As Turkey’s economy continues to sink and its foreign policy spins out of control, calls for early national elections are growing. Yet, if such an election were to be held, possibly in the summer or fall of 2022, roughly a year ahead of schedule, would the Turkish electorate vote Recep Tayyip Erdoğan out of power?
Polling and recent political developments show an unequivocal and steady fall in support for him and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, his rule has long been defined as “competitive authoritarianism,” in which the opposition, in principle, stands a chance to come to power but also face challenges. In this case, the most important of them is whether a free and fair election will occur and whether the outcome of it will be respected.
As a result, much of the debate over Turkey’s political future has shifted to the question of whether Turkey’s next elections will, in fact, be rigged. While many people assume this scenario, there are good reasons to believe rigging an election will be harder than they, and perhaps Erdoğan’s allies, think. There are strong indications that the Turkish electorate may soon say goodbye to Erdoğan.
Competitive Authoritarianism and its Failures
Turkey’s “competitive authoritarian” regime emerged after Erdoğan was elected in 2014 as president. Until then, Turkish presidents were chosen by the parliament, and their executive powers were relatively limited. Erdoğan took up his new position with the clear objective of transitioning the country from a parliamentary system to a uniquely centralized presidential structure, dismantling all the checks and balances associated with democratic rule.
His second step toward the current system came during a period of emergency rule imposed on the country after the failed coup attempt against his rule in 2016. The following year, he organized a referendum on constitutional amendments needed to bring about the transition to the presidential system. The amendments were adopted with 51.4 percent of the votes, although the election monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe determined that the referendum was held under circumstances that were short of free and fair.
Erdoğan had promised that this new form of government would be more efficient in addressing the country’s problems and that it would bring about greater prosperity for the country. In 2018, he was re-elected as president for a five-year term with a comfortable majority and proceeded single handedly to execute the transition to the new system.
However, as the regime evolved to one-man rule, Erdoğan’s promises never materialized. The economy markedly deteriorated. The value of the Turkish currency weakened from 2.18 Turkish Lira (TL) to the U.S. dollar (USD) in August 2014, when he was first elected president, to more than 11 TL by mid-November, losing 70 percent of its value against the dollar since Erdoğan in 2015 warned that those who invest in the U.S. currency would lose money. Such a precipitous drop has also been reflected in the decline of Turkish GDP per capita from more than $12,000 in 2014 to $8,500 in 2020. The Turkish public has had to content itself with ever-falling living standards aggravated by inflation, high unemployment, and poor management of the COVID pandemic.
The political scene is marked by diminished media freedoms, severely weakened judicial independence, and a repressive environment that have placed Turkey at the very top of the list of countries, after Mali, experiencing the sharpest declines in freedoms in the last 10 years. An aggressive Turkish foreign policy based on confrontation rather than diplomacy has left the country isolated regionally – it has no ambassadorial representation in a string of key countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Israel. His most recent move to have 10 ambassadors from the United States, several European countries, Canada, and New Zealand declared “persona non grata” has been described by former diplomats and experts of international relations as “irrational” and “unprecedented,” severely damaging Turkey’s national interests. (The action apparently was prompted by their joint letter calling for the release of a prominent civil society leader.) Finally, his decision to deepen relations with Russia and purchase its S-400 ballistic defense missile system has profoundly damaged relations with Turkey’s traditional allies in NATO, including the United States, developments considered by many analysts as seriously weakening the country’s national security.
Turkish Opposition’s Prospects Improve
These developments have significantly eroded Erdoğan’s and his AKP party’s standing in the polls. The public dissatisfaction is widespread even among pro-government voters. Nearly 81 percent of individuals polled in October supported the view that the Turkish economy was being badly managed, with 61 percent of AKP voters falling into this category. According to the Metropol polling agency, Erdoğan’s approval ratings dropped in August 2021 to 38 percent, its lowest level in six years. Polls can be notoriously wrong in predicting actual outcomes, as was the case with Turkish elections in November 2015, the Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and the 2021 parliamentary elections in Germany, but there are several reasons why the Turkish electorate may well be ready to replace Erdoğan next time they go to the ballot box.
