threatened to kill all members of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party if they supported Kılıçdaroğlu in the upcoming elections. He stated that chaos would spread across the country if Kılıçdaroğlu won. This could portend escalating violence on election day (14 May), especially in the southern Kurdish governments, which constitute 10% of the electorate.

3. Fluctuating Polls: Turkish opinion polls have not shown a clear favorite in the upcoming elections; results continue to fluctuate between Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan. In any case, these polls are unreliable because they are carried out in major cities such as Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, leaving out provinces and cities in central Anatolia and southern and northern Turkey, where Erdoğan and his party continue to have a majority. Furthermore, new blocs of voters will cast their ballots the upcoming elections. More than 6 million youth will be able to vote for the first time, and their politics remain unclear. The number of Turkish voters abroad also increased to more than 3 million, about half of whom are in Germany (1,501,000 voters). These new blocs of voters could be decisive in the outcome of the elections.

4. International Attention: The electoral campaigns in Turkey have received significant international attention. Russian state media close to the Kremlin warned against Western meddling in the elections against Erdoğan, whom it described as Moscow’s ally. Meanwhile, Washington announced that it did not support any candidate over another in the Turkish presidential elections, although the US ambassador in Ankara visited with Kılıçdaroğlu.

The EU has criticized Turkish opposition stances towards Syrian refugees due to fears that large numbers of people could be expelled abroad if the opposition wins, which would result in new waves of irregular migrants to Europe. It is worth noting that Erdoğan had signed an agreement with the EU in 2016 to combat irregular migration in exchange for $2 billion in aid. A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated after a recent visit to Ankara that it felt that the electoral environment was challenging, and particularly difficult for opposition forces. It expressed concerns about a potential lack of impartiality in election procedures. Some Western observers indicated that the international community did not want to see Erdoğan defeated because they were not prepared to deal with a new political reality in Turkey.

In conclusion, the Turkish presidential election has become a contest between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. With regard to their personal and professional capabilities, Erdoğan perhaps has the upper hand to win another term. However, his party is likely to lose its majority in parliament, which could create obstacles for his government in passing legislation. The real challenge for the next president will come after election day. The victor will have to navigate how to balance regional security threats with domestic economic and social crises, taking into account the rapidly shifting geopolitical variables in the region.