Turkey is facing a major Presidential election in two months, on May 14th. President Erdogan has been the leader of Turkey for the past twenty years, and is facing re-election. The election still looks somewhat competitive, against all odds. You would think an incumbent facing 100% inflation, a poor earthquake response, and a prior decade of pummeling every political institution would be a shoo-in to lose. But due to his sorcery in politics, he remains in the running. Turkish voters are now coming up on a major strategic decision, in the first competitive election of the Erdogan era. The country effectively will choose between returning to the West or becoming a full ally of Eurasian powers Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China.
Polling and other data suggests a 60-70% chance Erdogan loses. But reliable polling data is hard to come by, and one thing we can be sure of with Erdogan is unpredictable turns of events. Will he become a new Sultan, or will it be “Erdo-gone”?
Erdogan waving goodbye?
The Erdogan Era
President Erdogan was elected first in 2002 as Prime Minister. Through various political maneuvers, he has consolidated power and now runs the country as a President with nearly full executive power. The first decade of his time in power was characterized by a moderate economic policy and friendly relations with the West. The eventual goal was to join the EU. But the European debt crisis of 2009-12 effectively ended that dream.
Another key theme of the Erdogan era has been a slow, creeping introduction of Islam back to politics. Turkey since its founding in 1922, has been a politically very secular country. It has kept any overt expression of religion out of the public sphere, and out of policy making. Erdogan himself was jailed for reading a Koran verse in a speech. His greatest ally in his initial years was the famous religious leade Fetullah Gulen, although they later fell out. But his base, conservative Muslims from central Turkey, has supported him in bringing back Islam to politics. He legalized wearing head scarves in public buildings. Erdogan led the construction of many new mosques, including the largest in the country. And these are alongside a host of minor changes to support political Islam.
Yet since 2011 or 2012, the Erdogan era has been characterized by a relentless attack on institutions in Turkey, a move away from the West politically, and an erratic economy. The economy has shrunk over the past decade. Inflation, which was in the single digits for most of the Erogan tenure, has exploded higher, reaching 80% in official stats and over 100% in unofficial numbers. This is almost entirely due to Erdogan’s decisions on personnel and pursuing a policy of low interest rates and cheap money.
Erodgan originally faced term limits and was not allowed to run again as Prime Minister. But he has pushed through a large Constitutional reform which changed Turkey from a Parliamentary system similar to the German one, to one based on a Presidential system with almost total control. He was first elected in 2014, re-elected in 2018, and is now running again.
In the process, he has arrested tens of thousands of military and police for supporting a coup against him in 2016. He ended the independence of the central bank and finance ministry. He has harassed opposition media endlessly. And he has used intelligence services to keep enemies and allies alike in line. The consolidation of political power in his Presidency was the final step in an almost ten year process.
Erdogan was able to win in 2018 with 52% of the vote, not exactly a mandate. His two candidates for mayors of Ankara and Istanbul lost in 2019. Since then, the perception is that Erdogan is vulnerable and can be beaten at the ballot box.
Erdogan’s Pivot Away from the West
Since changing the Constitution and consolidating power, Erdogan has spent the past several years pulling away from the West. He has gotten in a number of spats with the US on a variety of economic and security issues. The country has spent the past eighteen months actively courting stronger relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and above all Russia. This led to several new strategic agreements, and almost $30bn of extra cash for his government.
Turkey is one of the few nations that has undeniably economically benefitted from the Ukraine war. It’s received Russian tourism and flight capital that can’t go to other locations. It has brokered grain export guarantees with both Ukraine and Russia. And it has placed itself as the new energy hub of the region, with Turkish and Russian owned gas pipelines under construction.
Erdogan has been trying to end the long conflict Turkey has had in Syria. And he has been courting Russia, Chinese, and Gulf investment in the country. At the same time, he has made noises about not support an expanded NATO. Erdogan also tried twice to broker a peace in Ukraine and hosted Putin in Istanbul.
The Opposition Coalition
On the other side of the political aisle, there are several political parties that have been out of power for two decades. They have teamed up in the past one or two at a time, but always were beaten. However, this time the opposition is realizing that they may not get another shot at open elections if Erdogan wins this time. Thus, six of the parties have united to form a consensus coalition for the Presidential race. They will work together to support one candidate to beat Erdogan. But they will run as different parties for Parliament.
There are two major parties in the coalition are the CHP, the main opposition in Turkey, and Iyi (Turkish for good), which pushes a populist agenda. The CHP’s mayors control many of the major cities, led by Istanbul (15m people), Izmir (4.5m), and Ankara (6m). They have over ¼ of Parliament. Iyi has little political machinery, but routinely polls at 15-20% total.
The opposition is united on several key principles. At the moment, they are less united on actual policies and messaging. As the CHP is the biggest party in the opposition, we are going to assume that the economic policies will be those they have pushed for years. That is, moderate economic policy, independent ministers, and closer integration with the West.
On foreign policy, given the quickly shifting winds of the past year, we think there will be more debate before settling on a final set of proposals. But they will likely lean to full support for NATO, and a re-engagement with the West on trade and financial integration, which slid under Erdogan.
One of the key promises of the opposition is to return Turkey to its former Parliamentary system. They want to end the concentration of power in the President and give it back to Parliament. The leader of the country data would be the Prime Minister, selected by the Parliament. That would mean coalitions and broad decisions would write the laws instead of one man.
