Seda Demiralp is an associate professor of international relations at Isik University in Istanbul.
Turkey this month will hold one of its most critical elections in many years.
On May 14, most voters will choose between the incumbent Justice and Development Party-led People’s Alliance or the opposition Nation Alliance in selecting among presidential and parliamentary candidates.
Based on recent polls, the outcome looks likely to be quite tight. The election is also momentous.
Assessments of the state of democracy in Turkey have been steadily declining in recent years due to an erosion of political freedom and excessive government centralization. With this election, Turkey faces the possibility of sliding further into authoritarianism.
This election is also critical as the opposition has a higher chance to win than it has at most times since Erdogan first took power as prime minister in 2003. Justice and Development, known by its Turkish initials as AKP, remains the country’s largest party and may still secure a majority in parliament but many voters have turned against Erdogan.
The main opposition parties, meanwhile, have joined forces under the banner of the Nation Alliance behind nominee Kemal Kilicdaroglu, which could give him a chance to win the presidential race.
The opposition’s heightened chances even with an unfair electoral environment are mainly the result of the incumbents’ massive economic failure, with inflation topping 80% and the lira losing more than two-thirds of its value against the dollar since early 2021. This has cost Erdogan and his AKP nearly 10 percentage points of support, taking its rating well below the majority backing it held as recently as 2018.
Turkey’s dire economic situation has presented the six-party Nation Alliance with the opportunity to frame the election as a vote to return to normality, allowing it to avoid divisive issues, such as the debate between Islamism and secularism.
Realizing that it needs to peel away some devout AKP supporters to win, the opposition has been careful to embrace an inclusive discourse focused on economic issues. This approach paid off in municipal elections in 2019, with the opposition winning striking victories in big cities including Istanbul and Ankara, both of which had been controlled by the AKP and its predecessor party for nearly 25 years.
Voters, though, are future oriented. Regardless of who hurt them financially in the past, their voting decisions are shaped by who they think is more likely to fix their problems. So mere criticism of the AKP-led People’s Alliance without a clearly superior alternative may not be enough for dissatisfied AKP voters to move to the Nation Alliance.
So far, the opposition has been addressing the right problems, such as fighting poverty and ending corruption, but it has not made it entirely clear how and when its goals can be reached. When specific promises have been made by the leaders of parties in the alliance, such as introducing a free school lunch program, they have not been embraced by the overall opposition campaign.
The opposition thus still lacks a coordinated campaign with a set of concrete economic goals that could demonstrate why the Nation Alliance is a better choice than the People’s Alliance and to signal that the six-party group can handle internal disagreements.
This has been needed as the alliance came under serious strain in settling on an election ticket, due to tensions between coalition members who favored Republican People’s Party leader Kilicdaroglu as the presidential nominee and those who preferred the party’s popular mayors, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas.
The decision to include the pair as vice presidential nominees helped, but some voters have likely been lost to independent parties outside the alliance, such as the Homeland Party, founded by former Republican People’s Party legislator Muharrem Ince.
Beating an autocratic incumbent is difficult, even when opposition parties join forces. Hungary is a recent example of how a weak candidate, internal rivalry among the opposition and a focus on abstract promises such as a “return to European values” can allow an incumbent to hold onto power.
Sometimes such opposition alliances do succeed, though rarely.
One example was the 2018 Malaysian election in which the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition ousted Barisan Nasional, which had been in power for 60 years. This success could be traced not just to the coalition’s charismatic 92-year-old candidate, Mahathir Mohammed, but also to a campaign that directly addressed the daily economic struggles of the average voter and promised immediate relief.
Whether Turkey will follow in the direction of Hungary or Malaysia is a million-dollar question. But there is another path, too.
Erdogan is well entrenched, but his support has not been this low since he came to power. This presents opposition parties with a golden opportunity to win the upcoming election. If they can overcome coordination problems and stay focused on returning Turkey to economic and political normality, they can change the nation’s fate. This would surely raise hope internationally about the ability of such alliances to beat autocratic incumbents at the polls.
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