Turkey is heading for crucial presidential and parliamentary elections in a pivotal year for its history.
Indeed, October 2023 will mark the centenary of the founding of the Republic. Before that date, in June, Turkey will go to the polls, which will either consolidate President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s longstanding power or mark a seismic shift, after two decades of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. Six months ahead of the vote, election outcome is still far from being decided. President Erdoğan will certainly play all his cards to maintain his leadership, despite the number of challenges he is facing.
This time, opposition parties appear more united than in previous electoral races. Defeating Erdoğan is undoubtedly the main glue of the heterogeneous opposition bloc. The National Alliance – which includes the main opposition, centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the centre-right and national İyi (Good) Party, Felicity Party and Democrat Party – joined efforts last February with Future Party and DEVA Party, both founded by two former prominent members of the AKP, to create the so-called ‘Table for six’.
Restoring the parliamentary system – in force before the 2017 constitutional reform that turned Turkey into a presidential republic – is the main point of the Table for six’s manifesto in case of an election victory. Nevertheless, so far it is still unknown who will be the opposition candidate for the presidential race.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, CHP’s leader, Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara, and Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, both from the CHP, have been pointed out as possible candidates for the opposition. According to July 2022 Metropoll’s survey, the Turkish president would fall behind all the potential opposition candidates in a second round.
Polls also show that approval for Erdoğan has decreased over the last two years and a half. While it peaked to 55.8% during the first months of the global pandemic, political support to the AKP leader fell to 41.2% last summer. Recently, Erdoğan has regained in popularity, though he remains below 50% in a country where political polarisation is likely to intensify in the coming months.
Turkey’s grim economic situation is the main reason for disenchantment with Erdoğan and its party. Over the past year, Turkey has experienced a currency crisis and a soaring inflation rate, after the central bank implemented a significant rate cut at the end of 2021, following President Erdoğan’s unconventional policy to control inflation by reducing interest rates.
The latest figures of the Turkish Statistical Institute indicated the inflation rate at 85.5% in October. Yet, it does not seem to reflect the real situation in a country where the rise of consumer prices would be over 185%, according to independent economists.
Considering the recent repeated rate cuts (the latest to 9% from 10.5% in late November), a U-turn in the government’s monetary policy is highly unlikely before the elections, while expansionary policies will continue. Indeed, Erdoğan’s strategy stakes mainly on economic growth, along with the increase of public spending, to (re)win the hearts and minds of Turkish people ahead of the vote.
Economic imperatives have also been a major driver of Turkey’s efforts to reset relations with its regional antagonists over the last year. Against the backdrop of Covid-19 pandemic’s disruption and geopolitical transformations in the Middle East, Ankara’s renewed diplomatic activism relies on two main considerations.
First, the country needed to break its isolation, as it could no longer afford the cost of both its assertive foreign policy and fierce geopolitical competition in the region. Second, it needed foreign investment and cash injections to relieve its economy. In this regard, de-escalating tensions and mending fences with neighbours, from Israel to the wealthy Gulf monarchies, have been a priority of Ankara’s foreign policy.
Economically, the rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates resulted in a $5-billion currency swap deal with the Turkish central bank, last January. A further $5-billion injection may come from Saudi Arabia in a move to support Turkey’s foreign currency reserves and advance on the path of diplomatic normalisation as well, which started with Erdoğan’s visit to the Saudi Kingdom last April, to overcome years of tensions after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Furthermore, Ankara expects gains from strengthening economic cooperation with both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, in terms of increasing foreign investment inflows and trade. However, these benefits will not come immediately. For instance, the $10 billion for strategic investments UAE pledged last year have not materialised yet, while it is too early to see what will be the boost to bilateral trade resulting from the recent lifting of a Saudi undeclared economic embargo on Turkish products.
Besides the economy, foreign policy’s moderate approach has also been instrumental to increase the president’s prestige, both internationally and domestically. As a matter of fact, with its mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine since the conflict’s outbreak, Turkey has regained centre stage and international approval. Not surprisingly, Ankara has been trying to capitalise on both a mediation role and regional reset, to increase its leverage on some crucial issues concerning its national interests, from tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean to security threats related to PKK “terrorist” activities.
At the end of December, unexpectedly, prospects to reset relations with Egypt and even Syria emerged. Although it does not seem to be part of a pre-electoral foreign policy strategy, the handshake between the Turkish president and his Egyptian homologue Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, during the opening session of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, cannot certainly wipe the slate clean on decade-long strains.
The path, which was already opened in 2021 with two rounds of exploratory talks at the deputy foreign ministry level, has not been clearly traced yet and remains uneasy. Several sticking points should be overcome. While there is some move from Ankara on Egypt’s request to halt the activities of the Muslim Brothers members in Turkey, positions on Libya remain very distant. ‘If relations with Egypt are back on track, we can do the same with Syria’, Erdoğan said, not excluding the possibility to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the future.
Yet, no more handshakes are in sight for the moment, but rather a new ground military operation, which Turkey is ready to launch in the framework of Operation Claw-Sward to secure a 30km safe zone in northern Syria. As in the past, this is likely to gather all Turks around the flag, but the implications on Turkey’s international image and relations with partners have not been underestimated, above all if Ankara intends to continue to play a prominent external role in the year ahead. (People passing by portraits of Kemal Ataturk and Erdogan, the current president of Turkey. Photo: 123rf.com)