First, and possibly most importantly, opposition political parties are converging behind the idea of returning to the parliamentary system, though it would be what they describe as a “strengthened and improved parliamentary system” — one with stronger legislative powers than the one that Erdoğan’s presidential system replaced. Six parties of the opposition came together in October to adopt basic principles focusing on independence of the judiciary, media, and academia, and laws concerning political parties and elections, with the aim of boosting the separation of powers and democracy. Support for the current presidential system is down to an all-time low at 34 percent, while 57.7 percent favor a return to the parliamentary system.
Secondly, the ability of Erdoğan to set the agenda and silence the opposition is weakening. His angry diatribes and divisive political narrative are increasingly failing to rally his religious-nationalist base. His cooperation with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) led many Kurds in metropolitan areas to vote in the 2019 local elections for candidates of the main opposition party, the Republican Peoples Party (CHP).
After nearly two decades in power, Erdoğan also looks physically exhausted. Though only in his late 60s, rumors about his failing health have recently dominated the Turkish news cycle. To dispel such stories, the President’s Directorate of Communications felt the need to share short footage of Erdoğan walking towards the camera, though even that showed he did so with some difficulty. In the light of the degree and extent to which Erdoğan has centralized power and weakened institutions in recent years, his weak physical state raises growing concerns about his ability to govern.
By contrast, the opposition parties are more energized and organized than at any other point under Erdoğan’s rule. Known for its lackluster local organization, CHP improved its ground operation in major metropolitan areas that brought success to its candidates in the 2019 local elections. From January 2020 to September 2021, Meral Akşener, head of the İYİ (Good) Party, visited 58 provinces in the country, with plans to travel to the remaining provinces by the end of the year. Moreover, Akşener and her ally Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of CHP, have become more vocal and effective in their oppositional politics. Commentators are noting how they are increasingly able to shape the day-to-day political agenda in the country and propose concrete policy proposals, forcing Erdoğan to become defensive as he remains unable to offer, let alone implement, policies to resolve the country’s mounting problems.
A third reason the electorate might be prepared to usher Erdoğan out of office is that new political stars are on the rise among the opposition ranks. The opposition bloc’s decision to nominate moderate politicians, who could appeal to pro-government voters with inclusive rhetoric and emphasis on bread-and-butter issues, resonated with the electorate in the 2019 local elections. As a result, the CHP currently controls many of the country’s most populous metropolitan cities, including Istanbul and Ankara. Mayors of both cities further increased their popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing services and social assistance to voters against a multitude of hurdles created by the central government. So, municipal governments have provided the opposition with a political platform to display an alternative to Erdoğan’s rule and reduce the ruling party’s disproportionate access to public resources. Regardless of who their candidate(s) will be in the end, the opposition parties enter the next election cycle with more resources and stronger popular support.
A fourth signal of Erdoğan’s potential political demise is that defections from the ranks of his entourage and rifts within the AKP are growing, creating the image of a sinking ship. This trend started last year, when two former members of Erdoğan’s cabinets, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, left AKP to set up their own political parties — the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the Future Party (Gelecek), respectively. Even if, so far, their standings in the polls have been relatively low, they have attracted prominent names from AKP critical of Erdoğan’s policies and performance. There is also an expectation that both parties are likely to attract dissatisfied voters as the economic crisis continues to worsen this winter. The November 2020 resignation of Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, from his position as minister of Treasury and Finance intensified intra-party factional fights that Erdoğan seems no longer able to manage in his current weakened state. The ruling party has recently been shaken by a string of scandals indicating vast corruption, incompetence, and nepotism at the upper echelons of the regime.
Challenges Ahead for the Opposition
However, there also are obstacles in the way of opposition parties winning the next elections. There still is not a common presidential candidate against Erdoğan. Akşener is the only leader who has openly stated that she would not be a presidential candidate and that she prefers becoming the prime minister in the new parliamentary system. As the leader of the main opposition party, Kılıçdaroğlu is the opposition’s most likely candidate who could be trusted to oversee the dismantlement of Erdoğan’s presidential system and its replacement with a parliamentary one. However, in a country that is heavily polarized and impacted by Erdoğan’s narratives emphasizing Sunni Islam, Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi identity (Alevis are considered by many from the Sunni majority as a heterodox group somewhat like the Shia) makes him a questionable candidate for conservative Sunnis. The popular mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, appears to be interested in presenting himself as a candidate, while the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, is also cited as a potential contender. Both names performed better than Kılıçdaroğlu or Erdoğan in recent polls. While the existence of several viable candidates could be an asset for the opposition, the candidate selection process may open rifts between the CHP and İYİ Party.
