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Turkey: Erdoğan secures third term as president

Turkey’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently secured another term in office in late May. While this development may suggest “business as usual”, Ankara’s future relationship with the wider world remains very much uncertain.

June 2, 2023 - Volkan Isbasaran - Articles and Commentary

Victory celebrations in Turkey. Photo: Mohammad Bash / Shutterstock

On May 14th, Turkey held elections to choose their next president and parliament for the next five years. This marked the second presidential election since the 2017 constitutional referendum, which changed the country’s form of government from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. The Supreme Election Council (YSK) announced a day after the elections that there would be a run-off in the presidential race between the two candidates with the highest votes, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. This was scheduled for May 28th. In the second round, Erdoğan ultimately secured his third term as president by winning 52.14 per cent of the vote.

The presidential and parliamentary elections held great significance in the country, as the nation has faced a variety of new challenges since the previous elections in 2018. These challenges included the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, political scandals and recent major earthquakes. In this high-stakes election, four candidates emerged and were approved by the YSK.

The candidates were Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the incumbent president and the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He was also the joint candidate of the People’s Alliance. His main challenger was Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and also the joint candidate of the Nation Alliance. Sinan Oğan, an independent Turkish nationalist, emerged as the third candidate. He was supported by the anti-immigrant Victory Party (ZP) of Ümit Özdağ and the Ancestral Alliance (Ata İttifakı). Finally, there was also Muharrem İnce, the leader of the Homeland Party and the CHP’s candidate in the 2018 presidential election. Although he remained on the ballots, İnce withdrew from the race three days before the elections.

In the first round, the unofficial results reported by the Anadolu Agency showed that Erdoğan led the presidential elections with 49.50 per cent of the vote, followed by Kılıçdaroğlu with 44.89 per cent. Sinan Oğan received 5.17 per cent of the vote, while İnce received 0.44 per cent. These preliminary results indicate a decrease in Erdoğan’s votes compared to the 52.59 per cent he received in the last elections. Overall, voter turnout reached a record high of 88.9 per cent. Opinion surveys failed to accurately predict the election results, surprising the opposition. Even the most reliable pollsters viewed Kılıçdaroğlu as the frontrunner, with even a potential first-round victory.

Different places, similar problems

Analysing the results geographically, it is noteworthy that Erdoğan’s support decreased in 73 out of Turkey’s 81 provinces compared to the 2018 elections. Among the 30 designated metropolitan municipalities, Erdoğan’s votes dropped in all of them except for Aydın, Van and Malatya. Despite winning in Istanbul, the country’s largest province, and Ankara, the capital city, in 2018, Erdoğan lost in both provinces in the recent elections. Additionally, his votes decreased in Central Anatolia and the Black Sea regions, which have traditionally been AKP strongholds. In the first round, the province that saw the most significant decrease in votes for Erdoğan was Kayseri with 6.98 per cent, while the province with the largest increase was Hakkari in the southeast with 3.85 per cent.

In contrast, Kılıçdaroğlu received support from CHP strongholds in Thrace, the European part of Turkey, as well as the Aegean and Mediterranean provinces. He also garnered significant support in the university city of Eskişehir and other major cities. Notably, Kılıçdaroğlu received the highest percentage of support from his hometown of Tunceli, while the top five provinces with the largest support for Kılıçdaroğlu were predominantly Kurdish-majority provinces. This was thanks to the pro-Kurdish HDP’s endorsement and support.

In February, Turkey and Syria experienced major earthquakes, with Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep being the epicentres of the disaster. A state of emergency was declared in the ten affected provinces. Out of these ten provinces, Erdoğan secured the majority of votes in seven, although his votes decreased in all of them except one. Interestingly, these provinces did not experience a significant decrease in voter turnout compared to the national average, with one province – Kilis – even showing a higher turnout percentage. Although Kılıçdaroğlu won Hatay in the first round, Erdoğan managed to win the province in the second round of the elections.

Before the elections, a quote attributed to the seven-time Prime Minister and former President Süleyman Demirel about the importance of the economy in Turkish politics was echoed by many commentators: “There is no government that an empty cooking pot cannot overthrow.” However, this quote failed to accurately predict the election results, as the AKP won the majority of seats in the parliament despite a major economic crisis.

