President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led Turkey for 20 years, consolidating power and reorienting the state around him. But this Sunday’s elections represent a very real challenge to his authority — and Turkey’s voters could finally end his rule.
Erdoğan has survived political challenges before — and he definitely could again — but an imploding economy, potential fallout from the government’s earthquake response, baggage of his decades-long tenure, and a fairly united opposition have turned this into a competitive election. Heading into Sunday’s first round of voting, polls show a tight race between Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition candidate who leads the Republican People’s Party (CHP), one of six parties joined together in an opposition coalition. In some polls, Kılıçdaroğlu has the edge.
“These elections seem to be a life-or-death situation, in a way — meaning that a lot of people see this as the last chance to actually change the Erdoğan government,” said Ateş Altınordu, assistant professor of sociology at Sabancı University in Turkey.
Kılıçdaroğlu is something of an unlikely success story. He wasn’t the obvious favorite to lead the opposition: He’s a 74-year-old longtime politician who wasn’t seen as particularly inspiring or dynamic, especially to take on a political survivor like Erdoğan. But he has appealed directly to voters with his plainspoken videos and has tried to frame his candidacy as inclusive and welcoming — a kind of calm, predictable figure who could serve as Turkey’s transition from the era of Erdoğan to the next.
That outcome is far from guaranteed. Erdoğan has built-in advantages, including control of the media and state resources. He retains a staunch base of supporters loyal to him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). And this is a leader who’s spent the past 20 years in power, and purged his perceived political opponents from government and judicial institutions. He has built up systems of cronyism and patronage that have benefited him and his allies — leaving him and the AKP exposed if out of power.
Which means Erdoğan could still win this election outright. And if he loses, it’s another question entirely whether he’ll go away quietly.
“I think all scenarios are out on the table as to how this election might go,” said A. Kadir Yildirim, a Middle East and Turkey expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Erdogan, again, could win. The opposition could win, and power could transfer peacefully. Or Erdogan could try to manipulate and rig the election, or simply refuse to go — and in either of those cases, how the opposition and the institutions respond could determine whether he’s successful.
If no candidate wins a clear majority this Sunday, the election will go to a runoff on May 28. But much is at stake for Turkey’s democracy, its economy, and its future.
“The social fabric of the country is at stake. Why do I say that?” said Sebnem Gumuscu, associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. “When you hear what these leaders have to say — and what they have to promise to the country, the people — you hear two very different Turkeys.”
Erdoğan has dominated Turkish politics for most of this century. He served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, until being elected president in 2014. The presidency used to be a mostly ceremonial role, but Erdoğan has moved the country from a parliamentary democracy to a strong presidential system. Erdoğan used a failed coup attempt in 2016 to accelerate his consolidation of power and to purge the civil service, the judiciary, and the military. He has cracked down on independent media, arresting journalists and other civil society members. Through referenda, he has expanded the powers of the presidency and removed many of the checks against that power.
Even as Erdoğan has become more of a strongman, he’s remained a pretty popular leader. His tough-guy persona has real appeal, especially when rallying fervor against certain groups he labels terrorists or picking fights with the West. He has raised Turkey’s profile internationally (though as a NATO member, Turkey has been a bit of a thorn in the alliance’s side).
But Erdoğan is facing some pretty big challenges in 2023. The big one is Turkey’s economy. Inflation is around 40 percent; people can’t afford basic necessities. The Turkish lira has crashed, which means Turks have far less purchasing power. Erdoğan has embraced a heterodox economic policy that has made things worse — specifically, he doesn’t believe in raising interest rates, thinking it will slow the economic growth.
Turkey’s economic situation has been getting worse and worse, which means Erdoğan’s promises for new infrastructure and growth are starting to sound a little hollow, and the pain is very real for ordinary Turks. “He’s never entered an electoral campaign where he cannot sell an economic message,” said Sinan Ciddi, associate professor of security studies at Marine Corps University. “As in, he’s never campaigned in a negative economic downturn.”
