Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in Turkey on May 14, 2023 and it’s unclear what the result will be.  In the election campaign, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has advantages, but a change of power would dynamize Turkish-European relations.

Erdogan is running as the joint candidate of the ruling coalition of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He has ruled Turkey for 20 years, first as prime minister starting in 2003 and as president since 2014. In 2018, he had the parliamentary system changed to a presidential system, which gives the president extensive powers.

Erdogan is desperate to be re-elected as president as he desires to go down in the history books as a great Turkish figure on a par with Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Furthermore, the election year 2023 is highly symbolic for Erdogan and Turkey – in October 1923, 100 years ago, Turkey was founded by Atatürk, the “Father of the Turks.”

The polls do not (yet) see Erdogan ahead.

According to polls by Aksoy, AR-G, Yöneylem, MetroPOLL and ORC, as well as PolitPro and POLITICO (as of April 2023), Erdogan is still just behind his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Three reasons become apparent.

1. A fairly united opposition:

Six major opposition parties have agreed on an opposing candidate, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which includes Kurdish Turks and was weakened by Erdogan, also indirectly supports Erdogan’s challenger; it is part of a leftist four-party alliance called the Labour and Freedom Alliance.

2. High inflation stresses people

Inflation is enormous: officially it is said to be at 50%, and demonetization is eating into the savings and wages of the middle and lower classes in particular. In the past, Erdogan’s most important electoral potential was fed by the hope of steadily increasing personal prosperity.

3. Criticism of the management of the earthquake disaster:

Turkey’s central government is managing the aftermath of the disaster slowly and ineffectively. As a result of the February 2023 earthquake, more than 50,000 people lost their lives and up to 1.5 million people lost their homes in south-eastern Turkey. The destruction of infrastructure is immense, and initial cost estimates for reconstruction are as high as 100 billion euros.


Turkey Earthquake
© Berkan –

Erdogan has a clear advantage in the election campaign

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is at a structural disadvantage in the election campaign; the opposition leader does not have a fair chance of mobilizing his electorate. Under pressure, Erdogan is pulling out all the stops to get the majority of voters on his side. He can count on many factors to do so. Here are a few examples:

Erdogan and his power base, the AKP, have ruled over the Turks for 20 years. The AKP counts 11 million members, its functionaries control all levers of politics, administration, economy, media and judiciary – while the opposition party block counts only about 3 million party members.

Freedom of the press severely restricted

Erdogan has steadily restricted freedom of expression and assembly, so that the media, which are also controlled by the president and his power base, report more extensively (and more positively) about him than they do about his challenger.

Potential opposition voters are neutralized, including the nearly five million people who have left the earthquake zone and taken shelter with relatives and acquaintances elsewhere in the country; they cannot register to vote in time at their new place of residence because of their precarious situation. Theoretically, they could only return to their destructed hometowns on election day to vote in person.

Erdogan promises wage increases and tax cuts

Erdogan is promising his potential voters financial gifts, such as wage increases, energy subsidies and tax cuts, even though the state budget is actually in the red and experts expect a more difficult economic recession after the elections, not to mention the possibility of a fiscal collapse.

However, Erdogan also uses his power position in the media in his election campaign, as one large-scale project after the other is inaugurated: the first Turkish atomic power station, the first Turkish gas field, the first electric car produced in Turkey, a bridge here, a new housing estate there.

Erdogan’s risky game with Russian President Putin also serves to flush foreign currency into the country. A NATO member and EU candidate Turkey has doubled its trade volume with Russia since the start of Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine.

Erdogan benefits from cheaper Russian oil imports and capital injections, while the rest of his Western allies tighten the sanctions’ screw against the Kremlin. Turkey is now also making itself dependent on the use of nuclear energy, as Erdogan, in cooperation with Putin, ‘virtually’ inaugurated the first Turkish atomic power plant on April 27, 2023.

Russia sends oil, foreign currency and tourists

For now, the West is letting Erdogan have his special way with Putin because his vote is needed for NATO enlargement to include Sweden, for the Ukrainian-Russian grain export agreement, and to keep the migration deal with Brussels. Many EU states want to keep refugees and opportunity seekers from the Middle East in Turkey. In addition, the humanitarian willingness of Europeans to help earthquake victims has remained high since the outbreak of the disaster.

