Alliances and Scenarios: Interpreting the Turkish 2023 Elections
Position Assessment | This assessment discusses the upcoming general elections in Turkey, which are scheduled to take place in mid-May, amidst domestic challenges that have created a complex electoral scene and increased polarization between political forces. The assessment identifies several scenarios regarding the potential outcomes of the upcoming electoral process.
by Karam Saeed
- Release Date – Apr 9, 2023
Amid domestic and foreign challenges, the competition between parties and alliances has escalated as Turkiye's presidential and legislative elections scheduled for mid-May approach. Such elections are held at a time when the country is facing the repercussions of the devastating earthquake of last February, repercussions that are expected to exacerbate the economic crisis as inflation rates rose to high levels, not to forget the security threats and concerns of terrorist attacks recurrence, the latest of which was on November 13, 2022, when a bomb went off in Taksim area, killing six people and injuring more than 80. The elections also coincide with a remarkable development in Turkish foreign policy, revealed by Ankara's orientation towards openness in its relations with regional countries.
Recently, the Turkish government sought to take several domestic policies to mitigate the tangible consequences of the unprecedented rise of inflation, as the Turkish government indevoured to raise the minimum wage. After the devastation caused by the earthquake, the government announced a major reconstruction campaign in the affected areas.
In terms of foreign policy, Turkiye continued to exert intense activity in the region with a view to enhancing its mediation role in Ukraine's crisis. It is also involved in designing policy and security measures to address a number of regional crises, notably Syria, Libya, the Nagorno Karabakh region or the Eastern Mediterranean Sea Region, which are strategic for Turkish policies. Turkiye's efforts are evident in its tendency to expand its presence in Libya and northern Iraq, strengthening its rapprochement with Damascus, besides its role in maintaining the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace agreements.
For its part, the Turkish opposition parties are mobilizing their efforts and are expanding the areas of coordination among them. In February 2022, the Turkish opposition parties established the Six-Party Alliance, or what is known as the "Table of Six", which seeks to occupy a strong position in the Turkish political arena. The Table of Six is an extension of the opposition "Nation" alliance, which includes the parties (Republican People's Party, the Good Party, the Conservative Felicity Party, the Democracy and Progress Party "Diva", the Future Party, and the Democratic Party). The Table Alliance raises the importance of returning to the parliamentary system, as well as stopping the interference of the executive branch in the monetary policy-making, along with the emphasis on Turkiye's openness to neighboring countries, and the need to end Turkiye's military involvement in the region's conflicts.
Contrary to the previous elections, it becomes clear that Turkiye is opened up to a map of new political alliances in the coming elections, where allies and former members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) joined the opposition alliances, most notably: Ahmet Davutoglu, former prime minister, and Ali Babacan, former economy minister.
The upcoming elections in Turkiye seem to be different from the previous ones, especially in light of the changes represented in the decline of the Justice and Development Party's popularity, given the economic reality. Inflation touched 79.6% year-on-year, one of the highest in the world, while unemployment rose by 9.6% by the end of last year.
The Turkish opposition parties did not succeed in proposing a serious proposal that contributes to improve the country's economic conditions. Usually, the Turkish opposition parties were content to criticize and condemn the government's policies. It is noteworthy that the complexities of the Turkish economic situation are not limited to we mentioned above, as the Covid-19 pandemic, the negative repercussions of the current Ukrainian crisis, and the economic repercussions ensuing the earthquake, have altogether contributed in the crisis deterioration, leading Turkiye to address its domestic challenges.
On the other hand, the elections come amid political polarization between the ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition parties, and also amid tension in the relationship between the opposition parties themselves, in addition to the escalation of tension between the authority and the Peoples' Democratic Party, which is the third most represented party in parliament. Justice and Development Party is facing serious challenges, especially after the decision of the Constitutional Court, on January 5, 2023, to deprive the Justice and Development Party from the financial allocations paid by the state to the parties, as it was scheduled that the Justice and Development Party would receive about $ 28.7 million as a public assistance. Add to that that the public prosecutor asked the Turkish Constitutional Court to ban the Justice and Development Party, for charges of supporting "terrorism". Even before that, a Turkish court in 2017 sentenced the Justice and Development Party's leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, to four years in prison.
At the same time, many security challenges emerge in the Turkish-Kurdish scene, due to threats coming from northern Syria and Iraq, particularly from the PKK, and especially in light of the recent attack that took place on Al-Istiqrar Street in the Taksim neighborhood of Istanbul province in November 2022, for which the Turkish authorities blamed the PKK. Security threats affected the election after the headquarters of the Good Party, member of the opposition Umma Alliance, came under fire by unknown assailants.
