May 14 elections: Turkey at a turning point

Nihat Halepli /Ecehan Balta

On May 14, 2023, Turkey will hold the most important elections in it’s history. Although all indications are pointing to Erdoğan’s regime being voted out, the biggest concern is whether the regime will be able to rig the elections, or what attempts will it make to avoid handing over power.  

On the aforementioned day, two elections will be held simultaneously, both presidential and parliamentary. However, the presidential elections are clearly more decisive at this point of time. The reason is that all power in Turkey is currently concentrated in the hands of Erdoğan as president.

Turkey is holding these elections in conditions where both state and social institutions (like the media) have come under the direct control of the regime; political parties are denied the opportunity to participate equally in political debates despite the fact that there are elections; the opposition is repressed with harsh methods; and there is an extraordinary regression in individual and collective freedoms. 

Presidential elections

In the presidential elections, if a candidate does not receive more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, a second round is held between the two candidates with the most votes. Erdoğan, who sees himself as the country’s last sultan, after 21 years in power, still enjoys support that should not be underestimated, as was shown with the massive rally he recently held in Istanbul. Still, all figures point to his downfall.

According to the average of 10 opinion polls conducted by 10 different polling companies in April, Erdoğan‘s rival Kılıçdaroğlu is leading the race, although Erdoğan is taking advantage of his control over all state institutions and a large part of the media. According to the opinion polls, Kılıçdaroğlu has 47.5 per cent of the vote, while Erdoğan gets 44.4 %. 

There are two other candidates in the presidential race. M. İnce, was the CHP (Republican People’s Party, Kılıçdaroğlu’s Party) candidate against Erdoğan in the last elections. With his newly founded party, he wants to create a space for himself with populist discourse, and his share of the vote was around 6% in April. This percentage seems to have dropped to about 4% in recent weeks.[1]

The fourth candidate in the race, S. Oğan, is an ultra-nationalist and gets about 2% in the polls. Although these two candidates are politically insignificant, their combined vote share could prevent Kılıçdaroğlu from achieving over 50% in the first round, pushing the election into a second round. On the other hand, the majority of voters for these candidates will probably vote Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round.

Kılıçdaroğlu

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been the leader of the CHP, the Kemalist party that describes itself as social democratic, since 2010. Over time, he has neutralised the Kemalist nationalists, known as Ulusalcı, within the party and helped it aquire a relatively more social democratic image. 

Among the existing bourgeois parties, he is undoubtedly the most “left-wing” figure. On June 15, 2017, his 450 km March for Justice from Ankara to Istanbul under the slogan “Rights, Law, Justice” was one of his most important initiatives. 

Although he constantly emphasised the welfare state in his campaign and hinted at Keynesian economic policies, Kılıçdaroğlu is a bourgeois politician who ultimately pursues the interests of big business. His most important achievement was undoubtedly the formation of an oppositional bourgeois bloc of six parties of different colours against the Erdogan bloc.  

The welfare state, justice, democratic rights and the fight against corruption form the basis of Kılıçdaroğlu‘s promises. He says he will follow up on the money that the Erdoğan regime has transferred to capitalists through public-private partnership projects and bring back the money that have already been funneled abroad. This mainly refers to the five huge conglomerates close to Erdoğan, the gang of five as they are referred to. The total amount of money that Kılıçdaroğlu says he wants to bring back to Turkey is a colossal $418 billion.  

As rude and arrogant as Erdogan’s profile is, Kilicdaroglu presents himself as meek and modest in contrast. While Erdoğan sees himself as the country’s last sultan, Kılıçdaroğlu tries to reach voters with short videos in the kitchen of his house, which is the standard of an average working-class family. If elected president, he says he will not reside in the 1,000-room presidential palace built by Erdoğan.

If elected, Kılıçdaroğlu would also be the first high-ranking official from Turkey’s Alevi religious minority, which suffers from institutionalised oppression.

Parliamentary elections

The electoral threshold in Turkey is 7 per cent, and the electoral law allows parties to contest elections in alliances. If an alliance, or a party which is part of an alliance, exceeds the 7 per cent threshold, this is then applied to all the other parties in the alliance. So, parties that are part of alliances can enter parliament even though they could not cross the 7 per cent threshold. This increases the importance of party alliances in elections.

