A deeper look into the election that will shape Turkey’s relationship with the EU in the next 5 years

Ahead of the run-off of Turkish elections, we dig deeper on how this election will shape the EU’s relationship with the country

May 27, 2023
The Turkish flag flying

General elections in Turkey took place on 14 May. However, the result was inconclusive and voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballot again during the run-off on 28 May, where citizens will have to choose between incumbent President Tayyip Erdoğan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Regardless of the outcome, this election will also have a lasting effect on Europe’s relationship with the country so we discussed with Dağhan, a Turkish expert in International Governance with a political science background, how this election is shaping up.

So, elections in Turkey are fast approaching, and in the past weeks the electoral campaign has surprised us many times. As you know, Erdoğan has received mixed results in the polls even though he has been leading the country for more than 20 years, and the outcomes of the first election round were indecisive. However, we saw hundreds of thousands of people willing to show up for him at his rallies. So how are things really like? How divisive are these elections?

The AKP brings a lot of people from all over Turkey for his rallies, and we saw that for his big Istanbul rally, which got a lot of attention due to the amount of people attending it. 10,000 buses from all over Turkey were brought just for that reason: to bring a lot of people together in the rally, to make it appear crowded, and to appear in the media as a very consolidated group who is not going to let the opposition break them apart. This is the image that Erdoğan has been trying to give, and you can see this message in the media everywhere showing solidarity, telling people that they should not lose their faith in Erdoğan. So, I can say that it is not a genuine representation, but part of the media manipulation strategy of Erdoğan. Keeping that in mind, a lot of people are still supporting him, for the sheer reason that the opposition couldn’t brand itself as properly as they wished to. The support for Erdoğan is still sizable, but right now the opposition is the strongest that it has ever been. 

Is it possible that Erdoğan will be defeated in the next round of elections?

It's possible he’s going to lose. If Sinan Oğan and Kılıçdaroğlu strike an alliance in the upcoming run-off, I think they have a chance. But of course the transition is always a problem. Maybe there is a chance that we’d see events similar to Brazil and the United States during their last elections. But eventually they will accept the result like in the Istanbul elections, when the AKP insisted on not supporting the victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu, but eventually they had to.

Do you think this is something that the electorate fears? Knowing that a kind of adjustment phase could turn violent?

It's a big thing that people consider. So far everyone I have spoken to, my friends, my family, people in the street is worried about this prospect. It's a possibility that we cannot erase, but I think it's a risk that opposition is willing to take.

How popular are the arguments of Kılıçdaroğlu?

His arguments are solid and he’s using very popular arguments to gain support from every side. But unfortunately, he is not popular. Now, the core voters of the opposition have made him out to be appealing. And he actually put work into this as well. But the thing is, he's too well known and he’s lost many elections before. The average AKP voter calls him a loser and thinks that Kılıçdaroğlu cannot win, and if he can, it will be worse. That's the narrative his opponents are using.

Let’s move on to geopolitics and foreign affairs. Where does he stand? What are his proposals?

Kılıçdaroğlu says he is going to revive discussions with the European Union, and that he's going to provide visa-free travel in various European countries in the following three months that he's elected. 

Do you think the electorate is interested in this kind of proposition?

I think so but once again the public opinion is divided. He's also using very neutral arguments not to appear controversial.

I was asking this because at the moment Turkey is, let's say, enjoying good relations with different conflicting parties. So I was wondering whether the electorate is happy with the successes of the current government, and whether they would prefer to keep up with these successes rather than going on a different route.

To be honest, this is, again, a divisive matter in Turkey. Some people, especially his core supporters, call Erdoğan’s foreign policy brilliant. But when you ask the rest of the country, the picture is a lot different. I think it’s also important to stress that for many people voting is more a matter of loyalty to the party than a sign of support for Erdoğan’s foreign policy. I even talked to people who are going to vote for him before the election who said “Oh, we really don't want him, we hate the guy in fact, but - they said - we are MHP [Editor’s Note: MHP stands for Nationalist Movement Party, a Turkish far-right, political party] supporters since birth, we cannot vote for anyone else. It's a tradition for us”. 

If Erdoğan was re-elected, do you think that his current geopolitical project would become more aggressive, or change in any way?

We really can’t tell at this point because Erdoğan does not really follow predictions in these matters. I think, however, that it’s likely that he will continue on the same trajectory because his foreign policy is earning them through business deals and tourism. So my opinion is that they will try to keep it stable, but you never know. Being unpredictable is one of his characteristics.

Finally, I wanted to know about your personal opinion. What are the most pressing issues in your country? What do you wish to change? Are you scared or sceptical of the outcome of the elections?

Of course, I am sceptical about the authenticity of the elections. I'm afraid that Erdoğan’s party is going to cheat in any way possible and that they will continue to use media manipulation to shape the narrative of the run-off as well. 

Finally for me, the three biggest issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible are the migrant crisis, the economic crisis and the restoration of the rule of law.