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Türkiye’s presidential elections are seen as a showdown between President Erdoğan and various opposition candidates divided amongst themselves.
Amid domestic and regional turmoil, Türkiye is gearing up for crucial presidential elections. The contest appears to be a showdown between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and various opposition candidates divided amongst themselves.
Erdoğan possesses all the necessary resources to secure a victory and the means to reestablish his domestic and regional dominance. The opposition candidates, on the other hand, lack the required charisma to excite the Turkish populace.
As Erdoğan vies for another term in office, he faces just three opponents approved by the election committee.
These include the Nation Alliance’s candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the ATA alliance’s candidate, Sinan Oğan, and Muharrem İnce, who obtained 114,000 signatures from Turkish voters to secure his nomination.
Should the election outcome not be decided in the first round, a second round will take place on 28 May 2023.
According to polls, 51.8 per cent of voters favour Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), for the win of the presidency, compared to Erdoğan’s 42.6 per cent.
Erdoğan’s decision to launch his official campaign in Gaziantep has raised concerns among some observers who believe it carries significant risks. Opting for this city, located in southern Türkiye and devastated by the 6 February 2023 earthquake, was likely a strategic decision.
Considering the impact of regional foreign policy on domestic issues, Erdoğan has adopted a pragmatic approach that compromises on many of his previously held beliefs. This approach addresses long-standing issues with Egypt, the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia while presenting a new vision for future relations with Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.
Arab media have shown significant interest in the outcome of the upcoming Turkish elections. Meanwhile, Arab regimes have largely ignored the Turkish opposition for fear of potential repercussions if Erdoğan were to be victorious.
For similar reasons, the former Egyptian foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, has advised Arab media to take note of the upcoming elections but to delay discussions until after the results are announced.
Moussa told Fanack that “all influential countries in the Middle East are redefining their policies,” pointing out that “major powers redefining their policies in the region will face challenges and have an international and regional impact.”
Erdoğan’s foreign policy, which has characterised his past years in power, has begun to erode in favour of a new realism-defined policy. To bolster his chances of securing a new presidential term, efforts are made to suggest to the Turkish voter that Erdoğan is regionally beloved.
Traditionally, Turkish foreign policy has focused on utilising foreign resources for development, forming alliances and partnerships and enhancing Türkiye’s position in the modern world.
According to the Egyptian strategic expert, General Mohamed Abdel Wahid, Erdoğan has demonstrated high flexibility, deftly handling his foreign problems in under a year. Abdel Wahid told Fanack, “Erdoğan has managed to completely reverse the course of Türkiye’s foreign relations, resulting in zero problems.”
When asked who the Arabs should side with, Abdel Wahid noted, “Erdoğan has successfully resolved conflicts with countries that had issues with Türkiye, connecting with them through long-term economic interests.” He added, “Erdoğan’s Islamist party is more appealing to the Islamic world than Kılıçdaroğlu’s secularist party founded by Atatürk.”
He added, “Erdoğan wields broad state powers, including security, intelligence, media, political and financial resources. Erdoğan can secure the necessary votes since he competes against weak opposition parties, some of which may have been infiltrated by Turkish security forces.”
He continued, “Türkiye’s unprepared opposition alliance faces significant challenges from the government’s security apparatus. Erdoğan is well aware of the internal disagreements within the opposition alliance. While there is consensus among the six parties that make up the alliance, disputes still arise, hindering their ability to remain united. The opposition’s weakness lies in its inability to sustain agreement for extended periods.”
Despite the opposition’s focus on Türkiye’s economic problems and the Syrian refugee crisis, Abdel Wahid views the upcoming elections as predetermined. “The Turkish opposition is weak and divided, and it has not found a way to effectively use its resources,” he adds.
Meanwhile, as Erdoğan seeks to normalise relations with Egypt, Cairo has publicly expressed its hesitation. It prefers to see Erdoğan take practical steps to advance the reconciliation process.