Three alliances, the regime’s People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı), the bourgeois opposition’s Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı) and the left’s Labour and Freedom Alliance (Emek ve Özgürlük İttifakı), form the main blocs in these elections.

The regime’s People’s Alliance

Although the People’s Alliance consists mainly of the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) and the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi,MHP), the regime, as it loses power and every vote becomes more important, has indiscriminately included as many groups as it could gather. Among other small nationalist and Islamist parties, they have included the jihadist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par). This party, which claims it is fighting for a Kurdistan under Sharia law, is the legal front of the Kurdish terrorist organisation Hezbollah. Hezbollah has used all kinds of methods, including cruel torture, against the Kurdish freedom movement in the 1990s with the support of the state. By putting candidates from this party on its list for parliamentary seats, the AKP has guaranteed their representation in parliament in the coming period. The fact that ultra-nationalist Turkish parties such as the AKP and the MHP have been forced to ally themselves with this party is further proof of how cornered the regime is. On the other hand, it is clear that Erdoğan also wants to use this party to split the Kurdish movement in the future.  

Despite all the above, AKP is still the first party in opinion polls, with 30-35 per cent of the vote. Its junior partner, the MHP, fluctuates around 7 per cent. Against this background, the People’s Alliance share of the vote remains in the 40% range and it does not seem possible for it to achieve a majority in parliament. 

At this point, the regime’s bloc, which has nothing new to offer the electorate, but on the contrary has led them into an economic and social crisis, is once again trying to achieve its electoral aims through polarisation, with aggressive, mendacious and manipulative manoeuvres. 

In doing so, it accuses its opponents of being Westerners and terrorists. It wants to “discredit” LGBTIQ and women’s rights with conservative and reactionary discourses such as the “protection of the family” and the “moral education of the youth”.

The bourgeois opposition Nation Alliance 

The main opposition to the People’s Alliance is the Nation Alliance. This alliance consists of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which describes itself as “social democratic”; the Good Party (İYİ), which split from the MHP and presents itself as centre-right; two small parties which split from the AKP- the Future Party, founded by the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the Democracy and Progress Party, led by former economy minister Ali Babacan; the Islamic conservative Felicity Party; and finally the liberal conservative Democratic Party

Among these parties, the CHP gets between 25 and 30 per cent and İYİ between 10 and 15 per cent. Together with the other parties, the vote share of this alliance is around 40 per cent, just like the Erdoğan bloc. 

Since the AKP has constantly changed the electoral system in its favour in recent years, the system has become quite complex. This, forces parties to use complex electoral tactics. The two main partners of the Nation Alliance, CHP and İYİ, are contesting the elections with their own lists, although they are under the umbrella of the same alliance, but they have withdrawn from the elections in some provinces in favour of each other. CHP has provided a total of 71 list seats for the other 4 parties in the alliance. Almost without exception, these are electable seats.  

Unlike the People’s Alliance, the Nation Alliance is standing in elections with a common programme. The text of this programme was negotiated between these political parties for almost a year. It mainly includes points about the transition from the “presidential system of government” to a strengthened parliamentary system; the fight against corruption and bribery; the restoration of the independence of the judiciary; stability and growth in the economy; the growth of various key sectors and the development of the information infrastructure, etc. 

For tactical reasons, it was not clear who the Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate would be until two months before the elections. Imamoğlu (the mayor of Istanbul), who has a liberal profile despite his affiliation to the CHP, and Yavaş (the mayor of Ankara), who is a nationalist, were İYİ ‘s preferred candidates against Kılıçdaroğlu. The announcement of Kılıçdaroğlu‘s candidacy was met with resistance from İYİ and its leader sharply criticised it and announced his withdrawal from the alliance. Public disappointment and reaction to this was so great that İYİ had to return to the alliance, with the formula that both mayors would be vice-presidential candidates. According to İYİ ‘s own figures, 30,000 people resigned from the party within three days in response to the party’s withdrawal from the alliance.

