The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed comments on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends. Today we turn the spotlight on Türkiye’s general elections, considered the most formidable political challenge for President Erdoğan through his twenty-years in power.
On May 14, Turkish citizens headed to the polls to elect their next president and the members of the Grand National Assembly. As the official count came to an end, the presidential race remained tight, as neither the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, nor his primary challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, achieved an absolute majority to avoid a run-off. According to the government’s Anadolu Agency, Erdoğan is in the lead, ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu by nearly 5%, yet apparently still short of the total needed for a first-round victory and making a second round on May 28 inevitable. In this case, the support of the third candidate, Sinan Oğan – who won about 5% of the vote, could prove decisive, though it remains to be seen who he will endorse. In the parliamentary race, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) retained their majority by securing 321 seats. Regardless of the results, whoever wins this election will have to meet national challenges, such as rampant inflation, the sharp drop in the value of the national currency, and the reconstruction efforts of the areas affected by the February earthquake. With regard to foreign policy, the global community is paying close attention to the approaches of the contenders, as the election of a new president may entail a change to the country’s international behaviour.
Experts from the ISPI network react to the outcomes and scenarios of Türkiye’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
During the run-off, Erdogan will try to consolidate the nationalist voters
“On May 14 Türkiye went through one of the most engaging elections of its recent history, with almost 90% of the electorate casting their ballots, something which is certainly a global record. This was a testament to the Turkish people’s trust in their electorate system, the oppositions desire for an urgent change, and the AK Party supporters’ fears of losing control of the government. Since it is certain that there will be a runoff for the presidential election, with the AKP-MHP nationalist alliance receiving a legislative majority in the Parliament with 321 seats – compared to the opposition alliance’s 213 seats, the road is now clear. President Erdoğan, given the fall in AKP votes in this election compared to that of 2018 and him not securing the presidency in the first run, will try to consolidate the nationalist votes for the second run. Regarding the political position of the AK Party, Erdoğan will continue with his current position, both in domestic and international politics, whereas he may consider new adjustments in the economic policies.”
Defne Arslan, Senior Director, Atlantic Council in Turkey
Now that they are ahead, Erdoğan’s coalition has the whip hand
“Despite using state resources in his campaign and controlling most of the Turkish media, President Erdoğan did not win the presidential elections in the first round (but is in the lead). He will see the results as a mandate to continue his foreign and domestic policies. Internationally, he will continue to pursue resets with countries with which he previously had antagonistic relations, like Egypt and Syria. Domestically, he will likely reshape the opposition and push out some figures he despises, such as İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul. He could win the run-off by establishing a coalition with the third candidate Sinan Oğan. Still, this scenario is not very likely since he would only need to win a majority of the votes – conversely to the 50%+1 necessary in the first round. Erdoğan will face no significant opposition after this election and aim to win back some of the municipalities in the next local election, which will be within a year. His electoral alliance will remain stable as the allies will continue to reap the political and economic advantages of being in power.”
Guney Yildiz, Political Analyst; and Doctoral Researcher, Cambridge University
The Kılıçdaroğlu National Alliance will face an uphill battle during the run-off
“The results of the presidential and parliamentary votes present a challenging political scenario for Kılıçdaroğlu’s National Alliance. Kılıçdaroğlu’s unexpected finish behind Erdoğan in the first round shocked his supporters and led to a loss of hope which will make the opposition’s victory in the second round more difficult. Erdoğan’s People Alliance securing a parliamentary majority will have significant political and electoral consequences as well. Erdoğan will likely utilize his parliamentary majority to consolidate support in the second round, such as voicing lame duck concerns. If the National Alliance fails to win the second round of presidential elections, there will likely be a re-evaluation of actors and questions raised regarding the composition of the alliance. The increased nationalist representation in Türkiye’s parliament will impact both domestic and foreign policy agendas, potentially deepening the descent into autocracy along with the curtailing of civil and political liberties. Despite Kılıçdaroğlu’s strong political campaign and leadership in uniting the opposition, his defeat will dampen the resolve of the Turkish opposition to campaign together in future elections. It may lead to a more fragmented opposition landscape, making it increasingly challenging to form a cohesive front against Erdoğan’s ruling party.”
Seren Selvin Korkmaz, Political Analyst; and Executive Director, IstanPol Institute
Turkey’s foreign policy “diversification strategy” is here to stay
“Whoever wins the May 28 run-off, Turkey’s foreign policy is not expected to make a U-turn, and continuity will likely prevail over radical change. Following a pragmatic approach that relies on pursuing security, economic and energy interests, Turkey has broadened its horizons, becoming a prominent player in different geopolitical theatres, from the Middle Eastern and Caucasus regions to Africa and Central Asia, albeit not always with a positive agenda. Over the years, Ankara has increasingly looked beyond its traditional NATO allies towards other international powers, notably Russia and China. And undoubtedly, the economic factor has played a key role in Turkey’s partnership diversification strategy and foreign policy calculations. In 2022, Russia surpassed Germany as Turkey’s top trading partner and China as its top supplier, mainly due to a boom in Ankara’s energy imports. Although China dropped to the second place as a supplier, its exports to Turkey increased from US$32.2 billion in 2021 to US$41.3 billion in 2022. At the same time, Europe continues to be Turkey’s top economic partner, accounting for more than 50% of the total trade in 2022 as well as more than 60% of foreign direct investments in the last twenty years. Last but not least, Turkey maintains sound trade relations with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its second largest partner region when it comes to exports: US$59 billion out of a total exchange of US$86.44 billion. In a nutshell: while the question about “where Turkey is going” has long been raised both in Washington and the European capitals facing Erdoğan’s harsh anti-Western rhetoric, one year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems evident that Ankara will continue down that path of partnership diversification, even if that means pursuing an uneasy balancing act.”
Valeria Talbot, Head, ISPI MENA Centre
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Francesco Schiavi