Turkey’s Critical Elections at a Historic Crossroads

May 12, 2023

Either Turkey will maintain its strategic autonomy and assertive foreign policy or it will return to an obsolete Cold War era foreign policy.
Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the election rally organized by AK Party in Pursaklar district of Ankara, Turkiye on May 11, 2023. Photo by Anadolu Images


urkey’s May 14 elections are a critical turn for the country which finds itself at a historic crossroads. This, in turn, has set the stage for a campaign period in which all candidates and parties are leaving no stone unturned. The quiet period of the campaign during the month of Ramadan, which witnessed the expansion of both alliances and the drafting of MP candidates, has now entered its hottest phase. Now the final 100-meter stretch of the nearly 2-year-long election marathon is taking place featuring the fierce competition between the People’s Alliance and the Table of Six (Nation Alliance).

There is no doubt that this election will be the hardest for undecided voters in Turkey’s recent history. This is because the polarization between the two main alliances is determined by the “President Erdoğan factor” rather than ideological distinctions such as right/left or conservative/secular. The Democrat Party (DP), the Felicity Party (SP), the Future Party (GP), and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), which are running on the CHP list, have many politicians who opposed the CHP mentality.

Despite Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s rhetoric of making amends, the CHP has not yet finalized its new ideological formation. It is still unclear whether the Republican Party is now Kemalist, nationalist, or leftist. While Kılıçdaroğlu is pushing all the ideological buttons to win votes, the CHP media maintains its Kemalist and secularist character viewing the AK Party and the People’s Alliance as “misogynist and radical Islamist.” Today’s CHP does not represent a consistent identity, and even capitalizes on a politics of ambiguity.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s message to Muharrem İnce, reveals his ideological zealotry. According to journalist Fikret Bila, Kılıçdaroğlu told İnce, “Turkey is under occupation. The Republic is under threat. This election is of historic importance and requires a historic responsibility.” Like Kılıçdaroğlu, certain writers working in the CHP media companies are as ideologically radicalized as they were in the 2007 mass Republican and Kemalist rallies.

However, the conservative-religious segments of society have never viewed the Erdoğan’s government demands as misogynist and radical Islamist, including the headscarf. Resentful conservatives do not accuse the AK Party of radical Islamism and will not vote for the CHP just for the Felicity Party or Future Party to win a few parliamentary seats. There are other motives, but it remains to be seen whether they will trust Kılıçdaroğlu’s word when he keeps changing it; or whether Kurdish voters will vote for the CHP candidate instead of Erdoğan, who gave them their identity rights.

Turkish nationalist voters will also have a hard time making an ideological choice: on the one side, there is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and, on the other, the Iyi Party. Kılıçdaroğlu claims that he is the true nationalist despite the open support the Nation Alliance is receiving from the PKK. While the fight of the People’s Alliance against the PKK and FETO terrorism is established, the HDP line imposes its radical demands on the Nation Alliance. In fact, the argument that the “Republic is under threat” can more accurately be used by the People’s Alliance.

Leftist voters, both Turkish and Kurdish, overwhelmingly support the CHP and Kılıçdaroğlu. However, with the Democratic Left Party’s (DSP) decision to join the People’s Alliance, this has become somewhat ambiguous. Some may say that the DSP is not leftist, pointing to its nationalist reflexes. But the DSP was founded by the late Bülent Ecevit, former prime minister and famous leftist politician, and its political stance perplexes some voters who would otherwise vote for the CHP.

Muharrem İnce, who criticizes both the People’s Alliance and the Nation Alliance, attracts the attention of nationalist-secular voters. The situation is such that different Turkish parties can utilize the rhetoric of “Menderes, Özal, Ecevit, Türkeş, and Erbakan are turning in their graves” against each other. All these parameters indicate voters will have problems deciding how to cast their vote on May 14.

The Opposition’s Agenda

In the run-up to the May 14 elections, there will be no topic left untouched. In addition to the realization of megaprojects and the economy, all the important issues for Turkey from identity issues (Kurds and Alevism) to the fight against terrorism and the debate on imperialism are on the agenda. The reason is obviously the question of who will govern Turkey for the next five years.

Kılıçdaroğlu released two videos with the titles “Kurds” and “Alevis.” In the former, he claimed that “millions of Kurds are treated as terrorists.” In the latter, he stated that he was Alevi and called on young people to “destroy this divisive system… that says no to Alevis.” Demirtaş, Babacan, and Davutoğlu supported these videos, while President Erdoğan and Bahçeli criticized them, accusing Kılıçdaroğlu of a “sharp return to identity politics.”

Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach, which equates the terrorist organization PKK with Kurds, is clearly a defense against criticism leveled against him for the open support of the PKK headquarters in Qandil for his candidacy. He may have opened the “Alevi identity” issue as a preemptive move. Kılıçdaroğlu is practicing very conscious and unique identity politics, which can be labeled “polarization politics with a positive outlook.” It has a “positive outlook” because he places himself in a position that recognizes brotherhood and differences; it is “polarizing” because he accuses innocent actors of crimes they did not commit. With the claim that “millions of Kurds are being treated as terrorists,” whereby the AK Party government is accused of the “crime of discrimination” and polarization, Kılıçdaroğlu himself creates reverse polarization.

