Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, still very much alive, is making up ground quickly in the polls ahead of the May 14 elections.
Back in early March, Erdogan was running roughly ten points behind. One poll conducted on March 6-7 by Alf Research showed opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu at 55.1 percent and Erdogan at 44.9 percent. Here’s another:
Araştırmada adaylığı açıklanan Cumhurbaşkanı Sayın Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ve CHP Genel Başkanı Sayın Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’nun iki aday olarak seçime gitmesi halinde bu hafta itibariyle alacakları oy oranları da ölçüldü. Sonuçları kamuoyunun bilgisine sunarız. pic.twitter.com/SZrGChTJRB
— Aksoy Araştırma (@AksoyArastirma) March 11, 2023
Of course those public opinion readings were coming only one month after the devastating earthquakes that hit the country in February. Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are now in a virtual tie.
A poll conducted by Al-Monitor in partnership with data and analytics firm Premise Data between April 18 and April 24 found that support for Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu stood at 45.2 percent and 44.9 percent, respectively. The Istanbul-based pollster TEAM released its April report over the weekend, which showed Kilicdaroglu at 47.4 percent and Erdogan at 44.4 percent.
Here are some recent developments in the run-up to the vote:
- The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided at the end of March not to run its own candidate or join with the Nation Alliance. The HDP has 8-13 percent of the vote, which will go to Kilicdaroglu and the opposition. Six opposition parties (the center-left Republican People’s Party, the Felicity Party, the nationalist İYİ, Democracy and Progress Party, the Future Party, and the Democrat Party) are joining forces to oppose Erdogan.
- The Erdogan government recently launched an anti-Kurdish operation, arresting more than 100 people, including Kurdish politicians, journalists, lawyers and artists. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party called it “an operation to steal the ballot boxes and the will of the people. This operation is an open intimidation and threat to society and its political preferences.”
- Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkish intelligence forces killed the leader of the Islamic State in Syria, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi. Washington, likely not wanting to give Erdogan a win ahead of the election, is refusing to confirm the claim.
- Ankara and Moscow recently celebrated the loading of fuel into the first reactor at the Russia-built Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkiye. It was a major milestone for the country, which joined the ranks of countries with nuclear energy. At the virtual gathering, Putin noted that completion of the plant would mean Russia exporting less natural gas to Turkiye. He added: “But Turkiye will enjoy the advantage of a country that has its own nuclear energy, and nuclear energy, as you know, is one of the cheapest.”
- On April 10, Turkiye unveiled the world’s first aircraft carrier meant to be used primarily by unmanned aircraft, making it one of the few countries in the world with a domestically built aircraft carrier. (The ship was originally meant to carry F-35s, but the US kicked Turkiye out of the F-35 program.)
- Erdogan has also been on hand to tout Turkiye’s first electric car and a new tank for the army.
The problem is all of these well-orchestrated rollouts meant to bolster Erdogan ahead of the election don’t do much for his two main liabilities: the economy and the Syrian refugee situation. The primary concern for voters is inflation. From Al Monitor:
The opposition’s electioneering has focused on the cost-of-living crisis, the main factor behind Erdogan’s sagging popular support. Consumer inflation stood at 50.5% in March after peaking at 85.5% in October, and soaring prices remain the chief grievance of most voters.
With food inflation hovering around 70%, the opposition has made onions the symbol of how the government’s economic policies have failed after the price of the humble staple went through the ceiling earlier this month. To change the subject, team Erdogan has been emphasizing successes such as the discovery of gas off Turkiye’s Black Sea coast and the construction of large-scale infrastructure, including suspension bridges, airports and motorways.
Last week, Erdogan promised 25 cubic meters of free gas monthly for households over a year as he led a ceremony for the first arrival of gas to an onshore plant from the Black Sea reserves.
The Erdogan administration has followed an unorthodox economic policy in recent years and continued to cut interest rates despite the record-breaking inflation. Dissatisfaction with the economy contributes to frustration with the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye, which has helped strain the country’s budget.
Turkiye’s normalization talks with Syria continue. Moscow hosted more talks at the end of April with defense ministers from Turkiye, Syria, and Iran. Türkiye, as part of its turn east, has abandoned the US-led effort to topple Assad, and Russia began leading the detente efforts last year after more than a decade of hostility between Syria and Türkiye.
Russia is trying to pressure Assad to move past Erdogan’s participation in US efforts to overthrow him and normalize ties. That looks unlikely – at least ahead of the election.
The opposition block, for its part, is in favor of normalizing its relationship with Syria, and for that it will need a good working relationship with Russia.
That is the big question with Kilicdaroglu who has sent mixed signals on what his policies would be regarding the West and Russia. As the saying goes, however, actions speak louder than words. And to spend part of the campaign season visiting the US and the UK, as Kilicdaroglu did, is a loud statement. Kilicdaroglu made a six-day visit to the US in October, which was a bit of a head scratcher considering recent public opinion surveys in Türkiye show the public there views its NATO “ally” as the biggest threat to Türkiye.
