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Crucial Elections in Turkey

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu / Facebook

Note from LeftEast editors: This article was first published in Mašina, we publish it here in English as part of a collaboration within ELMO – The Eastern European Left Media Outlet.

Turkey goes to the polls on 14 May for presidential and parliamentary elections. Opinion polls suggest that the ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Parti (AKP) and its presidential candidate, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could lose the elections.

President Erdoğan may be haunted by the striking parallels with the situation in 2002, when he and his party emerged victorious from a nationwide election for the first time. The year 2002 was characterised by several crises.

In recent years, Turkey has suffered a series of financial crises. Turkey is currently experiencing a hidden financial crisis. It takes the form of high inflation. According to official statistics, the inflation rate in March was 50.5%. However, the Inflation Research Group (ENAG) calculated that the inflation rate was actually 112.5%.

The Onion Question

Food prices have risen particularly sharply. As the well-known economist and journalist Mustafa Sönmez points out, the price of onions, at 30 Turkish liras (TL) per kilo, has become the “main issue” on the electoral market. Inflation hits the poor in particular, who have tended to vote for the AKP in the past.

High inflation cannot simply be attributed to the war in Ukraine, as  it had already begun to escalate in Turkey prior to the Russian invasion. It has its roots in the economic policies of the AKP. The AKP had encouraged consumption and the purchase of housing on credit. The domestic credit boom was financed by capital inflows.  When it became more difficult for Turkey to attract foreign capital, there was a struggle over interest rate and exchange rate policies. For several years, there was a vacillation between raising interest rates to stabilise the currency and cutting interest rates to stimulate growth. Over time, the second option has increasingly prevailed.

Since the summer of 2022, the central bank has repeatedly cut interest rates even further. As a result, the value of the Turkish lira plummeted. In 2022 alone, the TL depreciated by 30%, despite heavy intervention by the Turkish central bank. Prices for imported goods soared – and inflationary dynamics kicked into high gear. As Turkish economist Ümit Akçay noted a year ago, monetary events were increasingly “out of control”.

The government argues that at least the devalued exchange rate benefits the industry. But things are not so simple. Turkish industry imports a lot of inputs, and the devaluation makes inputs more expensive. The external accounts are deeply in the red. The current account deficit was 5.4% of GDP in 2022, which is above the critical level. The current account deficits have to be financed by foreign capital inflows, essentially new foreign debt.

The earthquake: Inadequate preparedness, inadequate response

The second parallel is a catastrophic pre-election earthquake. In 1999, a terrible earthquake struck Izmit, an industrial city south-east of Istanbul. Many buildings collapsed because they had been built on the cheap without taking into account the dangers of an earthquake.

Subsequently, construction regulations were tightened. However, they were not strictly enforced. On the contrary, irregularly constructed buildings were regularly given amnesties. This was in line with the AKP’s strong economic focus on construction and real estate. According to Jean-François Perouse, a specialist in Turkish urbanisation policy, when the earthquake struck south-east Turkey in February 2007, around 40% of the housing stock built after 2000 collapsed in the earthquake zone.

However, the buildings constructed by the state-owned TOKİ withstood the earthquake better. The crisis management of the highly centralised official disaster management organisation, AFAD, was not up to the task. Even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan admitted that there were “gaps” in the response to the earthquake. Nevertheless, the official structures hampered the delivery of aid by independent groups.

The main opposition presidential candidate and leader of the centrist Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, denounced the authorities’ “incompetence” and said Erdoğan bore responsibility. “For twenty years, the government has not prepared the country for an earthquake. This is a damning indictment, as Turkey lies in a high-risk zone for earthquakes.

Detention, trials, media control

Originally, it was not Kılıçdaroğlu but the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who was seen as the most likely opposition candidate against the incumbent president. Erdoğan himself had been mayor of Turkey’s largest city before becoming prime minister (and later president). In 1998, he was sentenced to prison and banned from running for parliament because of political statements he had made. İmamoğlu’s case is almost a case of déjà vu. In December 2022, he was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison and banned from holding public office for criticising the Supreme Electoral Council. The verdict is not yet final. A candidacy by İmamoğlu, who like Kılıçdaroğlu is a member of the CHP, would have run an enormous legal (and political) risk.

The second largest opposition force, the left-wing Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP), which has strong Kurdish roots, is currently facing legal proceedings and the threat of being banned. As a precaution, it formed a new electoral party, Yeşil Sol Parti (Green Left Party), to contest the elections. In the weeks leading up to the elections, repression against the HDP and leftist forces has increased considerably. It is particularly intense in areas with a predominantly Kurdish population.

Most of the media have aligned themselves with the AKP. The few remaining independent media are under enormous pressure. The BİA Media Monitor reports, among other things, that ten journalists were arrested between January and March alone. Journalists, many of them linked to Kurdish media, were arrested again in April. Many journalists face prosecution. Media reports are being blocked. As a result of the AKP’s media policies, Turkey has fallen from 99th place in 2002 to 165th place in 2023 on the Reporters Without Borders media freedom index.

