Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday pointed to May 14 — a month earlier than he had initially indicated — for Turkey’s crucial dual presidential and parliamentary elections, ending months of speculation on the timeline for snap polls.
The polls, called “the most important election of 2023” by Bloomberg Opinion columnist Bobby Ghosh, are one of the biggest challenges to Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its two decades of power. The outcome of the tight race will determine whether the country moves toward a more secular and liberal course at home and more predictable foreign policy abroad, or remains with Erdogan’s authoritative policies, forceful diplomacy and unorthodox economic policies. “What happens in Turkey doesn’t just stay in Turkey,” Ziya Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said. “Turkey may be a middle power, but the great powers have a stake in its election.”
While the country’s dual polls were formally scheduled for June 18, Ankara’s political and diplomatic circles have been hedging bets on early election dates, weighing in various components of the electoral equation, such as Turks’ economic woes, Erdogan’s newly found international spotlight, the new electoral laws and other factors that would influence electoral turnout, including the Eid break in June. As of last week, politicians — from Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli to main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu — pointed to mid-May as the date of early elections.
Erdogan signaled the date in his parliamentary speech Wednesday, which resembled a campaign kickoff. “On May 14, 1950, Adnan Menderes (Turkey’s first prime minister elected under a multiparty system) said ‘Enough, the people will have their say’ and emerged victorious at the ballot box," Erdogan told the AKP group in parliament. "The Turkish people will again put the coup supporters in their place, 73 years after the one-party era ended.”
Menderes’ center-right Democrat Party won a landslide against the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which governed the young republic during 22 years of single-party rule. A decade after his election, he and his top ministers ended up on the gallows for treason in modern Turkey’s first military coup. Erdogan, who often refers to Menderes as his political idol, opened two years ago a giant memorial project on the very island where the putschists jailed and tried the Democratic Party brass before executing Menderes and his ministers of economy and foreign affairs at the nearby island of Imrali.
Erdogan, deposed and briefly jailed when he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, often compares himself to Menderes, reusing buzzwords and concepts the Democrat Party used, such as bringing prosperity to the devout rural people, respect for the religious values of the country and empowering people.
Though Erdogan and his allies insisted throughout last year that elections would take place in June as scheduled, few believed him since this meant that Erdogan could not run a third time as president without a blatant violation of the constitution. While Article 101 of the constitution says that the president cannot run twice, another article opens the door to a third term for a sitting president if the parliament decides to renew both presidential and parliamentary elections during his second term.
But the early polls do not skirt the constitutional debate on Erdogan’s rerun, which was rekindled in the media and parliament mere minutes after his announcement of a date. To call for snap polls, however, the parliament needs a three-fifths majority, i.e., 360 votes in the 600-strong legislature. The People’s Alliance (AKP and its smaller electoral ally Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP) have 335 seats. This means that Erdogan would have to find 25 votes among the opposition, which may be difficult as most parties would not support him. Or, more likely, he would dissolve the parliament, call for elections and still present himself, which is a constitutionally dubious move. Yet Erdogan and his legal team are apt at finding ways around the rules, such as arguing that his first term was before the 2017 constitutional changes and did not count.
“If the government cannot manage to get the snap polls through the parliament with the opposition’s support, Erdogan cannot be a candidate,” said Erkan Bas, the chair of the small but vocal Workers Party of Turkey (TIP). “He knows this is unconstitutional. So does his party and the Supreme Electoral Board. So as much as we would like to sweep him to the sidelines of history in the ballot box, he cannot just disregard the constitution, set whichever date he likes and present himself for a third term.”
The president already presented himself months ago. He declared last month during a trip to his native Black Sea region that he was asking for support “one last time.” Turkey’s centennial celebrations all center around the person of Erdogan to the minutest detail. For example, earlier this year, the AKP’s unofficial anthem of 20 years, “We Walked Those Paths Together,” a song that alluded to the solidarity within the AKP, was changed to a new one dedicated to a singular object of affection, “Just Your Being Here is Enough,” written by pop star Kirac, a self-declared Erdogan-fan.
“The AKP has taken the use of foreign policy as domestic political fodder to unprecedented levels,” Barcin Yinanc, a foreign policy expert, said. “This automatically leads to analyzing Turkey’s foreign policy in the first half of the year through the lens of the coming elections.” Erdogan’s desire to mend fences with the Syrian regime and enable the return of the Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey, his tough line on Nordic expansion on NATO and his continued bickering with Greece — another country on the electoral cycle — are all partly motivated by elections.
On the economic front, which is Erdogan's and the AKP’s Achilles' heel, all critical decisions that bring a band-aid to Turks who are choked under high inflation are made by the president rather than the minister responsible. For example, in January, the president announced that he had raised the salaries of civil servants twice, first by 25% and then by an additional 5%.
It is now up to the opposition to name who will be the opposition’s presidential candidate. The Table of Six — a platform that brings together the social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) with the right-wing Iyi Party, conservative Felicity Party and two off-shoots of the AKP — has so far refrained from naming a presidential candidate. The CHP — the main opposition party with the most extensive network across Turkey and 134 seats in parliament — pointedly says that its candidate is its lackluster leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who, according to many polls, is least likely to defeat Erdogan. But the six parties will have to decide together, some say next month.
The opposition has ducked questions on the candidate, saying their focus is on their joint program. They have pledged a swift return to the parliamentary system, to restore the independence of the central bank and other economic agencies, and freedom of the judiciary.