The May 2023 International Economic Outlook from Wells Fargo noted that they expected a depreciation in the value of the Turkish Lira if Erdoğan won. Since 2018, Turkey’s economy has been in decline. That year the inflation rate stood at 15 per cent but now the government’s official inflation rate currently exceeds 40 per cent. The Turkish Lira has also experienced a significant devaluation against other currencies. For instance, in 2018, one US dollar was equivalent to 4.7 Liras, whereas now, it stands at 20 Liras. Despite this, it is likely that Erdoğan will continue his unorthodox economic policies in his next term.

An election with global consequences

After the first round of the elections, Oğan endorsed Erdoğan, while İnce decided to remain neutral. Oğan’s decision to support Erdoğan came as a surprise to many, as he had been a staunch opposition figure for many years. Speculation regarding Azerbaijani interference in the elections arose due to this endorsement. For example, the journalist Yavuz Selim Demirağ claimed that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev himself arranged a meeting between Oğan and Erdoğan days before the second round of the elections. İYİ Party member İbrahim Özkan stated, “Do not expect too much from Sinan Oğan. He does what Aliyev says.”

Oğan, who was born to an Azerbaijani family in Iğdır, worked in the office of Abulfaz Elchibey, the former Azerbaijani president, in the early 1990s. He maintained his ties with Azerbaijan and the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) over the years and even received the “Azerbaijan State Medal” in 2011. Additionally, Oğan has connections with Russia. He completed his PhD at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 2009 and participated in the Valdai Forum, where he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin in 2010.

Apart from the allegations involving Azerbaijan, Kılıçdaroğlu also warned Russia against interfering in the elections. In a Twitter message, Kılıçdaroğlu stated: “Dear Russian friends, You are behind the montages, conspiracies, Deep Fake content and recordings that were exposed yesterday in this country. If you want to continue our friendship after May 15, keep your hands off the Turkish state. We still stand for cooperation and friendship.”

In terms of foreign policy, Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu held divergent views regarding the war in Ukraine. Kılıçdaroğlu took a stance advocating for Turkey’s support of Ukraine in the conflict. He emphasised the importance of standing in solidarity with Ukraine and criticised Turkey’s dependency on Russian energy. Kılıçdaroğlu’s position on the Ukraine conflict reflected his broader vision of forging closer ties with NATO and the EU. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he expressed his commitment to strengthening Turkey’s relationships with these western alliances. By pledging to build closer ties with NATO and the EU, Kılıçdaroğlu sought to align Turkey with the western sphere.

Where now for Turkey’s foreign policy?

On the other hand, Erdoğan’s foreign policy approach has undergone significant shifts throughout his tenure, which makes it challenging to predict how his approach will unfold in the aftermath of the elections. During his early years as prime minister, Erdoğan pursued a pro-EU and pro-US stance, positioning Turkey as a bridge between East and West. However, his foreign policy orientation gradually shifted, particularly following domestic and international developments, such as the failed coup attempt in 2016 and increasingly strained relations with the EU.

As president, Erdoğan has adopted a more assertive and independent foreign policy, often characterised by an emphasis on Turkey’s regional influence and a pragmatic approach to diplomatic relations. While he has at times demonstrated alignment with western interests, such as his refusal to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and supporting the Syrian opposition, Erdoğan has also displayed a willingness to engage with various actors, including those not necessarily aligned with western powers.

Although he currently voices support for the Syrian opposition, it is worth noting that Erdoğan has not always held this position. In the past, he referred to Bashar al-Assad as his “brother” and even went on a vacation with him, reflecting a period of closer ties between Turkey and the Syrian government. The possibility of Erdoğan re-establishing connections with the Syrian government cannot be ruled out. In the run-up to the elections, the foreign ministers of both states met in Moscow, indicating a potential opening for dialogue and diplomatic engagement. This meeting may have served as a starting point for Erdoğan to explore the possible future trajectory of Turkey’s relationship with Syria.

It is essential to remember that Erdoğan’s foreign policy approach is characterised by pragmatism and a willingness to engage with a diverse range of actors, irrespective of their alignment. His desires to strengthen Turkey’s regional influence and pursue national interests have often shaped his decision-making process. This approach suggests that Erdoğan’s foreign policy choices will likely be guided by a careful balance of various factors, including regional dynamics, national security concerns and economic interests. Therefore, the path that Erdoğan’s foreign policy will take after the elections remains uncertain.

Volkan Isbasaran is a researcher studying armed conflicts, ethnic/religious minorities and urban history. He holds a BA in Political Science and International Relations from Yeditepe University and an MA in Political Science from Central European University.

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