The elections will also take place amid a growing negative perception of Syrian refugees, revealed by the demand of some Turkish parties, such as the right-wing Nasr Party, the Good Party, and the Republican People's Party, who expressed the need to deport Syrians to their country. Turkiye hosts about 3.5 million Syrians. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in May 2022, announced a project for the voluntary return of one million Syrian refugees to their country. Such announcement came in the context of easing tension and domestic pressure towards this issue. In parallel, the Turkish president managed, through openness to Damascus, made a reasonable achievement in reducing the burden of Syrian refugees, after such burden became an use the opposition can practice pressure therewith.
On the other hand, the upcoming elections coincide with the escalation of Turkish tension with Greece over the Aegean islands, in addition to the escalation of Western positions against Turkish moves aiming to explore for energy reservoirs in the eastern Mediterranean. The upcoming elections also are coming while the Turkish military is staging operations and air strikes on northern Syria and Iraq since November 20.
However, and in light of the considerations mentioned, the prospects for a radical change in the political scene do not seem to be potential, given the continued popularity of the Justice and Development Party among significant sectors of the Turks, as well as the extent of the influence the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the popular and electoral scenes. This is besides the absence of an inclusive project for the opposition parties, as the ideological differences among them still hinder their access to one candidate to compete with the candidate of the ruling Party, as well as the fact that the opposition forces do not have enough strength to qualify them to win the majority of votes in the election.
Nevertheless, the potential success of the AKP does not mean that it is controlling the state down to its smallest buraus, as the opposition remains a difficult figure in the equation of political life. The opposition parties participating are pay special attention to the upcoming elections, because their results will determine the opposition parties' role, future, position in the map of political action, and even their participation in political life in general.
Complex Electoral Map
The upcoming Turkish elections, whether presidential or parliamentary, are going to be held in new and complex map of political alliances. Unlike the previous elections, Turkiye is witnessing many competing or intertwined electoral alliances, distributed between large and effective alliances, and small and ineffective ones, which can be divided as follows:
First: Effective Large Alliances
1- Public Alliance: It includes the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), its partner the Nationalist Movement Party, the Grand Unity Party (right), as well as the Free Dawa Party, a Kurdish party with Islamist and nationalist leanings.
This alliance is based on the popular national and Islamic dimensions. These parties agreed on the presidential entitlement, in order to push the current President (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) to run in the presidential elections. The Justice and Development Party was able to prevent wasting or dispersing the votes by including the new Welfare Party in the People's Alliance, with the withdrawal of its leader Fatih Erbakan (son of former President Necmettin Erbakan) from running in the presidential elections.
This alliance is expected to repeat the scenario of the 2018 elections, and also run the legislative elections with absolute coordination and consensus.
2- Nation Alliance: which includes: the Republican People Party (an extension of the legacy of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk), the Good Party, founded in 2017, the Felicity Party (an extension of the ideas of Necmettin Erbakan), and the center-right Democratic Party.
The parties of the "Nation Alliance", which was established on the eve of the 2018 elections, are likely to collectively participate in coordination in the parliamentary elections. Their coordination appears in the consensus after complex efforts to push CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as their representative in the presidential race.
Second: Alliances of Small Parties
Several separate parties, perhaps more than ten multi-directional parties, will participate in the upcoming Turkish elections. Their participation is often seen as aimed at splitting the ranks of large alliances, namely:
1- Left Alliance "Labor and Freedom": It includes parties: the Peoples' Democratic Party, the political wing of the Kurds, as well as 5 leftist parties: the Democratic People's Party, the Turkish Workers' Party (TİP), the Labor Party (EMEP), the Social Freedom Party (TOP), the Workers' Movement (EHP), and the Union of Socialist Councils.
This alliance was established in August 2022. It is determined to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections with a unified list, without consensus on a presidential candidate.
2- Small Secular Alliance "ATA": It includes the Nasr Party, led by Ümit Özdağ, known for its hostility to foreigners, especially Syrians, in addition to the parties: "Justice", "Truth", "Turkish Alliance" and "Baladi". This alliance observes Ataturk's values and secularism over others. Thus, the name "ATA" alliance can be interpreted as a word taken from the word "Ataturk".
The limited ability of this alliance is not restricted to compete in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, its programs, plans, and visions for the management of the country are limited as well. The alliance appears elitist, remarkably ideological, and even racist, as revealed by the statements of the head of the Justice Party on the formation of the new alliance, where he said, "Anyone who will be with us must stand side by side with Ataturk. Ataturk's opponents and secularists' opponents cannot be with us". The parties of this alliance may agree to nominate their candidate, Sinan Ogan, to run in the presidential elections.
