What to expect in the lead-up to Turkey’s elections - analysis

Ankara’s drift into authoritarianism mirrors the same trend in other countries, such as Russia and Venezuela, but Turkey’s voters approved it.

A woman passes by an election poster of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
A woman passes by an election poster of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)

Turkey’s ruling AK (“Justice and Development”) Party has scheduled elections for mid-May. The country’s last presidential election was in 2018 and prior to that in 2014, with parliamentary elections held twice in 2015. Turkey has become more authoritarian in the last two decades, with the AKP imprisoning many members of the opposition and shutting down almost all opposition media.

Some commentators think this will be the last democratic election in Turkey in which there is any semblance of democracy. Crises with Greece, the US, the European Union, Israel, Armenia and Syria could all be on the agenda before the voting begins.

Ankara’s drift into authoritarianism mirrors the same trend in other countries, such as Russia and Venezuela. Turkish voters, though, approved the various referendums that turned the country into a virtual one-party state, which makes the issue more complex.

Voters approved reforms in a 2007 constitutional referendum and a 2017 referendum that abolished the prime minister’s role.

Has Turkey slid into authoritarianism?

Today, Turks are imprisoned for years just for being critical of the president. The country barely has protests. Turkey’s state-backed media, like TRT and Anadolu, are purely propaganda channels; there is no open criticism of the AKP allowed in the country.

 ISTANBUL MAYOR Ekrem Imamoglu greets his supporters during a rally to oppose the conviction and political ban imposed on him, in Istanbul, last month. (credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS) ISTANBUL MAYOR Ekrem Imamoglu greets his supporters during a rally to oppose the conviction and political ban imposed on him, in Istanbul, last month. (credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)

Yet when elections are held, the ruling party never seems to get more than half the vote, which shows that even if you get rid of all independent media and control the judiciary and the army, and imprison political opponents, people will still dissent.

Turkey’s ruling party has excelled at launching initiatives that boost a few more votes before elections, and thrived by trumpeting nationalist disputes with other countries. For instance, in 2018 and 2019, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany. For years, bashing Israel was considered the norm in Turkey. When Israel wasn’t being bashed, the leadership would spread anti-Armenian rhetoric.

In 2020, Turkey prodded Azerbaijan to fight a war with Armenia. Turkey has over the past several years threatened Greece with war, sending warplanes into Greek airspace and threatening to “come one night” to invade Greek islands. Ankara has also hinted at annexing Northern Cyprus, an area it invaded in the 1970s and has illegally occupied since. In Syria, Turkey launched several invasions.

Turkey’s ruling party relies on inventing threats of “terrorism” to instill fear in its voters, promoting various conspiracies as an excuse for arresting political adversaries in order to defeat plots against the state.

The Ergenekon trials from 2008 to 2016, followed by a coup attempt in 2016, enabled the AKP to purge some 150,000 people from state institutions. Ankara has since claimed to be fighting against a “Gulen” conspiracy and “PKK terrorists.”

The “fighting-terrorists” claim gave Ankara legitimacy – in its eyes – to invade parts of Syria in 2018 and 2019, and conduct various campaigns in Iraq, where Turkish media often brag of “neutralizing terrorists.”

It is never clear if any “terrorists” are actually killed, or if Ankara simply bombs random villages and claims to have hit “terrorists.” Its endless wars with invented enemies in Syria seem more like scenes from George Orwell’s 1948 than a real conflict.

Last November, for example, a few hours after a bombing in Istanbul, Ankara claimed it had caught a terrorist with links to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, giving Turkey an excuse to carry out hundreds of bombings. The claim was never backed up.

Islamic causes always crop up before Turkish elections

WHEN THE ruling party isn’t fighting “terrorists” or threatening Armenia, Israel and Greece, it creates crises with Europe. In 2020, Turkey used the murder and beheading by an Islamic terrorist of French teacher Samuel Paty to stir controversy.

Turkey continues to foment discord with Sweden over its attempts to join NATO. Turkey has accused Sweden of harboring “terrorists” and demanded that various dissidents be extradited. Just this week, Ankara decried a Swedish extremist who claimed to burn the Koran.

Oddly, Turkey always seems to find these “Islamic” causes – like opposing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or attacks on the Koran – right before an election. It previously exploited an attack on mosques in New Zealand, also during an election campaign. This is the AKP, which is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, adopting various “Islamic” causes to get votes.

The AKP has also tried to change the name of Turkey to “Turkiye” and has converted the Hagia Sophia Museum, which was previously a church and mosque, back into a mosque. Ankara’s far-right politicians have also vowed to “liberate” al-Aqsa Mosque.

The ruling party has also been working with Russia and Iran while threatening NATO, even though it is a NATO member, as well as threatening to launch a new operation in Syria against the US-backed SDF.

As if that isn’t enough, Turkey is also involved in a Ukrainian grain deal with Russia, and has talked up selling its armed drones around the region. It’s always hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Ankara’s claims. Half the drone sales, for instance, seem to be entirely imaginary, and Ankara appears to have stopped supplying Ukraine with munitions for the drones it provided to Kyiv before the current war.

It is also difficult to understand the state of Turkey’s economy. Inflation and a weakening currency have been problems, despite Erdogan often boasting that his economic credentials are why people should support the ruling party.

For the opposition, the coming elections will be a challenge.

The nationalist Republican People’s Party, which ruled Turkey up until the early 2000s, does not seem to put forward candidates who inspire anyone. The Peoples’ Democratic Party is also facing pressure because most of its members are imprisoned.

The opposition is divided between secular nationalists, also motivated by anti-Syrian migrant rhetoric, and the Left. The AKP has succeeded to dominate the religious Right, leaving its opponents on the Left and Center so divided, they can’t come together to generate more than 50% of the vote.

Ankara could launch a new invasion before the elections. It will likely claim there are new “terror” threats and create new controversies with the US and Europe.

Turkey has also sought to buy F-16s from the US, something that key members of Congress oppose. If Ankara doesn’t get the fighter jets – which would be a present for the ruling party on the eve of elections – it might claim that a conspiracy is afoot and create some kind of deal with Russia, Iran or the Syrian regime.

This means that the region has to wonder what kind of chaos Ankara might launch prior to the elections. A new dispute with Israel should not be ruled out. If the regime thinks that pushing pro-Hamas or antisemitic rhetoric will get a few votes, it could manufacture a crisis with Israel.