The ruling bloc

There is a huge difference between the political constellation in 2002 and now. In 2002, the ruling parties were a spent force and did not return to parliament.

Today, the ruling AKP is still a formidable political force. It controls the state apparatus and has built up extensive clientelist networks. As early as 2016, the AKP formed an alliance with the ultra-nationalist Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP). The alliance with the MHP was the result of a U-turn on the so-called Kurdish question. In 2013, the AKP had entered into talks on a political solution to the Kurdish question. After failing to win a majority in the 2015 parliamentary elections, the AKP took a hard line against the Kurds. This shift to the Turkish nationalist right has been accompanied by a much more conservative and rigid line on gender relations. A few smaller far-right parties complete this nationalist-religious far-right Cumhur Ittifakı (People’s Alliance).

Heterogeneous opposition

The opposition is much more diverse. The largest opposition alliance is made up of the centrist CHP (which encompasses quite different political positions) and the nationalist İyi Parti, which split from the MHP in 2017. The Millet Ittifakı (Nation Alliance) also includes Demokrat Parti, the religiously conservative Saadet Partisi and two groups that split from AKP, the more liberal DEVA and the more conservative Gelecek Partisi. The more nationalist currents within this alliance are unwilling to cooperate with Kurdish political forces.

The Kurdish element is strong in the second opposition alliance, Emek ve Özgürlük İttifakı (Work and Freedom Alliance). It is made up of Yeşil Sol Parti (the HDP’s new electoral party) and smaller left-wing parties such as Türkiye İşci Partisi (TİP), which has recently gained support among the urban middle classes, and Emek Partisi, which has a presence among the organised working class. This alliance has the strongest left profile.

The Yeşil Sol Parti alliance decided not to field its own presidential candidate in order to increase its chances of defeating Erdoğan in the crucial presidential election.

In 2017, the AKP established an ultra-presidential regime. The opposition forces are united in their desire to end the “one-man regime”, as it is often called in Turkey. This is their common denominator. Kılıçdaroğlu promised far-reaching steps to restore democracy and the rule of law. His first acts of government would be to release Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s former presidential candidate, and prominent cultural patron Osman Kavala, as demanded by the European Court of Human Rights.

However, besides Erdoğan and Kılıcdaroğlu, a significant third candidate, Muharrem İnce, entered the presidential race. He belonged to the right wing of the CHP and was the CHP’s presidential candidate in 2018. In 2021, he split from the CHP to form his own party, Memleket Partisi. He could take some crucial percentage points away from the opposition, forcing a second round of voting. He is given space in the AKP media.

The Syrian conflict and refugees

During the election campaign, the AKP government took some social measures in order to increase the party’s electoral chances. For example, it raised the minimum wage by 50% at the beginning of the year. It also made grandiose promises of reconstruction. Otherwise, it tries to distract from socio-economic issues. It emphasises its nationalist and religious identity as well as Turkey’s increased international role.

The AKP government has distanced itself from the US and is acting more autonomously than Turkish governments in the past. It played a mediating role in the Ukraine grain export deal between Russia and Ukraine.

For the AKP, the balance in the Middle East is much more problematic. After some hesitation, the AKP government decided to become heavily involved in the Syrian war. The Assad regime proved to be more resilient than the Turkish government had anticipated. The Turkish government has adapted its strategy to this reality and is now talking to Damascus. Its main priority is to curb the role of left-wing Kurdish forces in Syria. There is a strong link between the AKP government’s domestic and foreign policies. Turkey has taken military control of parts of northern Syria.

In Idlib, Turkish forces are protecting a refuge of Syrian far-right Islamist paramilitary forces. In the Syrian region of Afrin, the Turkish military has established a buffer zone controlled by Ankara since 2018. The demographic composition of the population has been changed to the detriment of the Kurds. According to an Afrin-based human rights organisation, the Kurdish population in Afrin fell by 60% in the first two years of the Turkish occupation. Kurds have left, while Arabs have resettled there.

The war in Syria has also had a direct impact on Turkish society. Some 3.6 million Syrians have fled to Turkey. Although the refugees were initially well received, tensions have grown over time. There is increasing competition between Turks and Syrians in the low-wage sector. Both the AKP and the CHP promise to expel the refugees. The forces around the HDP are the only exception to this relatively broad political consensus. Thus, the refugee issue also shows the fragility of cooperative relations in the broader Turkish opposition. The AKP is trying to exploit the rifts in the opposition – not least over its policies on Syria and the Kurds.

The war in Syria has also exacerbated pre-existing tensions in Turkey. In the current election campaign, the AKP is instilling fear and heightening tensions. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu (AKP) compared the upcoming elections to a ‘political coup attempt’ by the West, similar to the failed coup in 2016. Such statements fuel fears that the AKP may be unwilling to accept a possible defeat. An extremely tense and contentious election day lies ahead.

Joachim Becker is a Professor of Economics and Business at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business and deputy head of the Institute for International Economics and Development.