international analysis and commentary

2023 in Turkey: Year of Disaster, Year of Decision

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2023 is already a momentous year for Turkey. The devastating earthquake in the southwest of the country has imposed immense human and material costs. These come against the backdrop of protracted economic and refugee crises that have left many Turks insecure and angry with politicians and the state. Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 2023. The stage is set for what may be the most important political test in modern Turkish history, a critical referendum on Turkish democracy, the legacy of President Erdogan, and the country’s international role.

Governance in the spotlight. Civil emergencies, including earthquakes, fires, floods, environmental catastrophes and pandemics, can become crucial tests of governance.  This is even more obvious when the response is perceived as inadequate, or events underscore neglect, corruption or failures of policy. The consequences of the devastating Turkish earthquake, with some 50,000 dead and well over 100,000 injured are widely seen as evidence of incompetence on the part of local authorities and the triumph of commercial and political interests over public safety.

The implications of this perception go far beyond the regions directly affected. Much of Turkey, including Istanbul, is exposed to earthquake risks, and the fear of inadequate construction standards and enforcement is widespread. The economic consequences of the earthquake are also dire, with severe implications for Turkey’s tourism sector, in particular. Forecasters suggest that the earthquake and its economic aftershocks could knock at least 1% off the country’s GDP in 2023.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits a city hit by the Feb. 6 earthquake

 

On the brink of change? All of this could spell President Erdogan’s defeat in May.  Polls – never entirely reliable in Turkey, or elsewhere – suggest that the incumbent is running perhaps 10 points behind his newly anointed opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, long-time leader of the center-left CHP. Many analysts believe that Turkey’s fragmented and often feckless opposition may finally be getting its act together.

 

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That said, to win against Erdogan’s AKP and its nationalist coalition partner, MHP, will require close coordination among six highly diverse opposition figures and their respective political movements. By any measure, they are an extraordinary group of collaborators, from the secular left to disillusioned Islamists, from liberals to radical nationalists. They could benefit from the support of Turkey’s Kurdish voters and the Kurdish-oriented HDP. Under current conditions, the combination may be sufficient to unseat President Erdogan, and to gain control of the Turkish National Assembly in parliamentary elections, also scheduled for May. If so, it will be an extraordinary change after 20 years of increasingly autocratic AKP rule.

The six party leaders of the opposition coalition in Turkey.

 

Could they win? Could they govern? Polls aside, some big questions remain. The fractious nature of the opposition group – the so-called “table of six” – was on full display in recent months. At points the group seemed on the brink of collapse. The selection of Kilicdaroglu as the group’s standard bearer may have been predictable given the historic role of CHP in opposition. Yet Kilicdaroglu is arguably the least charismatic of the contenders for the presidency. To be sure, he brings a large party network. That he comes from Turkey’s marginalized Alevi community does credit to the opposition but may count against him with conservative Sunni voters. The relatively new Iyi (Good) Party and its outspoken leader, Meral Aksener, is an important element in the opposition equation. But her strident nationalism may alienate Kurds and liberals.

If the opposition group should succeed in May, there will be well justified questions about how such a diverse coalition would govern. The opposition’s extensive joint manifesto centers on the restoration of Turkey’s badly tarnished political and media freedoms, more rationale and independent economic management, and a less provocative approach in foreign policy. These are not small ambitions. The rebalancing of parliamentary and presidential powers, greater independence for the central bank, and more positive relations with transatlantic partners would mark important policy shifts.

Elections matter, still. Will the elections be orderly and fair? Without question, the opposition does not enjoy a level playing field. Key political figures, including the leader of the Kurdish-oriented HDP and the popular mayor of Istanbul are either in prison or face criminal charges. Leading media outlets are in the hands of pro-AKP groups. And under conditions of economic stress, the central government can offer significant financial inducements to the electorate at the local and national level. With AKP facing its most serious political challenge since coming to power, many observers predict that the government will do whatever it can to win. Not surprisingly there is some concern that President Erdogan may look to interfere in the electoral process, or even reject the outcome if it is unfavourable.

Without dismissing this risk, it is likely that overt interference would be strongly opposed by the electorate. Turkish democracy and rule of law have been under severe strain in recent years, and not for the first time. But Turkish society takes elections seriously and the political system remains competitive. An open challenge to the electoral outcome could well provoke mass protests of a kind the country has not experienced since the Gezi Park upheaval of 2013.

Change at home, change abroad. 2023 will also be a critical year of decision on the external front. Although Turkish ratification of NATO membership for Finland may be assured, approval for Sweden is unlikely before the elections. An opposition victory would greatly improve the prospects for early ratification. The vexing issue of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia would likely be resolved by a new government in Ankara. The nationalist elements within CHP and especially the Iyi party will complicate efforts toward détente in the Aegean and policy toward the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. But the style may be less provocative. A new government may be somewhat more accommodating to transatlantic partners in policy toward Russia even, perhaps, on sanctions. And Ankara would likely revert to a more professional and less politicized management of foreign and security policy.

 

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After years of stress in Turkey’s relations with the EU and NATO, any change of leadership in Ankara would open new opportunities, from trade and investment to defence cooperation. In a year of disaster, these opportunities are badly needed. If Erdogan wins a new mandate, there may yet be opportunities for a more modest interests-driven “reset” aimed at stabilizing relations with Western partners. The challenges for democracy, rule of law and governance will endure.