Meanwhile, Erdoğan has relied on systems of clientism and patronage for political and personal gain. None of this is exactly secret, but the devastating February earthquake in southeastern Turkey showed how deep that corruption and government mismanagement went. That quake killed around 50,000 people in Turkey, and anger erupted over the government’s handling of the disaster, though it’s not clear whether that will carry over to the polls.
Yaprak Gürsoy, professor of European politics and chair of contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said she expected the earthquake to be a bigger issue in the elections than it’s turned out to be. “That surprises me a bit, because I think it could have been something that the opposition could have really used to show the deficiencies of the government,” she said. “And they chose not to do that.” (There’s also some question about how easy it will be to vote in the earthquake-affected areas; people have been displaced, though both political parties and civil society organizations are trying to transport people to the polls.)
In the five years since he last won reelection, about 5 million new, young voters came of age. They’ve only known Erdoğan their entire lives. They see their economic prospects diminishing, especially compared to their cohorts in other countries, and their civil rights eroding. Many appear to want change, and so this population could be decisive in tipping the election toward the opposition.
Erdoğan is also facing surprisingly strong opposition. Months out from the election, the opposition was in complete disarray. In March, Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader, finally emerged and played a key role in uniting that fractured opposition into an electoral alliance that promised to restore Turkey’s parliamentary democracy and undertake pro-democratic judicial and institutional reforms.
The CHP is the biggest party within the six-party coalition. It is the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, and has traditionally been a staunchly secular party — compared with Erdoğan’s AKP, which promotes Islamic values. But Kılıçdaroğlu has helped soften the CHP’s stances and done outreach to Islamists to try to broaden the party’s appeal.
Kılıçdaroğlu himself has also defied expectations as a candidate. He’s been in politics and government for a long time, but even so, he’s largely seen as someone untarnished. “He is not an exciting kind of leader, he’s not a great politician, but he’s to be trusted and he’s the right person for this particular moment,” said Altınordu. He’s frequently described as “soft-spoken.” He’s been called Turkey’s Gandhi or “Gandhi Kemal” because of his manner, but also because he led a hundreds-of-miles-long justice march in Turkey in 2017, protesting the jailing of civil servants and activists.
Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi, which is a heterodox Islamic tradition that has faced discrimination and persecution in Turkey. There were some fears that the predominantly Sunni Muslim country might be reticent to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu because of this, but he candidly addressed his faith in a recent video, where he told the public, “I am an Alevi. I am a Muslim. … God gave me my life. I am not sinful.” The video was widely viewed and was seen as breaking something of a taboo in Turkish politics.
Videos have been one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s main mode of communication. He delivers these low-key speeches from a kind of messy desk, or a kitchen table, directly addressing voters. His messages have tended to be hopeful and optimistic — a marked contrast from the guy he is running against. “He is not engaging with any of that combativeness or any kind of polarizing attitude,” said Gumuscu. “He’s much more at peace with his own identity, his views, his welcoming and inclusive rhetoric.”
That discourse, and that effort to appeal to a broad base of support of the country, may be what ultimately helps this kind of boring, older politician succeed on Sunday. Alongside youth voters, who could play a big role in this election, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has rallied behind Kılıçdaroğlu and the opposition. The HDP did not formally join the opposition coalition, but Kurds make up a sizable voting chunk in Turkey, and their support could be decisive.
Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are the two real contenders Sunday; there were two other candidates in the contest, but one dropped out days before the vote. Though his name will likely still appear on the ballot, his departure is seen as giving another boost to Kılıçdaroğlu. Combine that with those voters disillusioned with Erdoğan, or deeply hurt by the economy, and the opposition sees this as its best chance to topple Erdoğan.