Labour and Freedom Alliance 

The Labour and Freedom Alliance is a left-wing alliance which consists of HDP/YSP (Peoples’ Democratic Party/Green Left Party), TİP (Workers’ Party of Turkey) and five other socialist parties. The main force is HDP, which receives mainly Kurdish votes, and has held a key position in Turkey since the 2015 elections. No bourgeois alliance can win a sufficient majority in parliament without HDP and thus without the votes of the Labour and Freedom Alliance. The same applies to the presidential elections. 

Despite all the repression, HDP‘s share of the vote is constantly in the 12-15 percent range. For this reason, the regime filed a lawsuit against HDP two years ago in order to ban it. This lawsuit is still pending, but because of the risk of being banned during the election campaign, the party is contesting on the lists of one of its smaller member parties, the Green Left Party

HDP had originally announced that it would stand its own candidate in the presidential elections, but after the massive earthquake in February, the party announced that conditions had changed and that it was supporting Kılıçdaroğlu. Its top priority is the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question, while its main motive for the elections is the overthrow of the Erdoğan regime.

The other prominent party of the alliance is TİP, which was founded in 2017 and elected 2 MPs through the HDP list a year later (read our analysis about TİP here). Although TİP, which currently has 4 MPs, has a low vote rate, it has the potential to become a mass left-wing party because of the attention it has attracted in the last year. Its membership has increased from 8,000 to around 45,000 in one year. Based on this, TİP has set a target of 3 per cent, which seems difficult to achieve under these conditions. While the other parties of the alliance participate in the elections on HDP/YSP lists, TİP decided to stand under its own banner in half of the country, although it is part of the alliance. This decision caused controversy within the alliance, especially given the complexity of the electoral law and the fact that votes are essentially transferred to the major parties if a party does not receive the required number of votes to win a parliamentary seat. Moreover, the two parties are competitors in many critical constituencies and, in some places, there is a risk that candidates from neither party will be elected, even though this seems to have been carefully worked out in advance.

These features will be points of debate inside the Labour and Freedom Alliance after the elections, depending of course on its outcome. But more crucially, the left-wing alliance and especially TİP will be put to the test under all circumstances after May: if Erdoğan loses a new situation will be opened up, as people will feel freer to engage in struggle; at the same time though some illusions may appear over the new Nation Alliance government. If Erdoğan wins, the mass movement will face disillusionment and renewed repression. 

Election security 

Election security is one of the most important issues in AKP-ruled Turkey. Like all other institutions, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) is under the control of the regime. In 2019, it ruled that the elections in Istanbul had to be repeated on flimsy grounds just because the AKP candidate did not win. It also ruled in Erdoğan’s favour in the 2017 referendum by validating illegitimate votes. 

In all the elections of the last decade, in addition to various irregularities, the aggressive behaviour of AKP members has been the most widely reported (the most recent being the attack on a public rally of Imamoğlu in Erzurum). The media, which is almost entirely in the hands of the ruling party, have been used to manipulate election results. The YSK, as mentioned above, has taken a pro-AKP stance and made decisions that in some cases were clearly against the law. 

Under these circumstances, people understand that there has to be a special effort in order to prevent elections from being stolen by the regime. Literally hundreds of thousands, from many different political and social backgounds, consider the protection of the ballot box a priority, and the struggle for universal suffrage in Turkey has now aquired a new meaning, to “protect the vote”. It is difficult to predict which loopholes the People’s Alliance will use to subvert electoral security, but it is certain that it will try once again. 

Economic wreckage

On 6 February 2023, two major earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria, killing 60 thousand people, mostly on the Turkish side, according to official figures. The budgetary burden of the earthquake is estimated at $107 billion. 

The earthquake affected 15 per cent of Turkey’s agricultural land, 16 per cent of livestock and 25 per cent of fruit and spice crops, and the medium- and long-term economic impact has yet to be calculated. 

Household, corporate and public sector debt in Turkey has broken record after record over the past three years. In particular, corporate debt to private financial institutions is the largest item. Inflation has risen rapidly over the last three years and no matter what “miraculous” economic package is adopted by the regime, it cannot be brought down. 

