Turkey today has undergone democratic backsliding in recent decades, as Turkish President Erdogan has transformed Turkey into an increasingly authoritarian state. With its general election ongoing, Turkey has been thrust into the spotlight as current President Erdogan faces opposition Kemal Kilicdaroglu. President Erdogan has become increasingly unpopular due to policies that dismantled key aspects of democracy, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu has endured a tumultuous path to finally become the candidate of a unified opposition coalition led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Party called the Table of Six can put forward in the nation. These factors are signaling how this election has the potential to be one of the most influential for Turkey’s future.
President Erdogan’s Road To and From Influence
President Erdogan’s long, arduous rule has shifted Turkey from a liberal democracy to what critics such as Aslı Aydintaşbaş, a fellow from the Center on the United States and Europe, say resembles an authoritarian regime. President Erdogan initially gained influence in the 2000s as he banked on conservative religious values to gain traction, becoming an Islamist in Turkey’s secularist government. In 1997, while serving as mayor of Istanbul, he was convicted for inciting religious hatred by reciting a poem comparing religion to a standing army. Islamists saw him as an opportunity to ascend to power in a predominantly secular nation as the Turkish political establishment began to fall apart, especially after what is now called Turkey’s “post-modern coup” of 1997. Initially, with ties to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan became Prime Minister of Turkey in 2003 despite having difficulty running with his conviction. He then became President in 2011 despite constitutional trials over violations of secularism, a principle tied to the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Following a 2016 military coup attempt, President Erdogan undertook mass arrests of Military officers and civil servants in a political purge to replace officials with loyalists. Erdogan also seized control of the Turkish press and media, granting him control over the political narrative. Fethullah Gulen—the leader of the Turkish religious movement Hizmet—was scapegoated by Erdogan as being responsible for the coup attempt. Gulen, once a strong ally of President Erdogan, saw his Hizmet movement lose favor after a personal falling out. In an attempt to consolidate power, President Erdogan shifts Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, which practically places all decisions solely in the hands of the President. Additionally, President Erdogan’s presidential system allowed him to take sole responsibility for a slew of disastrous economic policies that have contributed to a decline in public approval. For example, in the wake of ultimately high inflation in October of 2022, President Erdogan decided to continue to cut interest rates rather than raise them to reduce inflationary pressures. This directly caused the Turkish lira to devalue further, putting Turkey’s economy in a period of unprecedented economic instability. Erdogan’s economic policy has crippled the Turkish economy, as everyday people find it more difficult to put food on the table as housing and groceries become unaffordable.
In addition to failing economic policy, President Erdogan’s administration has also undermined human rights in the nation. In 2021, Human Rights Watch reported on a multitude of human rights violations President Erdogan and his government have committed against many marginalized communities in Turkey. As of 2021, Erdogan has pulled Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. This treaty would have safeguarded women’s rights, specifically in terms of safety. Erdogan’s religious platform stands partly on supporting “family values,” and women’s rights do not fit into that sphere. Rather, he utilized pulling out of this agreement to use aggressively homophobic rhetoric in a statement regarding the withdrawal, pushing that “homosexuality… is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” Additionally, President Erdogan’s administration has systematically closed five political parties that ran platforms supporting the Kurdish minority in Turkey, specifically targeting the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in 2021 decisions. President Erdogan’s administration has both enforced his anti-democratic Islamist ideology and taken severe action against minority groups in Turkey. Through his actions as Turkey’s head of state, President Erdogan has slowly dismantled key aspects of Turkish democracy, making his name on the 2023 ballot a referendum one on his decades of increasingly autocratic rule.
A Long Road to Unification: Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the Table of Six
President Erdogan has been able to maintain power for multiple decades because the Turkish opposition failed to unify against him—until now. Importantly, Erdogan came into power at the downfall of Turkey’s secularist establishment, specifically after the coup that took place on February 28th, 1997. Turkish military generals, concerned with the lenient religious policies of the leading Welfare Party, delivered an ultimatum to the then Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to take measures against policies perceived as favoring religious conservatives, such as allowing Muslim women wearing headscarves to be allowed in public institutions and shut down Islamic education institutions in order to separate religion and state. After forcing Erbakan to sign these decrees into place on June 18th of the same year, the Turkish military forced Erbakan and his entire government to resign. Five years later, Erdogan became Prime Minister in Turkey and swiftly moved to limit military intervention in future government policy. This coup left the Turkish left in a splintered state, with military leaders and party leaders split over what Turkey’s democracy should look like and how big of a role secularism would have in that vision.
In Turkey, where President Erdogan and his cabinet have been littered with corruption scandals, Kemal Kilicdaroglu has risen to prominence, becoming known as a competent, tough-on-corruption bureaucrat. Kilicdaroglu rose amidst a sex scandal of the previous Republican Party (CHP) leader, which saw the Turkish opposition splinter. By utilizing his reputation as “Turkey’s Gandhi,” calm and collected amongst heated debates and even assassination attempts, Kilicdaroglu has cemented his position as the Turkish opposition’s best hope. Kilicdaroglu’s policies rely on “strong democracy, a strong economy, and a responsible foreign policy,” as he noted at a 2013 Brookings Institution event. This stark difference in comparison to President Erdogan’s missteps during his time in office has been the crux of why Kilicdaroglu has gained so much support amongst the Turkish public.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu has risen as the candidate put forward by Turkey’s Table of Six, or an opposition coalition of six parties that fall all over the political spectrum. The common ideology of the Table of Six coalitions has been a commitment to democracy, as they unify in their want to defeat President Erdogan in the 2023 general election. The coalition has committed to instituting a “strengthened parliamentary system” that emphasizes increasing the separation of powers between the parliament and an independent judiciary. The Turkish people have been looking towards a new figure that can bring forth the democratic values that have been backsliding. With Kilicdaroglu on the ballot, Turkey’s general election this year could end up deciding the future of Turkey’s democracy.
The Future of Turkey’s Democracy On a Global Scale
World leaders across the globe are watching this election closely. As former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen said to CNN, “From the standpoint of the global powers, Turkey fits at the intersection of the West and the rest.” Erdogan has both worked closely and feuded with Vladimir Putin, proving to be a key actor in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Besides receiving support from Russia, Qatar has supported Erdogan’s adventurism throughout the Middle East. The United States and European Union, however, have often clashed with Erdogan. Turkey’s recent veto over admitting Sweden into NATO, coupled with their arms deal with Russia for S-400 missiles, the United States and Erdogan’s Turkey have seen a deterioration of relations. As Turkey has experienced significant democratic backsliding, the United States is supportive of another Erdogan term. The European Union has long engaged in protracted but presently stalled EU membership negotiations with Turkey. The Turkish opposition believes that without Erdogan, the road to EU membership could be much smoother for Turkey, as they commit themselves to a platform aimed at reversing the democratic backsliding the EU has cited as a critical reason as to why Turkey’s membership process has been at an impasse.
Both the people of Turkey and the rest of the world will be carefully looking at Turkey’s general election this year. With tremendous foreign and domestic implications, the Erdogan administration could be in its final days, but only if the Table of Six is able to put up a unified front. The people of Turkey will be deciding the fate of their democracy at the ballot box.
Featured Image: NBC News