Election in Türkiye: Test for Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

Türkiye’s presidential and parliamentary election was held on 14 May 2023 in the backdrop of deep economic crisis and fallout of the devastating earthquake in February 2023. The outcome of the election could shape Türkiye’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); engagement with the US; European Union (EU); Russia and West Asian states; migration policy; role in Russia-Ukraine conflict; dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean region and ties with India. The incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political party, Justice and Development Party (AKP) have dominated Türkiye’s political landscape since early 2000s. In the parliament, AKP has managed to retain its majority since its inception in 2001 until the current election held on 14 May. In the presidential election, Erdogan however has failed to decisively win more than 50 percent of the total votes leading to second round of voting to be held on 28 May. The current election can be seen as a litmus test for Erdogan presidency facing tough challenge from opposition forces aggravated by domestic problems and regional dynamics including the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. The article briefly touches upon President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and AKP party’s political impact in the state and dissects the key issues in May 2023 election.

AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdogan

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his political career in the Islamist Welfare Party. He was seen as a pro-development figure during his tenure as the mayor of Istanbul between March 1994 and November 1998. He formed the Justice and Development Party or AKP on 14 August 2001 projecting itself as an Islamist party with modern outlook. Erdogan built his support base among the middle and lower middle class sections of society as well as the peasantry in the Anatolia region.[1] AKP capitalized on the public dissatisfaction with the secular Kemalist ideals that dominated the state’s ideological framework since the foundation of the republic. The Kemalist parties in 1990s established unstable governments that were seen as incapable of solving the economic issues. AK Party provided political space for conservatives; Islamists, leftists; secularists etc. Erdogan served as the Prime Minister between 2003 and 2014 and he was credited for improving the Turkish economy in 2000s. He introduced several measures to reform the economy and there was uptick in Turkish economy. In 2002, Türkiye’s GDP growth in was 6.45 percent that increased to 8.43 percent in 2010 and 11.20 percent in 2011.[2]

Table 1 indicates AKP dominated the parliamentary elections winning 361, 341 and 326 seats in 2002, 2007 and 2011 respectively. AKP’s closest challenger, the Kemalist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) won 179 seats, 112 and 135 seats in 2002, 2007 and 2011 respectively. [3][4][5]

Erdogan as Prime Minister carried out reforms in governance and began accession talks with European Union (EU) in October 2005. He maintained close ties with NATO, western states and Israel. He controlled the narrative on development and benefitted from the anti-elite and anti-Kemalist sentiments among the people. In a major political boost for Prime Minister Erdogan, AKP dominated parliament passed referendum on 12 September 2010 allowing the government to appoint high court judges, curb the powers of the military and approving direct election for presidents by national vote rather than by parliament. According to the constitutional amendment, the term of the president was reduced from seven to five years.[6]

Table 2 indicates that in the first direct presidential elections in 2014, Erdogan secured 51.79 percent share of votes. Erdogan’s competitors, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtas secured 38.44 and 9.76 percent votes respectively.[7] Erdogan assumed presidency on 10 August 2014 and handed over the position of Prime Minister to former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on 29 August 2014.

Table 3 indicates that during June 2015 election, AKP under Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu lost its majority winning 258 seats in the 550 member parliament. Notably, the pro-Kurdish HDP entered election for the first time winning 80 seats.[8] Following the elections, AKP’s efforts to form a stable coalition government failed resulting in snap elections on 1 November 2015. In the November 2015 election, AKP regained its majority winning 317 seats. CHP, HDP and MHP won 134, 59 and 40 seats respectively.[9] President Erdogan during this period was pushing for re-writing the constitution and introducing presidential instead of the parliamentary system. President Erdogan capitalizing on the insecurity caused by bombings and attacks by the Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish militants called for a stronger executive authority[10].

The AKP dominated parliament on 21 January 2017 approved a constitutional reform by 339 votes enhancing the powers of the presidency enabling the president to issue decrees, declare emergency rule, appoint ministers and top state officials and dissolve the parliament.[11] It therefore weakened the powers of the parliament, enabled presidential control over judicial appointments and ignored sufficient checks and balances against abuse of executive power. The reforms also led to dissolution of the position of the Prime Minister. The size of the parliament following the referendum was increased from 550 to 600. The consolidation of political authority under Erdogan was solidified after the said reforms were approved by public referendum on 16 April 2017 with 51.41 percent ‘yes’ votes and 48.59 percent ‘no’ votes.[12] Consequently, the new presidential system facilitated simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election held on 24 June 2018.