Beyond stops at MIT, Harvard, John Hopkins University, the Washington Post, and a meeting with World Bank executives and “digital industry stakeholders,” it’s unclear who else Kilicdaroglu met with. He mentioned that he would also be visiting with NGOs, think tanks, investors, and human rights groups.
The trip opened Kilicdaroglu to attacks that he’s a Washington stooge. Turkish media do not tire of replaying Biden’s declaration during his 2020 election campaign that Washington should help the Turkish opposition “take on and defeat Erdogan.”
Speaking at John Hopkins University during his trip, Kilicdaroglu said, “we will develop our relationship with Russia but we want to stand with the West. There is no logic in fighting against Russia.”
It’s hard to see how he would accomplish that with the West’s current with-us-or-against-us attitude. After receiving criticism for meeting with investors in London in November, Kılıçdaroğlu said, “yes, I visit foreign countries and hold talks. Don’t get concerned. I have already found the clean money.”
Again, this opens Kilicdaroglu to easy attacks from Erdogan.
“We ousted the International Monetary Fund in 2013,” Erdogan said recently at a campaign event, “[whereas] the opposition is busy making backroom deals with money lenders.”
Kilicdaroglu’s hopes for foreign investment are also unrealistic barring some sort of sweet deal in return for policy that benefits the West. From Al Monitor:
…the opposition leader hopes that a return to economic orthodoxy and the rule of law will restore foreign investor confidence and bring up to $300 billion in foreign capital flows to Turkiye. Loss of foreign investments has contributed to Turkiye’s foreign-currency crunch and the lira’s dramatic depreciation in recent years as Erdogan pursued a controversial low-rate policy at the expense of fanning inflation. Government officials have dismissed Kilicdaroglu’s pledge, noting that the total of foreign investments over the past two decades was only $250 billion
Additionally, Kilicdaroglu’s coalition platform makes clear that, at the very least, they would take a step back from recent close ties enjoyed by Erdogan and Putin. In the bloc’s “memorandum of understanding on common policies” the alliance states it will do the following:
We will conclude contracts with new source countries to reduce the risk of dependence on certain countries/companies in natural gas imports and reduce the cost of natural gas imports. We will renegotiate existing high-priced natural gas contracts.
It’s pretty clear who they’re talking about here as Türkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia (and a quarter of its oil). Erdogan and Putin are also discussing expanding their energy relationship, which would allow Türkiye to increase its transfer fees when sending gas to Europe – if they want it.
The opposition alliance also pledges to “take initiatives” in order to make it possible for Türkiye to be reaccepted to the F-35 fighter jet program. The memorandum does not expand on this, nor does it mention why the US expelled Türkiye from the program in the first place. The reason was that after years of ignored requests for the US Patriot system, Türkiye purchased the arguably superior Russian system in 2017. Would Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance get rid of the S-400? Would they make amends in other ways in order to rejoin the F-35 program? It remains unclear.
Lastly, the Nation Alliance vows to review the contract for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant.
An opposition official recently told Middle East Eye “We won’t do things like buying another S-400 system from them or throwing them another contract for a nuclear power plant, but we will be balanced.”
Another said that should Kilicdaroglu win, Ankara would continue to uphold the Montreux Convention that governs the passage of vessels to the Black Sea and deny the transit of all warships to there.
The sources also revealed that a Türkiye under Kilicdaroglu would not join western sanctions on Russia. To do so would be problematic due to both public opinion and economic interests. A December poll by the Turkish company Gezici found that 72.8 percent of Turkish citizens polled were in favor of good relations with Russia. Compare that to the nearly 90 percent who think the US is a hostile country.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Ankara and Moscow have developed or strengthened arrangements that benefit both economically. Turkiye helps Russia bypass sanctions and profits from being the middleman.
Turkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia and a quarter of its oil, and unlike its neighbors to the west, is not blowing holes in its budget trying to avoid shortages. Russian tourism to Turkiye has gone through the roof since the war in Ukraine and western sanctions started. There’s also the aforementioned nuclear power plant.
What do the US and Europe have to offer? Turkiye only has to look at the Europe that rejected it to see a collection of countries going against their own economic interests, sacrificing themselves at the altar of American hegemony. Joining that fiasco would almost certainly result in a short time in power for Kilicdaroglu and friends.
But should he win, Kilicdaroglu would have broad powers due to the country approving the creation of an executive presidency in 2017. Those constitutional changes eliminated many checks and balances and resulted in the accumulation of more power in the hands of the president and his inner circle. The opposition parties have signed a joint declaration to restore the parliamentary system and strip the powers of the president if they win 2023 elections, but that’s often easier to say when not in power.
Before making that decision, Kilicdaroglu and his coalition first need to win the election, and that’s looking more difficult by the day.