Turkey’s politics on the cusp of generational change

Irrespective of the results of the presidential runoff, Turkey’s election will define its politics for decades to come.

Expert comment
Published 22 May 2023 3 minute READ

Defying the predictions of many pollsters, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s governing coalition has regained a majority in the Turkish parliament and the incumbent president is seemingly poised to win the upcoming presidential runoff.

If so, he will probably be politically comfortable as he enters a third decade at the helm of Turkish politics, and will face little challenge within the broader conservative political spectrum.

But this would also be his final term as president – given the country’s constitutional term limits – and so his legacy will be front of mind.

It is difficult to imagine a post-Erdoğan Turkey, let alone a post-Erdoğan conservative/pro-Islamic politics. But probably in the not too distant future the country will be bracing itself for a generational shift in Turkey’s conservative politics. Erdoğan is firmly placed to shape this change.

Aside from the narrative of fighting terrorism, doubling down on identity politics and lavish election economics such as giving public employees a 45 per cent pay rise and early retirement for millions, Erdoğan has been directly appealing to the sentiments and ego of a post-imperial country and society.

He is emphasizing the idea of Turkey’s grandeur in international affairs, standing up to global powers – which largely means western ones – and having autonomy in its foreign and security policy.

The drone versus the onion

Erdoğan enjoys portraying Turkey’s fast-expanding defence industry, which is attracting plenty of international interest, as a clear manifestation of this grandeur and autonomy. Through a series of popular techno-fests, Erdoğan has been showcasing Turkey’s prowess especially in highly fashionable drone technology.

In the not too distant future the country will be bracing itself for a generational shift in Turkey’s conservative politics. Erdoğan is firmly placed to shape this change

By contrast, the opposition is promising change in almost all policy areas, focused on ending the country’s deepening economic maelstrom and ‘one-man rule’. During the campaign, Kemal Kilicdaroglu regularly delivered short ‘kitchen talks’ – videos focused on the challenges facing the country and his vision to tackle them.

In one such video, he used an onion to emphasize the country’s rampant inflation and the difficulties that households face in affording basic staples. This onion has come to symbolize Turkey’s economic downturn and unruly inflation.

The drone and the onion as symbols also chime with the images of two candidates in the national politics, with Erdoğan representing charismatic leadership and Kilicdaroglu normality.

Erdoğan talked about grand ideas, Kilicdaroglu spoke of mundane ones. And the election first round results illustrate that grand is so far prevailing over mundane, drone over onion.

Dynamics of Turkey’s opposition set for change

At 74 years old, Kilicdaroglu will have difficulty in maintaining his position as opposition leader if he loses the run-off. But the margin of defeat could determine the pace of change.

If he comes close to victory, he could yet retain his post for some time and shape the direction of change within the Republican People Party (CHP) in his own image as much as possible. But losing heavily would likely force him to leave relatively quickly instead.

Change will not be confined to Turkey’s main opposition party, as Kurdish politics is also facing stark choices. For long time, pro-Kurdish parties charted a third way in Turkey’s politics instead of being part of the governing and opposition camps. But since 2015 it has changed tack, increasingly becoming part of the opposition.

Erdoğan talked about grand ideas, Kilicdaroglu spoke of mundane ones. And the election first round results illustrate that grand is so far prevailing over mundane

Notably the pro-Kurdish party decided to support the official opposition candidates instead of fielding its own during the 2019 municipal elections in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, and has also backed Kilicdaroglu in the current election.

Kurdish politics has therefore increasingly become part and parcel of Turkey’s national political scene, enlarging the spectrum it covers. The name of the latest iteration of the pro-Kurdish party – the Green Left Party – is indicative of this trend.

The civilian side of this politics also looks set to increase its influence at the expense of the military wing. Turkey, with its fast-growing defence industry and drone technology, has effectively crippled the outlawed Kurdistan Worker Party’s (PKK) military activity. This probably would further strengthen the hands of the civilian side.

Turkey’s politics on the cusp of generational change 2nd part

This change is much needed as the presence of the PKK still casts a shadow over Kurdish politics and can help any government securitize national politics relatively easily – a central theme of Erdoğan’s narrative during the election has been ‘fighting terrorism’.

The future of Kurdish politics now lies in the metropolitan cities of the western Turkey such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Mersin, as well as Ankara as the capital of national politics, rather than the more traditional support base of the Kurdish-majority east or south-eastern part of Turkey.

Behind the headlines about the close numbers, and regardless of the result, this election will prove to be a major milestone in the structural and generational shifts for Turkey’s political future. The country has already entered a new, formative period so the stakes are high and the choices stark.