The rise in food production costs in Turkey, which is almost entirely dependent on foreign inputs, has resulted in food prices far above the world average. After the earthquake, housing prices (for rent or purchase), which were already extremely high in recent years and could not be stopped, increased even more for two main reasons: Internal migration and the need for safe housing. 

The incredible increase in food and shelter is of course not accompanied by an increase in real wages and social wages. 

The hunger line for a family of four, calculated by the United Metal İş union, is TL 9,752 (€456) for the period up to March 2023, and the poverty line is TL 33,754 (€1,579). The minimum wage, on the other hand, is 8,500 TL (397 €) and the average income in the country is about the same as the minimum wage. 

According to official figures, the overall unemployment rate is 10.7 per cent, with high female and youth unemployment being particularly striking. One third of women are uninsured, one third work as unpaid family labour, and the wage gap between men and women doing the same work is around 20 per cent. On the other hand, the fact that the labour force participation rate has dropped to about 50 per cent is an indication that people have given up looking for a job. Even according to data released by the Turkish Statistical Office on 10 April, the broad unemployment rate has risen to 23.4 per cent. The extremely flexible labour market leads to a steady increase in hidden unemployment. 

Welfare state practices, which are only a caricature of highly developed capitalist economies, are systematically and widely undermined. Similarly, only 10% of the unemployed can benefit from unemployment benefits. All “rights” such as pensions, food, fuel, etc. for the elderly, disabled, veterans, single parents, widows, etc. are distributed as handouts under the name of “assistance”. 

According to the OECD data for 2020, Turkey is the country with the highest number of people working more than 60 hours per week. The percentage of employed people working 60 hours or more per week reaches 15.1 per cent. In terms of average weekly working hours, Turkey ranks second among the 34 OECD member countries with 45.6 hours. Add to this the extremely low unionisation rate of 14 per cent, the constant ban on strikes for reasons of national security and public health, the constant increase in worker deaths and the increase in social insurance payments by almost 20 per cent, and it is clear that Turkey is increasingly becoming a hell for the working class. 

The devaluation of the Turkish lira is one of the weak points of the economy and the currency crisis has long been artificially suppressed by the regime. So much so that there is no more room for maneuver and the dollar could explode against the Turkish lira at any moment.

Moreover, in the face of discontent among large sections of the working class, the regime has introduced an electoral economy for at least a year. For example, in the pre-ACP period, the working conditions of those employed before 1999 were changed retroactively and an age limit for retirement was introduced. For 2.8 million people, the regime backed down and granted them the right to retire, albeit on a limited basis. On the other hand, the minimum wage was raised by 50 per cent twice in a row, and although this was inevitable given inflation and the devaluation of the TL, it is clear that the regime did this more for the sake of votes. 

These are just a few examples that show that the government that will be formed after the elections will inherit an economic wreck. 

Turning point

Whatever the outcome of these elections, it can already be said that they mark a turning point for Turkish society and the beginning of a new era. If Erdoğan is defeated, this will bring about the collapse of his regime. A regime which for 21 years was an expression of the interests of certain sections of the ruling class, embodied in the “cult of personality” around Erdoğan, and which was involved in countless cases of corruption and crime. Naturally, the leading figures of this regime fear that they will be held accountable for these crimes. Therefore, it is a common concern of people that Erdoğan will not want to give up power if he loses the elections. Recent statements by members of the regime seem to feed this concern. Interior Minister Soylu stated that

“May 14 (the election date) is a political coup attempt by the West.”

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, speaking about the Nation Alliance, stated 

“These traitors will get either aggravated life sentences or bullets in their bodies.”

Many similar statements were made by the regime’s leading defenders.

The concern that Erdoğan and his loyalists might take all kinds of initiatives to avoid losing their power, is justified. While it is not easy to predict what these attempts will look like, if the regime tries to retain power through a coup d’état of some kind, it will face enormous social resistance and will eventually fail. The fact is, we are dealing with a regime whose lifespan has already expired, and no criminal endeavour will change that fact. 


[1]After completing the editorial process of this article, four days before the elections, M. İnce announced his withdrawal from the candidacy. But his name will still appear on the ballot paper as a candidate. It is unclear how his already declining vote share will affect the outcome of the presidential election.

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