Overview of Turkish Political History Ahead of May 2023 Elections (I) — #2023TurkishElections

Gulay Icoz |

Turkey has faced significant challenges in achieving democratic governance since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Although Turkey transitioned to democracy in the 1920s, it has experienced setbacks, including recent declines in democracy and moves towards autocracy. Turkish political history differs from its neighbours and Western European countries in that there is a consistent and predictable pattern of decision-making and preference formation related to political, social, and economic issues, regardless of which political party is in power, at least until 2013. During this time, the state aimed to protect the unity and secular nature of the Turkish Republic, which resulted in the elimination of any demands for political, cultural, or religious rights and the suppression of those who made such demands. As a result, there were numerous military interventions, political party closures, and widespread corruption, imprisonment, and violations of human rights and civil liberties in the name of maintaining democratic governance. The control of the state apparatus and political power incrementally and systematically moved from the military to then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a phenomenon typical of Turkey’s political landscape. The May elections will determine whether Erdogan will continue to hold onto power or if the opposition candidate will decentralise political power and promote democracy.

Multi-party politics and the military interventions

Multi-party politics were introduced before the 1950 General Elections in Turkey, but the election results reflected deep-seated divisions within the population. Unfortunately, respect and tolerance for differences did not have sufficient time to develop among politicians and various sections of the community, especially between secular and religious groups and self-defined socialists. This led to escalating tensions and conflicts, resulting in political, social, and economic instability. The instability culminated in three consecutives military coup d’états in 1960, 1971, and 1980.

Following the 1980 coup, the Kurds of Turkey began to demand recognition of their constitutional and political rights. For years, they had endured suppression by state policies and discrimination in all aspects of life in Turkey. The Kurdish issue remains a contentious area in Turkish political history, with the demands of the Kurdish population for greater rights and autonomy often clashing with the government’s desire for centralized control.

Before Erdogan’s electoral success in 2002, Turkish politics were characterised by conflict and turmoil from the 1980s to 2000. The Kurdish population in the Kurdish region lived under a state of emergency, and there were persistent clashes between the military and the Kurdish Worker Party for many years. The civil liberties of Kurdish populations were curtailed, their political rights were eroded, and they were forbidden to speak in public or take active part in Kurdish cultural activities. Several political parties were established to represent the interests of the Kurds living in Turkey. However, from the early 1990s to 2009, seven Kurdish-dominated political parties were forbidden by the Constitutional Court, and the top public prosecutor of the high court of appeals has currently filed a case with the constitutional court demanding the closure of today’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Military’s influence in Politics

The military’s influence over Turkish politicians aimed to uphold the nation’s unity and secularism, but it had negative consequences for certain groups, including the Kurds and Islamists. Historically, Islamists have not had adequate representation in the Turkish parliament, and restrictions have been imposed on their religious practices, such as wearing headscarves in public.

The Welfare Party (RP), led by Necmettin Erbakan, briefly improved the situation for Islamists, but the military forced Erbakan’s resignation in 1997, and the Constitutional Court dissolved the party in 1998, further impeding the group’s rights. Following the RP’s dissolution, a younger generation of leaders, including Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, emerged, advocating for a more system-oriented political party and challenging the older RP’s leadership.

Former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and top generals, who eventually forced Erbakan out of power.

The rise of Erdogan

Despite these efforts, the Constitutional Court closed the Virtue Party (FP), formed by the WP’s old guard, in 2001, stating that it was a continuation of the RP. Against this backdrop, Erdogan founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, ultimately winning a resounding victory in 2002, wiping out most of the political parties from the parliament and active politics.

Since President Erdogan first came to power in 2003, the country’s political landscape has undergone significant changes. His government policies initially led to the end of the 20-year state of emergency in the Kurdish region, peace talks with Kurdish representatives, and an improved economy and living standards for the Turkish people. Media freedom increased, and the military’s influence on politics began to diminish and Turkey was admitted to begin the accession negotiation with the European Union (EU).


Erdogan’s grip of the political power

However, Erdogan’s government took a turn in 2013 with the Gezi Park protests, infighting with the Fethullah Gulen movement, and the 2016 coup d’état attempt. Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian, governing the country with a firm grip on power. He implemented a Presidential System that made him the most powerful figure in Turkish politics, and civil liberties were restricted. The judiciary lost its independence, and the media came under government control. Corruption became rampant within the AKP and their inner circle, and opposition political parties faced intense pressure from the government. Accountability and scrutiny mechanisms were non-existent, and thousands of people were imprisoned.

While, in 2017, Erdogan’s rule in Turkey led to a “partly free” classification by Freedom House, by 2023, this classification was revised to “not free.” Despite initial economic gains, the Turkish economy has faced significant challenges in recent years. According to the World Bank, Turkey’s economy grew by 0.9% in 2019 but contracted by 1.5% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Turkey’s annual inflation rate was 50.5% in March of 2023, causing significant hardship for ordinary citizens. In terms of international politics, Turkey’s involvement in Syria, Iraq, and other regions has changed significantly under Erdogan’s rule.

Erdogan took over the Turkish Republic in 2002 and worked to consolidate its democracy by reconciling the secular, religious, and nationalist factions of the population. He also mediated a Kurdish peace process. However, his fear of losing power led him to undo many of these changes and exert control over all aspects of the state apparatus, economy, and education system.

More of the same or Change

© FT montage/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey is currently gearing up for its most significant elections since its establishment, with Presidential and Parliamentary elections on the horizon. Voters in Turkey will have the chance to cast their votes for both seats. The Nation Alliance, consisting of six opposition parties: True Party (CHP), Good Party (IP), Felicity Party (SP), Democrat Party (DP), the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), and the Future Party (GP). Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as their presidential candidate, is in opposition to Erdogan. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) may be shut down and participate under another name, backing Kilicdaroglu in the Presidential elections.

On the other hand, the People’s Alliance is made up of the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and additional parties such as the Great Unity Party (BBP) and the New Welfare Party (YRP), along with other three minority parties and the incumbent President is their candidate.

Whereas, Muharrem Ince has the support of only his party, and Sinan Ogan, the candidate of the far-right alliance comprising ultra-nationalist parties, are the two other presidential candidates.

The choice facing voters is straightforward: vote for Erdogan and accept full-blown autocracy, or choose Kilicdaroglu and work towards a re-democratisation of Turkey.

In my next blog post, I will delve deeper into the electoral campaign, examining who said what, how they said it, and why. Stay tuned for further insight into this critical moment in Turkish politics.