3- The Table of Six: It includes the Nation Alliance (Republican People's Party and the nationalist Good Party), the Felicity Party, in addition to the Future Party (founded by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu), and the Democracy and Progress Party (led by Ali Baba Can); both of which were previously part of the Justice and Development Party, along with the Democratic Party.
The Table of Six tends to strengthen their coordination in the parliamentary elections, especially as they converged to push a common candidate to represent them in the presidential elections, after they chose Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the Republican People's Party.
The Table of Six parties agree on the importance of returning to the parliamentary system, and therefore many observers believe that the Table of Six alliance may do everything they can do in the upcoming parliamentary elections, with the aim of returning again to the parliamentary system that ended in 2018.
4- the independent participation: In addition to the previous alliances, which are still in the process of formation, there are parties that may prefer to run in the legislative elections without entering into electoral alliances, mainly: the Democracy and Progress Party, and the Future Party. This possibility is augmented by the nature of the two parties' political practice since their emergence three years ago, as they chose to play small and limited roles in the political arena. Most of their political effort with the opposition focused on enhancing the chances of returning to the parliamentary system.
On the other hand, at the presidential level, Muharrem Anja, head of the Homeland Party, is running individually. He is the only individual candidate after the decline of other prominent candidates, such as Meral Aksener, Doğu Princjk (leader of the left-wing nationalist Homeland Party) Cem Ozan (former head of the "Youth" Party), and Ahmet Ozal, head of the One Party.
Many scenarios, concerning the possible outcome of the forthcoming elections and the extent of the political impact of the participating alliances, can be drawn from the context of the Turkish elections held in the middle of this year, as well as the map of the current and potential electoral alliances. There are a number of levels in this respect:
The first scenario: the dominance of the People's Alliance would continue: highly possible, reinforced by several indicators:
First: Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, is dismissed from the presidential elections, especially after the Turkish judiciary, on December 14, sentenced Imamoglu to two years in prison on charges of insulting members of the Supreme Election Council. Such sentence also included the activation of Article 35 of the Penal Code, which imposes a ban on political activity for those convicted of more than two years, which could prevent Imamoglu from running in the presidential elections.
Second: The remarkable shift in the popularity of the Justice and Development Party and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A poll conducted by Metropoll, in late October 2022, showed that the Turkish president's support rate rose to 47.6%, from 39% in early 2022. The remarkable rise in the Turkish president's popularity may be due to his recent approval of a package of social and financial aid and incentives, the most important of which is raising the minimum wage by 55%, and raising the salaries and pensions of civil servants. A survey published by Arida Survey, conducted between February 23-27, where 3,000 people participated in, also showed that President Erdogan receiving 49.8% of the survey's points, compared to 21.1% for his rival Kemal Kılıçaroğlu.
Third: The possible improvement in the indicators of the Turkish economy in the coming period, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Fatih Donmez, announced in August 2022 that the gas discovered in the (Sakarya 1) field in the Black Sea region will enter the pumping phase in the first quarter of this year, 2023. This was accompanied by the return of investments and bank deposits from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in addition to the Russian-Turkish projects, aiming to make Turkiye a hub for Russian natural gas exports. If the scenario of starting using the domestic gas in March 2023 is realized, along with commencing the foreign investments, the, the Turkish economy may witness enough positive indicators to bring about a shift in the attitudes of Turkish voters, in favor of the Justice and Development Party.
Fourth: The Turkish president's success in containing the issue of Syrian refugees, after the rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus. An agreement on the return of nearly one million Syrians to their country was concluded. In addition to reducing tensions with regional and international countries, especially with the Gulf states, Egypt and Greece, after the visit of the Egyptian and Greek Foreign Ministers to Ankara to show sympathy and assistance after the devastating earthquake in February 2023.
Fifth: The Turkish government put forward quick plans to recover from the losses left by the earthquake, in addition to plans to rebuild the destroyed cities and towns in southern Turkiye in record time within one year, besides compensating the financial losses incurred by citizens.
On the other hand, it is not unlikely that the Justice and Development Party and its partner, the Nationalist Movement, will lose their absolute majority in parliament, with the continuation of complaining about the deterioration in living conditions.
Expecting the scenario above means repeating of what happened in the 2015 general elections, when the Justice and Development Party lost its parliamentary majority. Should this scenario occur again, it will be likely that the opposition, once it forms a majority, will propose a draft change to the constitution in order to restore the powers of parliament, affected by the constitutional amendments of 2017, and transferred the country to presidential rule.
