Analysis | Why Erdogan’s Reelection Bid in Turkey Isn’t a Sure Bet


Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wields almost unbridled power in Turkey, is seeking another term as president in elections likely to come in May. With the country facing an economic crisis, polls suggest a tight race that could threaten his 20-year rule, the longest in Turkey’s history. Even before a date’s been set, it’s become a rancorous contest. Electoral rules have been rewritten to give Erdogan and his party an edge. And critics say he’s leaning on the courts to disqualify strong competitors and that he’s violating the constitution by running again. 

1. What’s the main election issue?

Erdogan, who will turn 69 on Feb. 26, faces a vote over his increasingly authoritarian leadership after effectively shifting Turkey to an executive presidency with sweeping powers in 2018. Turkey’s opposition parties rarely coordinate strategy, but this time Erdogan faces a serious challenge from a six-party opposition bloc, which includes ex-allies who helped build his political empire. The vote comes as the nation is contending with the worst cost-of-living crisis in two decades. Though Erdogan remains Turkey’s most popular politician, his Justice and Development Party has lost support among the poor, who’ve typically been among its most stalwart backers. Leaders of the opposition bloc promise to run the country through consensus. Erdogan attacks their plan as a recipe for a return to the bickering within coalition governments that produced decades of political and economic instability before he rose to power. 

2. Why are prices so high? 

Inflation was around 64% in December, down from a 24-year peak of 85.5% in October, and remains the second highest among peer emerging economies after crisis-ridden Argentina. Pandemic disruptions and the war in Ukraine have fueled inflation in many nations, but Erdogan’s unconventional economic views have accelerated the phenomenon in Turkey. While many central banks have increased interest rates to combat inflation, Erdogan takes the unorthodox position that doing so has the opposite effect. Under pressure from him, Turkey’s central bank has cut rates. In pre-election pledges that will test the country’s fiscal health, Erdogan has promised to protect citizens’ purchasing power by significantly increasing pensions and civil servants’ pay, as well as the minimum wage. 

3. When will the elections be held?

They must be held by June 18. However, Erdogan, who has the power to call both presidential and parliamentary elections at any time, has repeatedly signaled that they could come in May, hinting that May 14 could be the day. That date would come immediately after the government, according to its plans, will allow more than 2 million people to retire early and will hire hundreds of thousands of others in the public sector. The date would also avoid school holidays and the annual Hajj pilgrimage in June, possibly increasing chances of a high turnout, although not among university students, who usually need to return to their hometowns to vote — young voters being a source of support for the opposition. Voting takes place on the first Sunday after the 60th day following a president’s call for an election. A presidential candidate must win more than 50% of the votes to avoid a runoff two weeks later. 

4. Who will challenge Erdogan?

The six-party alliance has yet to declare its candidate for the presidency. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of its biggest party, has put himself forward. In local elections in 2019, Kilicdaroglu led his Republican People’s Party to victory against Erdogan’s party in Turkey’s largest cities. He’s not as popular as the party’s Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul. But in December, Imamoglu was convicted of insulting election officials and his prison sentence of two years and seven months, if upheld on appeal, will ban him from politics. Critics accuse Erdogan of influencing the judiciary to prevent rivals such as Imamoglu from running, an allegation the government has denied. 

5. What are the prospects for parliament? 

Polls suggest Erdogan’s party and its smaller partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, could struggle to sustain the parliamentary majority they won in the last election in 2018. Their prospects would improve if they don’t have to compete against the People’s Democratic Party, which advocates for the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and is the third largest bloc in parliament. It did well enough in elections in June 2015 to deny Erdogan’s party a parliamentary majority. A court is considering disbanding the People’s Democratic Party over separatism charges related to alleged ties to Kurdish militants — charges it denied. 

6. What’s the issue with Erdogan’s candidacy? 

His critics say he can’t run again because the constitution limits presidents to two consecutive five-year terms unless parliament calls a snap election during the second term. Officials in Erdogan’s administration say that for purposes of that provision, he’s only in his first term — having been directly elected by the people for the first time in 2018, a year after a referendum shifted the country to a new presidential system. Before that, in 2014, he’d been elected president by parliament, after serving as prime minister for the previous 11 years. The country’s Supreme Election Board has the final say over the eligibility of presidential candidates and is unlikely to oppose Erdogan’s bid. 

7. How have the electoral rules changed?

Erdogan’s government won parliament’s approval for amendments, which take effect April 6, reducing the percentage of overall votes a party must win to enter parliament to 7% from 10%. At the same time, the new rules make it harder for smaller parties to win seats on their own, forcing them to run on tickets dominated by bigger allies. The changes close a loophole that would have allowed the People’s Democratic Party to circumvent a ban, if it comes. And the rules exempt the president from a prohibition on ministers using state resources to organize their campaigns or attend rallies.

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