The Opposition Picks its Candidate
On March 6th, the coalition picked the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu (pronounced Ki-lish-da-ro-loo), but usually called “Mr. K” for obvious reasons, to be its Presidential candidate.
He is in his 70’s, respected as ethical and practical, and an effective negotiator. He is not as politically talented as Erdogan and does not want a dynasty. These skills make him ideal to run a transition period back to a more consensus driven government. His close resemblance to Gandhi in appearance does not hurt his image.
The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara are both viewed as more popular with Turkish voters, and some in the coalition preferred for one of them to be the candidate. Mr. K has promised that they will both given VP level positions in his cabinet. And he promised that each party will have a minister in his cabinet.
Turkey had a horrible near 8.0 earthquake strike on February 6th. Since then, there have been a host of aftershocks. After nearly a month, the death toll has reached over 50,000 between Turkey and Syria. The humanitarian disaster is certainly horrific. Now what does it mean for the politics?
Turkey faces a crucial election on May 14th. It will be Erdogan versus the opposition coalition’s choice, to be decide in the next couple of weeks. While no hard data has been released in the polls, several things suggest that Erdogan’s support should be lower after this event.
First, due to the physical damage, it’s going to be unlikely that voters in the impacted area (10% of the population of Turkey) will be able to turn out as they have in previous elections.
This area is part of Erdogan heartland, where his support routinely reaches 60%+.
Secondly, Erdogan’s main commercial support has been the real estate industry. The allegations have long been present that his party allows shoddy construction and building permits in exchange for political favors. This was only theoretical in the past, but now appears to have cost thousands of lives in the earthquake. Videos of Erdogan bragging about this publicly are popping up and they are not going to help Erdogan in the election.
We imagine that in total these will hit Erdogan’s popularity by 5%. In a race against Kiliçdaroglu, where Erdogan trails by 5-7% in pre-earthquake polls, this extra 5% would give the opposition a comfortable lead, even with possible cheating by Erdogan and the government.
Many voters were disappointed in the number of shoddy buildings that were impacted, and by the government’s slow response (days later than in 1999). But the true test will be in May, three months after the event. Will the victims of this event be in sufficient quality housing? Fed, clothed and lives headed back to normal? Or will they still be begging the state for aid and for recognition? If the latter, Erdogan’s support could be much lower than prior elections.
Running Through The Scenarios
We think the polling the last few months has put the chance of an opposition win at 60-70%. Prior scenarios had shown Mr. K with a 5-8% lead over Erdogan in a run-off. Hardly a slam dunk for an opposition win, but it definitely shows Erdogan’s vulnerability for the first time.
But that fear of his continued reign has overtaken the Western press. Here is the Economist’s January cover:
Many in Turkey and outside of Turkey are terrified of what would happen in another Erdogan term. The concerns begin with just having to put up with five more years of high inflation and an erratic economy. Investors fear nationalization, capital controls, or confiscating foreign currency assets.
But many fear that the opposition parties will be shut down and political opposition banned. They fear the return of a quasi-dictatorship. They are worried Erdogan will just keep running for term after term and strip Parliament’s power to challenge the President. Obviously, Erdogan has said very little concrete on how authoritarian his plans are. But the past decade shows a clear direction of trend.
Now on to a few issues that inevitably surface: just what can Erdogan do politically with regards to this specific election?
Can Erdogan steal the election? Erdogan can steal/rig a few percent of the votes, but nothing like the 20% that he’d need to beat Mr. K. His candidates lost mayoral elections by several percentage points in 2019 in Ankara and Istanbul, so we have a precedent. The CHP controls most of the major cities now, and so the local ‘machinery’ of special contracts, dirty tricks, handing out money and contracts for votes, etc is going to be very hard to pull off in much of the country.
Would Erdogan accept a clear loss (10% or more) and leave? We think he would fight in the courts a narrow loss. But in the event of a large loss, he would have to accept it at a certain point. Turkish society would protest en masse until he did. A similar out come happened in 2019’s mayoral races. Even if he had a major loss, enough people in his own party and other pillars of the government would be glad for him to go and give him a shove. He’d have to negotiate a deal with the winners, but he would not barricade himself in the palace.
Can Erdogan just pull off a coup or cancel the election? Erdogan does not control the military. On the contrary, they are most politically neutral or anti-Erdogan. He has no private army or intelligence service or militia he could rely on. Most of the ten largest cities in Turkey are controlled by CHP mayors with substantial police forces, so executing a coup in the major centers of power by Erdogan followers would be technically difficult.
The Next Two Months
So the choice is simple: On one side, we have unorthodox policy, authoritarian policies, and erratic foreign relations with Erdogan. It’s very possible that he moves Turkey towards a one party state or a quasi-monarchy. There will be a continued move away from NATO and US agendas. And continued integration with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China will continue.
On the other side, with Mr. K, we have a chance to return to ironically the environment that characterized Erdogan’s first five years in power. That is, economic stabilization, foreign investment, and closer political ties with NATO and Western nations. Instead of getting Gulf and Russian money, they would probably seek IMF funding. All of Erdogan’s foreign policy adventures would begin to be wound down.
May 14th is shaping up to be an exciting choice.
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