It is also important not to lose sight of the connection between the debates on nationalism and identity, on the one hand, and the serious risks Turkey faces, on the other. Kılıçdaroğlu’s remarks on the release of those who were dismissed from their position by governmental decrees on charges of FETO affiliation are a cause for concern. This is why the PKK’s and FETO’s support for Kılıçdaroğlu and the Nation Alliance’s conspicuous silence, in contrast with the speaking out of the PKK ringleaders, are disturbing.

Alliance of Contradictions

Kılıçdaroğlu’s election campaign displays a low tempo in terms of polemics. I don’t know if this will change in the final stretch, but it is clear that Kılıçdaroğlu’s current low tempo is a campaign tactic. He may have preferred this approach following the suggestion of his campaign advisors that he follow a tactic similar to Ekrem İmamoğlu’s in the 2019 local elections. He may also have chosen to remit harsh accusations toward Iyi Party leader Meral Akşener and some CHP members. But Kılıçdaroğlu’s profile as a presidential candidate is quite different from that of İmamoğlu’s profile as mayor. This is because Kılıçdaroğlu is behind a lot of harsh rhetoric and broken promises that need to be forgotten.

His reading of FETO tapes out loud in Parliament; his denial of the July 15 coup attempt, and, what is more, deeming it as a “civil coup” plotted by the government itself; his opposition to the freedom of wearing a headscarf in the Constitutional Court; and his failed tenure as director-general of the Social Social Institution (SSK) experience during the coalition period are all in the public record. In other words, Kılıçdaroğlu is an old name with a lot of baggage and polishing his profile is not an easy job.

It remains to be seen to what extent softening his harsh rhetoric will give Kılıçdaroğlu a new “responsible statesman” profile. However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic serves as a litmus test of the Nation Alliance as a disorganized and incoherent coalition in terms of ideology, identity, and policies. Despite all the documents produced by the Table of Six, the Nation Alliance has still not moved on from being simply reactionary. The opposition to President Erdoğan and the goal of transition to a “strengthened parliamentary system” are not enough for Kılıçdaroğlu to reach a coherent discourse.

The opposition parties’ stress on democracy does not provide a common vision for the Nation Alliance. Keeping some political and ideological issues vague may also be a campaign choice; however, the space left vacant by the Nation Alliance parties and their candidate is being filled by the Green Left Party (YSP-HDP’s backup party for the election), the TİP (extreme leftist Turkish Labor Party), and CHP-supporting media.

Classical CHP secularists, the HDP, and the TİP supporters are increasingly declaring the People’s Alliance and Erdoğan as “radical Islamist.” On the other hand, DEVA and the pro-GP media claim that the AK Party is harming religion. The liberal leftist names nominated by the YSP also play a role in casting doubts on the heroic popular defense of July 15 and creating an agenda for the “Kurdish question.”

They advocate the idea of starting a new Peace Process, if Kılıçdaroğlu wins, forgetting that the HDP and the PKK ended the previous Peace Processes and were responsible for the Kobani incidents and the trench clashes. The HDP has engaged in no self-criticism about its support of terrorism. In fact, its inclusion in the Nation Alliance rescued the HDP from being marginalized. Moreover, the HDP started formulating policies and discourse for the Alliance and its candidate Kılıçdaroğlu, which make his efforts to unify the disorganized opposition even more difficult. The harsh rhetoric of the Turkish and Kurdish left merges with the CHP secularism, leaving DEVA, the SP, and the GP rooting for Canan Kaftancıoğlu.

Erdoğan and the People’s Alliance

President Erdoğan, as the candidate of the People’s Alliance, stands out with his twenty years of experience and his effective role in international politics. Erdoğan aims to strengthen the “Axis of Turkey,” which he has already started to build with his approach that addresses security, defense, and foreign policy. Between 2016 and 2020, when necessary, Erdoğan risked rising tensions with the U.S., Russia, and certain regional powers. In the last two years, however, he consolidated Turkey’s gains with a policy of normalization. After the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Turkey is now entering a new phase of normalization with Egypt.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it became a trend in the Middle East to diversify classical alliances and normalize problematic relations. The Gulf countries’ neutral position in the Russia-Ukraine War and China’s role in the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia point to new equations in the Middle East. Moreover, French President Macron’s quest for strategic autonomy for Europe and his efforts to stay out of the Taiwan crisis speak to the diverging interests of the great powers at the global level. One of the most active countries in this new global and regional era is Turkey under Erdoğan’s leadership.

The May 14 elections mark a crossroads for Turkey’s role in the region and Turkish foreign policy. Either Turkey will maintain its strategic autonomy or it will return to its traditional foreign policy codes and abandon its current assertive foreign policy. The Turkish people will choose between these two options. There is a vision/declaration of Turkey as a regional leader and global actor, on the one hand, and the promise of retreating from the problem areas in the region with an inward-looking policy, on the other. Taking place on the centennial anniversary of the Republic, the May 14 elections are an important turning point for Turkey and its entire region.

Burhanettin Duran received his B.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Bogazici University in 1993 and obtained his Ph.D in Political Science from Bilkent University in 2001. Currently, Dr. Duran is a Professor at Ibn Haldun University and the General Coordinator of SETA Foundation.