Will Turkey's Erdogan Go?

15 April 2023

First published in Democracy Delivered - Issue 2, a monthly newsletter published by the Centre for Research on Democracy


Erdoğan’s 20 years of strongman rule are being threatened by a united opposition, economic dysfunction, and the aftermath of an earthquake which left 48 000 dead and millions more homeless. But will he go? 

On the 14th of May 2023, Turkey’s voters will head to the polls to decide their country’s future. Against the backdrop of double-digit inflation and a rising cost of living, a degraded currency, and a contentious foreign policy, voters will be presented with two stark choices.

Their first choice is to re-elect the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose 20 years of rule has seen the steady centralisation of state power, the stifling of dissent, the erosion of basic rights and freedoms, the elevation of party loyalists to key positions in the state bureaucracy, military, media, and judiciary, as well as a combative foreign policy. 

Their second choice is to back the opposition, an alliance of six parties - headed by  Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu - united in their animosity towards the incumbent. They promise a radical departure from Erdoğan’s controversial policies, with plans to shift more power to the hands of parliament, restore central bank independence, and even complete the process of EU accession. Though plenty question the authenticity, let alone feasibility, of such promises.

In either case, voters’ choices will have ramifications far beyond Turkey’s borders. Turkey is not only an active member of NATO - responsible for blocking both Finland (until recently) and Sweden’s (still ongoing) membership requests - but is a major regional player. It has sent troops to both Syria and Iraq, and has provided military support to Libya and Azerbaijan. You’d also be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the deference shown by Erdoğan’s to Europe’s warmonger-in-chief, Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Given the state of the Turkish economy and the government’s much-criticised response to two earthquakes which recently devastated swathes of the country, you might think Erdoğan is sure to be booted from office. Pollsters tend to agree, albeit narrowly. To oust the incumbent entirely, however, opposition forces would need to win both the parliament and the presidency. A huge task, especially so considering Erdoğan’s cult-like popularity in some areas and persistent media influence.

A loss in either race, though particularly the presidential election, could see Erdoğan or his party maintain their influence in some capacity. This might hamper the opposition’s ability to govern effectively, let alone implement the widespread reforms which have been promised. Should the opposition win both races, however, the dust will take some time to settle. 

Following a hypothetical win, the opposition will be faced with a civil service packed to the rafters with Erdoğan loyalists, along with much of the judiciary and military. In such a situation, some commentators argue that it may well be decided that a widespread purge of Erdoğan’s supporters from key positions is the only way to guarantee a post-Erdoğan transition. Such a move might be met with fierce resistance.

Come the 14th of May, Turkish voters will choose the future they want for their country. Amid rubble and with increasingly emptier pockets, voters will have the opportunity to either oust Erdoğan or endorse him. Should they endorse the incumbent, or should the opposition fracture into disunity, it seems unlikely that such an opportunity will be offered again.