The second scenario: The Opposition obtains the largest number of seats in parliament:
Since the country's transition to the presidential system in 2017, and with the economic indicators declaimed, the Nation Alliance, with the help of its partners in the "Table of Six", has now a potential chance of obtaining a majority of the 600 seats in parliament, at the expense of the Justice and Development Party and its partner the Nationalist Movement from winning a parliamentary majority. A poll published by Aksoy Research in Turkiye on March 13, 2023, revealed that the main opposition bloc received 44.1% of support, the Democratic People Party received 10.3%, Justice and Development Party received 44.1%. and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party at 38%.
This is related to several factors:
First, the opposition is employing societal tension over the situation of Syrian refugees at home, the matter that may enable the opposition to get the largest number of nationalist votes, and non-ideological anti-refugee electoral sectors.
Second: The opposition's experience in the ability to coordinate the candidacy process in electoral districts. This coordination occurred for the first time in the municipal elections in 2019, which contributed to its victory in Turkiye's largest municipality. As in municipalities, to prevent fragmentation of votes, the Nation Alliance parties are expected not to field candidates in states where other parties have a high chance of winning. The Nation Alliance is also expected to coordinate with the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, although it has not joined of the alliance, by not fielding candidates in areas that represent traditional constituencies of the Nation Alliance parties.
Third: The success of the Nation Alliance and its partners in employing the negative effects of economic crises, by promoting the idea of the wrong economic conduct of the ruling party in managing the economy, and emphasizing that President Erdogan's intervention in formulating the country's monetary policies has increased made things worse, caused the collapse of the lira price, and caused the rise in unemployment and inflation rates, thus deepening the negative effects of the living conditions of the Turkish citizen.
On the other hand, opposition forces, whether the Nation Alliance or the Table of Six, may fail to win the presidential seat, given the ideological and intellectual differences among their members, which represent a challenge to building a consensus base on presidential elections.
Third scenario: The ruling coalition loses the elections
In this scenario, the Justice and Development Party and the People's Alliance may lose the presidential and parliamentary elections, then an opposition-led government is formed. But this scenario seems unlikely, as the Justice and Development Party and President Erdoğan still enjoy wide popular support. The partnership with the National Movement, in addition, would ensure getting votes of the nationalist movement.
The Turkish president's successes, in bringing the contentious issues with Turkiye's neighboring countries to an end, allowed a remarkable recovery in the Turkish economy. Ankara obtained financial deposits from Gulf countries, which markets were reopened to Turkish products after years of embargo, thus contributing to the revitalization of the Turkish business environment.
Fourth scenario: The Democratic People Party crosses the electoral threshold and lose the presidential seat.
On his Twitter account run by his lawyer, Selahattin Demirtaş, while in prison, announced in early January 2023 that he would run for the presidential elections. He is expected to fail. But it is highly likely that the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party will be able to exceed the threshold of 7% of the total votes, determined by the Turkish electoral law as a condition for any party to enter the parliament. The Peoples' Democratic Party may win a significant number of seats, perhaps up to about 80 seats, especially since there is a sure chance that the percentage of voting will increase between Kurds significantly during the upcoming elections.
In parallel with the above, there are potential opportunities for the Peoples' Democratic Party's presence and seats to rise in the next parliament, and if it succeeds in winning a number of seats, it will push with the rest of the opposition forces towards a return to the parliamentary system. On the other hand, it is not likely that the Peoples' Democratic Party will expand the circle of political understandings with the "Table of Six" once it passes the next parliament, for it was dismissed by the Table of Six alliance, the matter that angered the Kurdish party, which is facing a lawsuit of disbanding it on terrorism-related charges.
Fifth scenario: the decline of the influence of "small parties"
There are expectations that small parties, whether integrated into leftist or secular alliances, will not have a chance of entering parliament, and that these parties, if they run independently or meet in electoral alliances, may not exceed 5% of the total votes, and also that their entry into the elections comes from their quest to ensure presence in the political scene or impose their conditions, and maximize their gains from the main political forces, if none of them is able to decide the presidential elections from the first round.
Finally, it can be said that there are expectations of a change in the upcoming elections, represented by the rise of the opposition within the parliament, and obtaining a number of additional seats compared to the 2018 elections, in which it won 230 seats, including 138 seats for the Republican People's Party, 36 seats for the Good Party and 56 seats for the Kurdish Democratic People.
In terms of presidential elections, the most likely scenario is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins the presidential seat in the second round even as the opposition manages to field a consensus candidate.
* The opinions expressed in this study are those of the author. Strategiecs shall bear no responsibility for the views and/or opinion of its author on security, economic, social, and other issues, as they do not necessarily represent the views of the Think Tank.
Researcher specializing in political affairs