Table 4 indicates in the first simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election, AKP secured 295 seats[13] and President Erdogan managed to win the election securing 52.59 percent.[14] President Erdogan and AKP therefore managed to preserve its dominant position in Turkish polity.

The opposition parties raised fear about the consolidation of powers under Presidential system leading to authoritarian rule. Notably, Türkiye’s human rights record under Erdogan has been poor marked by tightening of freedom of expression, association and assembly; strict media censorship, arrests and repression of ‘perceived enemies’ of the government. Terrorism charges are widely misused to detain journalists, academicians, politicians, civil servants, teachers, human rights defenders, and politicians, as well as police officers and military personnel. Erdogan government imprisoned several pro-Kurdish parliamentarians as well as the Kurdish Presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas.[15] The courts issued verdicts in several major politically motivated trials without credible evidence. A large chunk of terrorism charges were placed on people alleged to have links with the movement run by US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt.[16]

The parliament in August 2018 replaced the two year state of emergency with counter terrorism legislation broadening the powers of appointed provincial governors to restrict assemblies and movement; providing executive authority for three years to dismiss public officials, including judges and increased police powers including custody periods extendable for up to 12 days.[17] The restriction on movement and assemblies was severely imposed on Kurdish region and LGBTQ rallies. On 19 March 2021, President Erdogan issued a decree to withdraw the state from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence i.e. Istanbul Convention. The decision was motivated by Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate his support from conservative sections within AKP and the Islamist Saadet Party. The Islamists feared that the convention could encourage divorce; dilute traditional family values and allow protection of victims from discrimination regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.[18] The Islamist-rooted AK party has increasingly voiced anti-LGBTQ sentiments and regularly used hate speech and smear campaigns against the community. The government has also introduced legal measures to suppress civil society organizations. President Erdogan therefore targeted every institution or part of society that has resisted his wide-ranging effort to reshape Türkiye’s society.

In terms of foreign policy, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to evoke neo-Ottoman legacy by playing the Islamic trope and seizing a regional leadership role has backfired. Türkiye’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood; involvement in Libyan civil war; expansion of military activities in Syria and Iraq; criticisms of domestic policies of Gulf states and actions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea region isolated the state. Türkiye’s economy is suffering from recession, declining currency value, high unemployment rate and surging inflation rate. The poor economic situation has direct consequences on Erdogan’s political fate prior to May 2023 parliamentary and presidential election. Türkiye since 2021 made efforts to re-engage with regional neighbours such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Erdogan government in order to overcome isolation and the deteriorating economic situation, attempted to reconcile with Gulf States that could ease investments and financial packages. Türkiye’s close ties with the UAE and Egypt could provide advantage in case of regional competition with Greece and Cyprus.

May 2023 Elections

The key issues in the May 2023 elections are economy; after-effects of 6 February earthquake; conservative vs. secular debate; democratic backsliding and refugees. Türkiye’s deteriorating economy is affected by currency crisis due to interest rate cuts in late 2021 causing inflation to rise up to 85.51percent in 2022.[19] The earthquakes on 6 February 2023 killed around 45,968 people in Türkiye and another 7,259 people in Syria.[20] The poor construction practices due to weak enforcement of building regulations and slow rehabilitation efforts are crucial political issues during the election. The conservative versus secular divide has polarized the state and Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned his supporters about the re-imposition of secular Kemalist ideas in case of victory by the opposition. The centralization of authority under Erdogan; complete control over state institutions including judiciary and restrictions of freedom of expression, assembly and association are also crucial subjects during the current election. The economic stress has contributed in the rise of anti-refugees sentiments in Türkiye. The subject of nearly 3.7 million Syrian refugees and the measures to facilitate their return have occupied central stage in the current election.[21]

The main candidates in the 2023 Presidential election are Recep Tayyip Erdogan from AKP under People’s Alliance; Kemal Kilicdaroglu from CHP under Nation Alliance and Sinan Ogan from the ultra-nationalist ATA Alliance. Muharrem Ince from Homeland Party and presidential candidate for CHP during 2018 elections withdrew few days prior to the polling date. A candidate in order to win is required to secure more than 50 percent of total votes. However, in case no one reaches the 50 percent mark, the top two candidates are polled in the second round. In terms of the parliamentary election, the election in the 600 member Grand National Assembly is carried out through a system of party list proportional representation in 87 electoral districts in which different number of members of parliament (MPs) is elected based on the population size.[22]

