Date first published: 02/05/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: political stability; economic policy; civil unrest
The 14 May presidential and parliamentary elections are expected to be the most contested in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule – initially as prime minister and now as President. Turkey is grappling with a protracted economic crisis, compounded by unorthodox and largely ineffective monetary policies and the fallout of the 6 February earthquake – which are all factors contributing to Erdogan’s decreasing popularity. Recent polls indicate that the main opposition presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is leading by over 10 points in the race against Erdogan.
Why it matters
The stakes are high in the upcoming elections, as the results will have significant implications for the country’s democratic institutions. If Erdogan secures a victory, he will likely continue to consolidate his grip on power, potentially at the expense of democratic institutions. On the other hand, the opposition coalition – made up of six parties – has promised to reverse several of Erdogan’s policies, including reinstating the parliamentary democracy – altered in a 2017 referendum in favour of a presidential system.
Erdogan’s government has ramped up efforts to suppress opposition voices. For example, the mass arrests of opposition figures, journalists and activists on politically-motivated and trumped up terrorism-related charges. In the polls Erdogan’s popularity may be declining, however his full control of the state apparatus to crack down on dissent grants him a significant advantage. A continuation of the crackdown on opposition figures will likely raise concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the upcoming elections, undermining public confidence in the electoral process.
The elections will have far-reaching implications beyond Turkey’s political landscape and into its economic policies. Should a new government form, there will likely be a departure from Erdogan’s unorthodox approach to fiscal and monetary policies, which included lowering interest rates. A new administration is expected to reverse this policy and likely increase interest rates in a shift towards tighter monetary policies. Some critics argue that the Central Bank’s current efforts to support the Turkish lira (TRY) are unsustainable and that tough decisions such as implementing stricter capital controls and devaluing the local currency will be needed following the elections.
Erdogan’s declining popularity can be attributed to his increasing authoritarianism and allegations of corruption and cronyism within his administration. Erdogan’s unorthodox monetary policy aimed at stimulating growth drove inflation to a 24-year high of 85.5 percent in October 2022 and the lira to record lows, inflicting great losses on the purchasing power of Turkish households.
The government’s handling of the relief effort following the 6 February earthquake was heavily criticized, due to an inadequate response to the disaster amid accusations of corruption in the distribution of aid. Following the earthquake, analysts suggested that the country’s south-east – traditionally a stronghold for Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AKP) party – started reconsidering its loyalty to Erdogan, although the region lacks official polling figures.
Erdogan’s once-popular conservative populism has lost its momentum, as his governance has over time, degraded into corruption and led to an unfavourable economic situation. Meanwhile, the opposition coalition has emerged with a promising new social contract, seeking to restore parliamentary democracy and promote a pro-Western foreign policy. However, their short lead will likely trigger a second round in the presidential election between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu.
Despite the population’s receptiveness to the opposition’s message, it seems unlikely that Erdogan will relinquish his grip on power, thereby heightening the risk of civil unrest as the elections approach.