Another challenge arises from the fact that there is a large pool of undecided voters, many of whom supported AKP and MHP in the past. Although these voters are hurt by the economic crisis and the government’s limited social assistance during the pandemic, the opposition parties have not yet secured their support. Erdoğan still enjoys considerable popularity among older voters with a pious background who are worried about losing the benefits and privileges they have received under AKP rule. In a polarized country where elections are won or lost with small margins, these voters may determine whether the opposition is able to defeat Erdoğan and win a sufficient number of seats to secure a transition to the “strengthened and improved” parliamentary system.
The toxic and divisive climate that Erdoğan has created against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) by associating them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist organization that now also controls large swaths of northeastern Syria, makes it difficult for the opposition to openly engage the pro-Kurdish party. Yet, HDP is critical to winning elections. The party played a decisive role in defeating the AKP candidates in the 2019 local elections in large metropolitan centers including Ankara and Istanbul.
The Kurdish vote may become a tiebreaker in the presidential elections. It is going to require considerable political acumen for the opposition bloc to be able to develop a political agenda and narrative that addresses the concerns and expectations of HDP’s base without alienating nationalist votes. Due to its nationalist base, the İYİ Party refuses to be linked to HDP in any way. If the Constitutional Court decides to ban the HDP in the coming months, the İYİ Party’s position may seriously hurt the opposition’s standing among Kurdish voters.
Risk of Election Manipulation
One last major challenge is the prospect that Erdoğan may actively attempt to manipulate or contest the election outcome. Turkey has a long record of holding elections that have been reasonably fair and free since the management of elections was put into the hands of the Supreme Election Council (YSK) in 1950. However, there have been occasions in the past when ruling parties have resorted to irregularities in especially isolated parts of the country beyond the easy reach of effective election observers from opposition parties and civil society. Traditionally, rural areas in east and southeastern Turkey primarily dominated by Kurds have been susceptible to such irregularities. This is recognized to have occurred when, ahead of the 2017 constitutional referendum, the government with the support of opposition parties removed immunity for several HDP members of Parliament, including the party’s popular co-leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, and imprisoned them. This was accompanied by appointing government trustees in place of elected mayors of numerous municipalities in the east and southeast of the country.
These developments severely disrupted HDP’s ability to observe and oversee the safety of the voting process during the referendum. As a result, one empirical study has shown a striking discrepancy between the number of votes cast for the governing AKP in previous elections compared with the relatively high percentage of ‘Yes’ votes in the referendum in HDP strongholds, even though the party opposed the amendments. So much so that Erdoğan, when declaring his victory based on a thin majority, acknowledged the significance of the vote from the southeast in winning the referendum.
In an upcoming election, it is highly possible that the government may attempt to resort to a similar form of manipulation, especially if the Constitutional Court rules in the coming months against the HDP in the case seeking to ban the party. However, pollsters privately note that such a manipulation would not significantly improve the prospects of Erdoğan and AKP’s votes – for example, by more than 2-3 points nationally. This, they predict, would fall short of disrupting an outcome that favors the opposition by 8-9 points. One poll shows that 53.7 percent of the electorate believes that the AKP will lose power in the next election, and that tally includes a third of those who voted for the governing coalition.
Furthermore, such irregularities would be very difficult to implement in western parts of the country, where most of the electorate is located, and where both opposition parties and civil society are much more likely to organize effectively to protect the security of the ballots. Additionally, there are signs that Erdoğan no longer enjoys the kind of strong control that he once exercised over the media and state institutions to manipulate the results without provoking a major backlash in the country.
Indeed, the legacy of how AKP bitterly and dramatically lost the repeat vote in Istanbul’s mayoral election when Erdoğan without any evidence claimed that victory had been stolen from them is likely to act as a deterrence against any blatant manipulation. However, as Donald Trump has demonstrated in the United States, authoritarian populists do not concede power without a fight. Due to the weakened institutional checks and balances in Turkey, Erdoğan may still initiate another wave of repression or push for a new military campaign in Syria to consolidate his base ahead of an early election. After all, he had once reversed the declining political fortunes of his party between June 2015 and the November elections that year by playing on the fears of the Turkish electorate. Yet, today the economic and political picture of Turkey is dramatically different than 2015. This is especially the case when one considers the financial and political limitations that Erdoğan’s regime currently faces.