Table 5 indicates that AKP led People’s Alliance secured 322 seats and the opposition, CHP and IYI Party secured 169 and 44 seats respectively. Therefore, AKP and its allies will continue to dominate the parliament.[23]

Table 6 indicates that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to maintain the lead in the Presidential race securing 49.5 percent while his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from CHP secured 44.89 percent. The voter turnout in the presidential and parliamentary election was at 86.98 percent.[24] Erdogan facing his toughest fight has failed to cross the 50 percent mark. Therefore, the second round will be held on 28 May between the two top contenders i.e. Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Sinan Ogan who was contesting as the joint candidate of the ultra-nationalist parties under the banner of ATA Alliance secured 5.17 percent. Sinan, a former member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of AKP has been accused of xenophobic statements against Syrian refugees and pursuing far-right policies.[25] Ogan following the results of the first round has endorsed Erdogan emphasizing that the newly elected parliament should be under the same leadership as the parliament.[26] Sinan’s nationalist and ultra-nationalist voter base is ideologically close to Erdogan and AKP’s conservative agenda. The Turks who voted for Sinan are expected to tilt towards Erdogan in the second round.

Kilicdaroglu as a Challenger?

Kemal Kilicdaroglu backed by a six party alliance i.e. Republican People's Party (CHP), Democratic Party (DP), Progress Party (DEVA), Gelecek or Future Party, Iyi or Good Party, and Saadet or Felicity Party has emerged as a tough challenger against Erdogan forcing the election to go to the second round.[27] He is a political veteran from CHP representing the Kemalist, progressive and left politics. He has acknowledged the mistakes under CHP including ban on Hijab in public offices and softened his position on religious interference in state affairs. Kilicdaroglu is seeking to navigate the Islamist-secular divide by allying with the Islamist Saadet party affecting AKP’s Islamist and conservative support base. The alliance among Kemalist, non-Kemalist and Islamist factions has morphed the secular versus conservative divide.[28] Kilidaroglu received support from the nationalist and center-right Iyi party. Moreover, the Kurdish HDP party has avoided presenting candidate for presidential election indicating support for Kilicdaroglu’s candidature.[29]

Kilicdaroglu is seeking to benefit from public frustration over Erdogan’s poor economic rehabilitation policy, rising unemployment and poverty. He has pledged to serve a single term and called for dismantling the presidential system; return to a “strong parliamentary system”; solving the Kurdish issue; facilitating the return of Syrian refugees and close relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States (US).[30] He is keen to resume the accession talks with the EU that stalled in 2018 due to regression of democratic norms. The engagement with the west is a top priority for Kilicdaroglu and his political rhetoric has widely covered aspects such as emphasis on rule of law, media freedoms, de-politicization of the judiciary and independence of courts, diplomatic corps, and the Central Bank. He has assured to improve the human rights conditions, ensure freedom of expression, assembly and association which has been heavily and systematically curbed under Erdogan government.[31] The opposition alliance also promised to implement European Court of Human Rights decisions calling for the release of two high profile prisoners incarcerated by Erdogan, i.e. the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Selahattin Demirtas and human rights defender Osman Kavala.[32]

Kilicdaroglu has promised economic rehabilitation as well as withdrawal of Turkish troops in Syria, Qatar, Libya and Somalia;[33] withdraw Türkiye’s veto on Sweden’s membership in NATO;[34] ensure visa free entry to Europe within three months.[35] The Turkish army has greatly benefitted from Erdogan’s strategic inroads in the region in building military bases. It is not likely that the military will concur with the withdrawal policy. Kilicdaroglu’s commitment to reopen accession talks with the EU could also prove to be difficult. He also hinted to revisit the terms of 2016 agreement on migration with the EU to coordinate and develop a common migration policy.[36]

Kilidaroglu has hinted a more pro-west tilt that could impact Türkiye’s relations with Russia. The opposition alliance perceives that Russian President Vladimir Putin is more in favour of Erdogan. Russian President Vladimir Putin on 27 April 2023 virtually joined President Erdogan in the opening ceremony of Akkuyu nuclear power plant built by Russian state nuclear firm Rosatom. Kilicdaroglu has indicated interest to return to US’ F-35 programme.[37] Reportedly, Erdogan has objected to Kilicdaroglu’s meeting with the US Ambassador to Türkiye, Jeff Flake calling it an intervention in the election.[38] Türkiye under Kilicdaroglu will continue to act as a mediator in Russia-Ukraine conflict and extend the Black Sea Grain initiative, but would place more stress on Ankara’s status as a NATO member.
With regard to Greece, the current rapprochement between Türkiye and Greece could be utilised by Kilicdaroglu to resolve the maritime borders, energy exploration and Cyprus.[39] It must be noted that Greece, Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean Region are key aspects of Türkiye’s foreign policy and it is not likely to alter under a new government. Kilicdaroglu’s approach to handle Türkiye’s interests vis-à-vis Greece could change.