Before we get to that point: Erdoğan is an elections machine. Yes, the scales are tipped in his favor, the opposition doesn’t get much airtime on media. Yes, the economy is in shambles. But Erdoğan is still very popular with a very solid and reliable base, and experts and observers don’t underestimate that he could still win, as fair-ish and square-ish as you can get. “You’ve got six political parties huddled around one opposition candidate trying to defeat one guy,” Ciddi said. “It just shows how powerful Erdoğan is.”
Yet Erdoğan could also lose — though exactly how he will respond is an impossible question to answer. Experts and observers think a lot will depend on how big that loss is. If Kılıçdaroğlu comes away with a clear margin of victory — 5 percent, say — Erdoğan won’t have a lot of room to maneuver. Turkey does have a long tradition of respecting the ballot box, and if it’s not close, Erdoğan has “no option but to admit defeat,” Gürsoy said.
Things get a lot trickier, though, if the election is close, or if the contest moves to a runoff, allowing time for some antics. That is not a guarantee of some sort of malfeasance, but it does make it a greater possibility, because Erdoğan has a lot to lose if he steps aside — as do those with vested interests in Erdoğan staying in power.
But no one really knows what Erdoğan’s playbook could look like, or if it would succeed.
The government could try to disrupt the vote somehow, to preempt a loss, but civil society is strong and mobilized to watch the polls and ensure election integrity. “I have a lot of friends who are not going to be home the entire Sunday, because they are going to work as volunteers at the ballot boxes, and they are going to follow the process and they are there to make sure that the numbers are counted then are sent into the system in the right way,” Altınordu said.
Erdoğan could seek to contest or challenge the results. A lot here may depend on how the institutions respond — although the Supreme Election Council and the country’s top constitutional court will probably be the most important of those bodies. Yet Erdoğan controls the military; he controls the police. Loyalists fill the civil service. All of that is pretty helpful to a leader who, say, wants to find a way to stay in power.
Even so, some experts said that if it really seems as if Erdoğan is doomed, that loyalty may end up being a bit softer than it appears. Bureaucrats and officials may recognize continued support for Erdoğan is a losing proposition.
But that’s not guaranteed, either. Corruption runs deep, and there is an established system of patronage that many might want to keep intact. “Will those people accept Erdoğan’s departure? That’s the other thing; it is not just up to Erdogan, but a lot of people are benefiting from the continuation of the system. So will they want to let Erdoğan go?” Yildirim said.
There is also the question of how Erdoğan’s base reacts to any loss. At the same time, how the opposition and their supporters respond could also determine whether Erdoğan, if he attempts anything, prevails.
Kılıçdaroğlu and his coalition have promised pro-democratic reforms, including a return to a parliamentary system, to revive an independent press, and to reestablish an independent judiciary.
If they succeed in these elections, and reclaim power, that feat may start to seem quaint compared to the task of governing. Erdoğan spent 20 years centralizing power in himself, and that has fundamentally changed the nature of institutions and government in Turkey. Unraveling that is going to be an almost unfathomably complex challenge.
Turkey’s 600-member parliament will also be elected this year, and it’s not yet clear how much support the opposition coalition will have in parliament to pass constitutional reforms. Plus, if Kılıçdaroğlu wins, he’ll come to power with the support of multiple parties — but keeping that coalition unified in government, with different personalities and ambitions, is not going to be easy.
At the same time, Kılıçdaroğlu will inherit the presidency that Erdoğan created, which means all that authority gets transferred to him. He will have unilateral powers like decrees that he could use to start implementing reforms if parliamentary politics slow things down. But that also will be fraught for a man who promised a return to a more democratic Turkey.
There are also questions of accountability, and how quickly a new government could empower an independent judiciary — and whether, and how intensely, it should seek to hold Erdogan and his government accountable.
And finally, there’s the mess Erdoğan made of the economy. Reversing his wild economic policies may start to revive the Turkish lira and lower inflation, but it will not be painless for the Turkish public.
All of which is to say Kılıçdaroğlu has a real chance of winning Sunday. The reward, though, is one of the toughest jobs in the world.