Electoral autocrats who have engaged in fraud, such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, the late Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Aleksander Lukashenko in Belarus all had sufficient financial resources, enjoyed the full loyalty of their security apparatus and secured diplomatic allies necessary to weather the ensuing crisis. By contrast, Erdoğan does not have access to the kind of resources he would need to be able to ignore the results of an election in which he loses. Turkey is already undergoing a severe economic crisis that would only intensify under this scenario. Unlike Venezuela, Iran, or Russia, Turkey does not have natural resources that would provide Erdoğan with easy access to revenue.
Erdoğan’s rule relies on a sustained provision of material benefits to business cronies and poor urban voters, benefits that he maintains through horizontal and vertical forms of clientelism. The current recession already weakened his regime by depriving him of material resources that would have been necessary to maintain his popular cross-class coalition.
Lacking natural resources, Erdoğan would then need to accomplish the near impossible feat of attracting cash flows from the financial markets to stabilize the economy. Given the obvious political and financial risks, Erdoğan cannot bankroll his regime with external funds. His government is already isolated among traditional Western allies.
He also lacks direct diplomatic support from Russia or China. Although Turkey and Russia grew close after the failed 2016 coup, they have divergent interests in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the Caucuses. Turkey has long opposed Russian annexation of Crimea, and the strengthening of its military ties with Ukraine irritated Putin in recent months. China isn’t likely to be a significant backer, considering Erdoğan’s previous description of their treatment of Uighur Muslims as genocide. Though he has been silent on that point recently, the Chinese took note and, despite Erdoğan’s interest in cozier relations with China, he is being kept at arm’s length.
In the event of electoral fraud, he would be shunned even further diplomatically, which in turn would aggravate an already dire economic situation. In the 2019 re-run local election, the CHP’s Istanbul branch mobilized approximately 150,000 volunteers to monitor the election as well as the counting process in an attempt to prevent vote rigging by the ruling party. Should the opposition bloc repeat this performance nationally, it would have the means and the legitimacy to challenge the official results and appeal directly to the electorate on election night and in the aftermath.
Allegations of electoral fraud have previously served as a strong motivation for antigovernmental protests in a wide range of countries, including Belarus, Bolivia, Serbia, and Venezuela. As Turkey’s Gezi protests indicated (they took place in May-June 2013 across the country against government plans to convert one of the few remaining parks in Istanbul into a shopping mall and were violently repressed), the country’s opposition groups have the capacity to mobilize en masse against the regime and will most likely repeat this performance. Unlike the Gezi period, though, Erdoğan now faces a very diverse opposition bloc that includes not just the secular middle classes and nationalists but also Kurdish and conservative voters.
Regimes that fail to secure the loyalty of the security forces cannot reasonably expect to withstand such mass mobilization from below. Erdoğan has fallen short of developing a reliable security force solely loyal to him, and would therefore need the support of the military to wage a nationwide repression. After the disruption in its ranks following the failed 2016 coup, the military’s officer ranks are firmly under civilian – and Erdoğan’s control. Nevertheless, they would be hesitant to use excessive force against the opposition. Faced with strong pressure from the West, it is highly unlikely that current Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar, a former military chief of staff, would be willing, let alone able, to ensure the military’s compliance, considering the armed forces are composed of conscripted soldiers and has traditionally enjoyed a strong connection with the wider public.
The Erdoğan era that started with his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and continued as he became first prime minister in 2003 and then as president since 2014 is ending. He is failing to offer remedies to Turkey’s mounting problems. Though he desperately tries to draw a favorable picture of Turkey’s economy and international relations, all the indications are that a growing proportion of the public is no longer buying into his narratives. Public opinion polls increasingly show how his popularity and the likelihood of him and his political party winning elections is diminishing.
Still, as much as the opposition parties are gaining in confidence, they do also face major hurdles. The opposition has not yet converged on a common political agenda and presidential candidate. We should also not rule out the possibility that as the election date approaches, Erdoğan and his allies may resort to desperate measures to stay in office.
Time will tell whether the opposition parties will be able to overcome their challenges and get the electorate to say goodbye to Erdoğan and his AKP. Until then, it may still be premature to write off his ability to survive. But he is closer than at any period in his long political career to losing power, especially in a country where the notion that those in power “come through the ballot box and leave through the ballot box” (sandıkla gelir, sandıkla giderler) is deeply embedded in its political culture.