On the subject of refugees, the presence of around 3.7 million Syrians has raised public antagonism among Turkish citizens battling cost of living crisis. Kılıçdaroğlu has assured that his government will create opportunities and the conditions for the voluntary return of Syrians. He suggested establishing engagement with Bashar Al Assad regime and help in rehabilitating the Syrian economy to facilitate voluntary return by Syrian nationals.[40] Critics have noted that voluntary return of refugees is wishful thinking that will depend on smooth bilateral relations that could occur only after Türkiye’s withdrawal from Syrian territories.

Erdogan’s Win in Second Round?

The 14 May election result indicates that President Erdogan with 49.5 percent has a clear edge to dominate in the second round to be held on 28 May. Erdogan has managed to divert the attention from the poor state of the economy. Erdogan’s campaign strategy focussing on political stability; identity issues; the national vision; state security; anti-west rhetoric; inaugurating big projects in April 2023 such as the largest warship, TCG Anadolu; first nuclear power plant; first home made electric car by Togg have resonated among his supporters. Erdogan in order to preserve his support base has introduced vast spending initiatives.[41] Turkish government since December 2022 has increased the national minimum wage by 55 percent; hiked the salaries of civil servants by 30 percent; expanded a programme to give subsidized loans to tradesmen and small businesses and abolished a minimum retirement age requirement, allowing more than 2 million Turks to stop working and collect their pensions.[42] Erdogan’s popularity was dented due to the slow response following the February 2023 earthquake in the Anatolian region which has traditionally been an AKP vote base. He has however gradually managed to regain support in the affected regions by providing financial aid, shelter etc. to earthquake victims. It can be seen in the continuing high support for the President and AKP from the voters living in the affected regions during 14 May elections. Erdogan has assured that his government in case of victory, will build Türkiye’s economy, increase its influence abroad and safeguard the country from domestic and international threats.[43] President Erdogan has advantage of a consolidated voter base and a disciplined party organization, while his opponent is hoping to draw support from ideologically diverse voters. Therefore, Erdogan through control over media institutions; narrative management to maintain his image as poor and pious Muslim leader; election law amendments has a clear edge.

The CHP and its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu suffers from historical baggage due to its strict adherence to secular tenets and do not represent “New, Young, and Fresh” leadership. A large section of voters are unconvinced about his image as a force for change and his support base is still dominated by Kemalists. The CHP through its alliance with Islamist parties is seeking to overcome its anti-religion image. However, large section of voters, both secular and conservative is unconvinced about this ‘alliance of convenience’ under Kilicdaroglu and there is no solidarity among the supporters within CHP led Nation Alliance. The six-party alliance is also deeply divided in terms of their ideologies benefitting the ruling alliance. At the same time, Kilidaroglu led Nation Alliance is trying to balance between the nationalist Iyi party and the Kurdish dominated HDP. AKP has utilised HDP’s support for Kilicdaroglu to insinuate that he is a pro-Kurdish figure that has affected his support among the nationalist voters in the first round.[44] Kilicdaroglu in a historic speech on 20 April spoke about his Alevi identity and overcoming the sectarian divisions.[45] The political gamble however backfired in the Sunni-majority state with large sections of population unwilling to accept an Alevite head of state. Moreover, Kilicdaroglu’s pro-west tilt has affected support from the nationalists and Islamists especially due to the growing anti-west sentiments across the political spectrum.

For Kilicdaroglu, the campaign strategy is based on bringing back the debate on Erdogan’s economic performance and deterioration in rule of law. He has also adopted a more hostile attitude towards Syrian refugees in public speeches to placate a section of right-wing voters.[46] In case of Kilicdaroglu’s victory, Kilicdaroglu has promised to return to parliamentary system. AKP and its allies have maintained its majority of the parliament which could block any initiative by Kilicdaroglu to revert to parliamentary system. Kilicdaroglu’s failure to replace the presidential system could also fracture the six parties Nation Alliance causing political crisis.