Ten years ago, Ankara severed diplomatic ties with Cairo following the ousting of its ally, the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. Previously declaring his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and refusing to recognise Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s legitimacy, Erdoğan described Sisi as a “tyrant.” Recently, however, he has overhauled his policy towards Egypt, culminating in the first visit of a Turkish foreign minister to Egypt since Sisi took office.
In contrast, Egypt has been deliberately hesitant towards Ankara. The initial dialogues between the two countries were between the heads of their intelligence agencies, followed by meetings between senior officials in the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministries in 2021. These moves, however, have not yielded the envisioned results for the Turkish side.
This was evident during talks between the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Shoukry said they discussed “working on restoring ties and reappointing ambassadors” but added that they “would come to it at the appropriate time based on positive results.”
The Opposition Alliance
This is the first time Erdoğan has faced an opposition alliance of six parties, including two major ones. However, since coming to power, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gradually started showing authoritarian tendencies. As a result, significant amendments to the constitution have been made, including a shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system, granting extensive powers to the presidency, suppressing civil society criticism and silencing opposition politicians.
Erdoğan realises that he has squandered many opportunities by focusing on appearance rather than subjectivity and promoting populist slogans instead of well-thought-out policies.
Analysts are divided on the potential impact of Muharrem İnce, who was the People’s Party candidate during the 2018 elections. Some suggest that he may act as a spoiler, leading to a second round of voting, while others believe that his candidacy could harm the opposition alliance.
Kılıçdaroğlu, who is 74 years old, has extensive professional experience and presents himself as a “subtle force.” However, he is considered to be devoid of charisma and unable to rally Turkish voters.
He often addresses the Turkish people from his low-lit kitchen through social media platforms. He uses the slogan, “It’s Kemal; I’m coming for you.” Nonetheless, experts believe that he lacks a strong personality.
If the opposition alliance holds, Kılıçdaroğlu’s main challenge lies in attracting anti-Erdoğan voters, who are the majority.
Erdoğan knows the opposition is disintegrating. To accelerate this, Erdoğan and his campaign have focussed on “outsider threats” in Türkiye. Bahadırhan Dinçaslan, a Turkish politician and journalist, says Erdoğan successfully “managed to persuade many estranged AKP supporters.” According to Dinçaslan, such narratives were “aimed mostly at uneducated and impoverished masses.”
The opposition believes that ensuring a second round and preventing a first-round 50 per cent plus one vote majority will enhance its chances against Erdoğan in the second round.
There is a possibility of the opposition winning if they adopt a different foreign policy. However, some observers believe the international community does not support Erdoğan’s departure or a shift in Türkiye’s political landscape.
Dr Samir Farag, a former major general in the Egyptian army and close to Sisi, believes that if Erdoğan wins, he will be the first politician to rule Türkiye for 25 years, thereby completely consolidating power. On the other hand, if the opposition leader wins, it will be challenging to predict Türkiye’s system over the next five years.
The opposition must overcome the belief that the ruling alliance will not concede power, even if it loses the elections.
The earthquake that struck Türkiye twice in February 2023, claiming nearly 50,000 lives, will have momentous consequences for Türkiye’s political landscape.
Ayşe Karabat, a Turkish journalist, believes “Erdoğan’s AKP and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), face heavy criticism from both the public and the opposition . . . for the slow response to the quakes and lack of disaster preparedness.”
Human Rights Watch accuses the Turkish regime of strengthening “its censorship powers and targeting perceived critics and opponents with bogus criminal proceedings and prison sentences in advance of the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections.”
Erdoğan’s government has equipped itself with far-reaching means to impose control over social media and criminalise content it deems “disinformation.”
After two decades in power, Erdoğan’s fierce yearning to reign persists, as he relies on generous pledges for the reconstruction of the devastated areas.
However, youth suffrage is expected to be a significant factor in the upcoming election. Around 70 per cent of the eligible voters are under 34, and more than six million young Turks will be casting their vote for the first time.
In sum, the traditional regional role Türkiye has played since the AKP took office has undergone radical transformations solely to consolidate Erdoğan’s position in power.