The outcome of the presidential and parliamentary elections will be close

If neither Erdogan nor Kılıçdaroğlu can garner more than 50% of the votes cast in the first round, there will be a runoff election on May 28, 2023. The latest polls on the possible outcome of the parliamentary elections predict a narrow lead for the People’s Alliance of AKP and MHP, forecasting them to gain around 40% of votes. The Nation Alliance, made up of six opposition parties, is predicted to follow closely with around 38% of votes.

On RANGE, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and Bertelsmann Foundation’s crowd-sourced forecasting platform, the question whether Erdogan will be re-elected as president predicts a win for Erdogan, with forecasters saying there is a 65% chance he will be re-elected and a 35% chance there will be a leadership change.

Thus, Erdogan can narrowly win the presidential and parliamentary elections, but so can his challenger Kılıçdaroğlu. If Erdogan were to lose, there is no guarantee that he would even acknowledge his defeat.

A possible scenario is also conceivable where Erdogan remains president but loses the parliamentary majority. His presidential constitution would allow him to govern by decree, i.e., bypassing the parliamentary majority. The result would be a further strengthening of authoritarian power structures.

Election outcome scenarios reflected in relations with the EU

The prospects for European-Turkish relations, which are already under severe strain, are not good. The relationship between European politicians and a re-elected President Erdogan would remain tense.

In the best-case scenario, there would possibly be an increase in EU aid for earthquake victims and refugees in Turkey, a compromise on visa-free travel and approval of Sweden’s NATO membership.

Modernization of the customs union and opening more chapters in the EU accession process for Turkey would not be forthcoming, as the Erdogan system is unlikely to take steps toward restoring civil rights and rule-of-law principles in the state and economy, let alone reducing corruption.

A new start for European-Turkish relations?

A truly necessary new start in European-Turkish relations – which would reflect Turkey’s geostrategic importance in the pan-European context – would only be conceivable under Erdogan’s challenger Kılıçdaroğlu as president, even if Kılıçdaroğlu would not be an easy partner.

After all, a new president will have to govern with an administration dominated by Erdogan’s party, he will find empty state coffers, and he will tend to make few overtures to European positions on foreign policy issues concerning Cyprus, the Kurds and Russia. Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu announced that he will renegotiate the migration deal with the EU.

Nevertheless, a new president creates a completely new political atmosphere. The EU 27 must use this to make Turkey generous offers that include modernizing the Association Agreement and the Customs Union, as well as opening negotiations on further accession chapters. To anchor Turkey more firmly in the European sphere again, a admission of all six Western Balkan candidate countries should be put into practice in parallel.

The EU has considerable influence in and on Turkey 

It is quite amazing how European-Turkish relations have deepened and broadened even during Erdogan’s long years in power – although the EU accession process has been put on hold since 2018 due to the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law, as well as aggressive foreign policy toward EU member states.

eu budget Turkey | Turkey Elections

Compared to the EU accession and neighbourhood countries, Turkey attracts more direct investment from the EU, Ankara receives the most financial support from Europe, its economy is closely intertwined with the EU single market, and most of its remittances by expatriates come from EU countries.

EU FDI Turkey | Turkey Elections

Provoking the Europeans despite dependencies

Despite these Turkish dependencies on the EU, President Erdogan could also afford to demonstratively show up the Europeans. Some recent examples:

It remains in memory that in 2021, President Erdogan, during a visit of EU Council President Charles Michel and the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, symbolically placed the high-ranking female European guest apart on a couch.

Will European politicians allow these gestures again during another Erdogan presidency? This time, the EU should be prepared to reassess, reimagine, and, in turn, bolster relations with Turkey after the elections.

About the author

Christian Hanelt is a Senior Expert for the EU Neighbourhood and the Middle East, working in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Program “Europe’s Future.” His areas of expertise include the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the EU’s relations with the Gulf region, economic developments in the Arab world, and the causes of flight and migration.

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