From New Delhi’s perspective, Erdogan government’s close ties with Pakistan and public criticism of India’s domestic policies has created friction with Ankara. In case of Kilicdaroglu’s victory, he is not likely to starkly deviate from Türkiye’s key foreign policy and security interests. The presence of the Islamist Saadet Party in the ruling alliance would mean that criticism on India will remain. For Türkiye, Pakistan is instrumental to its expansion plans in Central Asia and it will support Islamabad in enhancing its role in Central Asia. Therefore, Kilicdaroglu after coming to power will preserve close bilateral and strategic ties with Pakistan which will remain unchanged.


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and AKP have dominated Türkiye’s political landscape since early 2000s. Erdogan’s mishandling of the economic situation and slow response to the February 2023 earthquake has led to dissatisfaction among a sizeable section of voters within the state. Kemal Kilicdaroglu representing the six parties Nation Alliance composed of groups with diverse ideological tenets has emerged as the key challenger. The erosion in Erdogan’s support base can be seen by his failure to win 50 percent mark in the first round. The incumbent President has managed to deflect attention from economy and emphasised on stability, security, anti-west rhetoric, big projects and framing Kilicdaroglu as pro-Kurdish figure to consolidate his support base. For the opposition, win in the second round of polling is an uphill task and it needs to be seen whether it manages to fracture the pro-Erdogan support base and claim victory. It must also be noted that whoever wins the election has the difficult task of reviving the economy and first few months would be crucial to bring quick reforms. In case of Erdogan’s likely victory, the continuation of current economic and monetary policies will lead to more inflation and currency crisis further perpetuating cost of living crisis.


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[36]N. Stamouli, “2023’s most important election: Turkey”, Politico, April 17, 2023, at https://www.politico.eu/article/turkey-2023-election-erdogan-kilicdaroglu/ (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[37]The Eurasin Times, “Turkey Could Rejoin F-35 Program, Quietly Hand-Over S-400 Systems To US If Kilicdaroglu Triumphs Erdogan?” The Eurasian Times, May 12, 2023, at https://eurasiantimes.com/turkey-could-rejoin-f-35-program-quietly-hand-over-s-400-systems-to-us-if-kilicdaroglu-triumphs-erdogan/ (Accessed 18, 2023).

[38]Daily Sabah, “Erdoğan ‘closes the door’ to US envoy in Türkiye over Kılıçdaroğlu talks”, Daily Sabah, April 3, 2023, at https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/erdogan-closes-the-door-to-us-envoy-in-turkiye-over-kilicdaroglu-talks/news (Accessed May 17, 2023).

[39]N. Stamouli, “2023’s most important election: Turkey”, Politico, April 17, 2023, at https://www.politico.eu/article/turkey-2023-election-erdogan-kilicdaroglu/ (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[40]N. Stamouli, “2023’s most important election: Turkey”, Politico, April 17, 2023, at https://www.politico.eu/article/turkey-2023-election-erdogan-kilicdaroglu/ (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[41]The Economist, “Turkey 2023: will the economy decide the election?” The Economist, May 17, 2023, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkE6bb84bXM (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[42]Daily Sabah, “Türkiye hikes wages of active, retired civil servants by 30%: Erdoğan”, Daily Sabah, January 4, 2023, at https://www.dailysabah.com/business/economy/turkiye-hikes-wages-of-active-retired-civil-servants-by-30-erdogan (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[43]U. Uras, “Turkey’s elections: What are the key alliances promising?”Al Jazeera, May 11, 2023, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/11/turkeys-elections-what-are-the-key-alliances-promising (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[44]France 24, “Turkey election: What did first round go wrong for the opposition?” France 24, May 17, 2023, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MicozWOWASA(Accessed May 18, 2023).

[45]Duvar, “In historic speech, Kılıçdaroğlu talks about his Alevi heritage, says Turkey will overcome identity politics”, Duvar, April 20, 2023, at https://www.duvarenglish.com/in-historic-speech-kilicdaroglu-talks-about-his-alevi-heritage-says-turkey-will-overcome-identity-politics-news-62242 (Accessed May 18, 2023).

[46]France 24, “Turkey election: What did first round go wrong for the opposition?” France 24, May 17, 2023, at https://www.yo utube.com/watch?v=MicozWOWASA(Accessed May 18, 2023).

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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