What to expect from the 2023 Turkish presidential election?
Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in the Republic of Turkey in autumn 2023. Since the country has recently had a presidential form of government (this led to accusations of Erdogan’s usurpation of power by the opposition and Western countries), the main thing for the future of Turkey is not the distribution of seats in parliament, but the post of head of state. The future direction of our policy depends on this, both in the external sphere and in internal affairs.
The ruling Justice and Development Party of Recep Erdogan, according to opinion polls, now has about 33% of the support of voters. The economic holdings created during Erdogan’s rule are orientated towards Russia, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
But Erdogan’s foreign policy itself is clearly expansionist – under him, Turkey gained a foothold in northern Syria and parts of Iraq, participated in battles in Libya, and expanded its economic zone in the Mediterranean, albeit unilaterally. Turkey’s soft power methods are actively used in Central Asia, Africa and the Balkans.
Although conservative steps have been taken in domestic politics, such as withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, which brings the positions of Turkey and Russia closer together, and in the eyes of the West equates President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan as autocratic rulers.
What are the political ambitions of the current Turkish opposition and other forces claiming to participate in state-building?
The main competitor of Erdogan’s party is the Republican People’s Party with historical roots, since it was created by the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk Kemal. According to exit polls, they now have 28%. The party has no sane program and ideology. They are a motley mix of left-liberals, former communists, Alevis (i.e. religious minorities), secular groups, supporters of same-sex marriage, and other pro-Westerners.
They have a pronounced pro-German position (it should be recalled that a large number of Turks live in Germany), hence the external orientation towards the EU. In the domestic political agenda, they rely on open opposition to Erdogan.
The head of the party is a rather elderly politician, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is completely dependent on Western corporations and Turkish oligarchs connected with Europe. He has already announced that he will participate in the elections as a presidential candidate. On internal party issues, Kılıçdaroğlu is a compromise figure who regulates internal party disagreements.
It is quite significant that the current mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is more charismatic and successful. He also showed interest in participating in the elections, but the party leadership forbade him to run, considering that it was better to hold the position of the head of the metropolis.
It should be added that the party has quite good funding, and the old Kemalist elite supports them out of solidarity. The Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkey, which previously established ties with European structures, is a donor to the Republican People’s Party.
Another key figure of the Republican People’s Party is Ünal Çeviköz, who is responsible for foreign policy. He is a former employee of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a member of a Masonic lodge, and in 2019 took part in a meeting of the Bilderberg Club.
There is also the relatively new Good Party (IYI) – they are Western nationalists, and the party itself was actually created by the United States and the EU in order to tear off part of the electorate from the party of Recep Erdogan. It is paradoxical that the leaders of IYI oppose Russia, while the ordinary electorate treats us normally (including about the operation in Ukraine).
The head of the party is a woman – Meral Akşener, and she is pro-Western in her beliefs. Now they are in a coalition with the Republican People’s Party. It is not yet known whether Meral Akşener will run as an independent presidential candidate.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party, which represented the interests of the Kurds, is unlikely to be able to recover from the mass purges and arrests. The head of the party, Selahattin Demirtaş, is an experienced politician, and local representatives won many seats in the town hall in the last elections, but they were all arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Theoretically, their chances are good, but the current government simply does not allow them to officially consolidate their victory and expand their influence.
However, Western analysts point out that it is the Kurds who will be an important trump card in the upcoming elections, since they have a growing demographic and there are many young people aged eighteen and older among them.
It is rumoured that a spoiler party may be formed consisting of supporters of the Barzani clan from Iraqi Kurdistan, as they have good official relations with Ankara. Barzani admits the Turkish bombing of a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is located.
The question is how to convince the Kurdish youth in Turkey to join this party, and what will be the position regarding the nomination of a candidate for the presidency. Although all this is theoretical fabrications and it is quite possible that Erdogan will continue the course of repression of Turkish Kurds.
According to public opinion polls, the People’s Democratic Party is the most Russophobic and pro-Western.
Finally, there is the National Movement Party (led by Devlet Bahçeli). In fact, these are the well-known “grey wolves”, that is, religious nationalists. Now they are Erdogan’s allies. By the way, of all the listed organisations, they are the best in Russia.
And the last factor in Turkish politics is the military. But after a failed coup attempt in 2016, the army was severely purged. Now they are completely subordinate to Erdogan, and there are no political ambitions among the military, unless at some deep secret level there is a small group of conspirators.
If we talk about real chances, given the current situation, then Recep Erdogan has the best positions right now. Although the country has a high level of inflation and the Turkish lira collapsed a few months ago, the ruling party has an administrative resource and uses the foreign policy situation to its advantage.
As an example, we can cite the current balance in relations with Russia and Ukraine. To organise the tourist flow from Russia to Turkey, an additional airline is being created. While Bayraktar drones are delivered to Ukraine and diplomatic support is provided.
And it is in these relations and the balance of power that Turkey has an important geopolitical interest in weakening Russia. It is no coincidence that the Turks are actively interested in Crimea and do not recognise it as part of Russia, as well as the Caucasus and the Volga region. Turkey needs the project of pan-Turkism as an umbrella and justification for possible interference in Russia’s internal affairs.
The Russian-language TRT TV channel adheres to an openly Russophobic course, which supports Navalny and Khodorkovsky, not to mention inciting separatism within Russia with a focus on Muslim and Turkic identity. The “Circassian genocide” project is also connected with this, as well as various memorial elements, such as street names in honour of Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Since the Justice and Development Party focuses on the Turkish religious identity, the memory of the former greatness of the Ottoman Empire is also very important for modern politics. And here, too, there is a place for anti-Russian aspirations, as Turkey recalls the role of the Russian Empire in liberating the Balkans from Turkish rule and a series of Russian-Turkish wars.
Therefore, the possible weakening of Russia there is considered as a new opportunity for the return of lost power. And if you look at it through a religious prism, then Turkish expansion for Ankara is also the spread of Islam in new territories. At the same time, the Turkish version of Islam is clearly different from the classical Arabic one.
Therefore, maintaining supreme power for Erdogan is unlikely to lead to an improvement in relations with Turkey. At best, pragmatic cooperation will continue, especially because of Turkey’s heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. But in the worst case scenario, Ankara will behave more persistently and aggressively towards Moscow, and then it will have to send explicit signals, such as a ban on the import of vegetables or a suspension of tourist flow.
Well, if the situation is even worse, it is difficult to imagine what level the confrontation between Russia and Turkey can reach. Again, it should be remembered that Turkey is a member of NATO and can join Western sanctions at any time.
Now let’s consider the version if pro-Western forces come to power in Turkey. For example, with the help of financial injections and other means, the head of the Republican Peoples’ Party will take the post of president.
First of all, they will begin to eliminate the achievements of Erdogan, try to return to the parliamentary republic format and actively promote a secular political system. Of course, given their pro-Western stance, the US and EU will press them on Russia. But they are unlikely to give up Russian gas and oil, although they can and most likely will support some of the sanctions.
In general, there will be a big conflict of interest. However, there will be chaos inside the country, and given this, it is unlikely that pro-Westerners will pursue an expansionist foreign policy. Most likely, they will try to improve relations with the EU, and again they will naively wait to join this association.
Certainly, Muslim countries will be skeptical of the new government, which means reducing or withdrawing support from the rich Gulf states. And such a weakening of Turkey will be beneficial to Russia, since with a competent approach, it will be possible not only to preserve the necessary achievements, but also to show the Turkish society all the benefits of truly good-neighbourly bilateral relations.