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Presidential and parliamentary elections took place in Turkey[1] on 14 May 2023. Despite opinion polls suggesting a possible opposition win, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies won a majority in the parliamentary elections while President Erdoğan led the presidential elections after the first round. 

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been president of Turkey since 2014, when he was elected president in the first direct elections. He retained the presidency in 2018 following the first presidential election under the constitutional reform of 2017.

The AKP in power

Since coming into power in 2002, Erdoğan and the AKP have dominated politics in Turkey and have shifted the country away from the secularism embedded in the early years of the Republic. Erdoğan’s governments have also curbed the role of the military. which had previously intervened to remove civilian governments in Turkey, most recently in 1980.

Early reforms introduced by the government reduced the military’s role in civilian affairs. These were part of a package to prepare Turkey to meet the criteria for EU membership. However, in 2007, the military warned it might intervene again to protect secularism in Turkey. Long running trials from 2008 to 2013 saw several former military officers prosecuted for leading a clandestine network with the aim of overthrowing the government. Journalists and opposition politicians were also charged. Some received life sentences, including the former chief of staff of the armed forces. However, the convictions were later overturned by the constitutional court.

In 2008, the constitutional court ruleded that the AKP was guilty of seeking to undermine secularism in Turkey and imposed a fine, although the state prosecutor had sought a ban on the party and its leading political figures including Erdoğan. This followed attempts by the AKP to lift the ban on the wearing of the hijab in universities. The Government lifted the ban on the hijab across state institutions in 2013.

Initially the AKP pursued pro-market economic reforms and other reforms, including full abolition of the death penalty, to support Turkey’s application to join the EU. EU accession negotiations began in 2005 but made little progress and were eventually frozen in 2018 because of EU concerns about the functioning of the democratic system in Turkey, respect for fundamental rights and independence of the judiciary.

In recent years concerns have mounted, both domestically and internationally, about a shift towards more authoritarian practices under Erdoğan. Following an attempted coup against the Turkish government in July 2016, the government declared a state of emergency that suspended some of the normal functions of the constitution. Over 100,000 people were arrested and 130,000 state employees were dismissed, while thousands of educational institutions and nongovernmental organisations were shut down.

The government blamed the attempted coup on the followers of the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. The AKP initially worked closely with the Gülenists to move Turkey away from its previous secular establishment. The AKP later blamed the Gülenists for instigating corruption allegations. The state crackdown following the attempted coup was viewed as also targeting a range of opponents and critics who had no connection with the Gülenists.

Under constitutional reforms approved by referendum in 2017, the president took on a greater executive role and the role of prime minister was abolished. Turkey effectively transitioned from being a parliamentary democracy to a presidential model. The Council of Europe’s advisory group on constitutional matters warned that the new presidential model lacked the necessary checks and balances to prevent authoritarian rule.

Conflict with Kurds

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, with the resulting conflict costing nearly 40,000 lives. In his early years in power Erdoğan made some concessions towards Kurdish demands for greater cultural rights, and there have been periodic ceasefires. Following a resumption in hostilities, around 2,000 people were reportedly killed in the context of security operations in Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey in 2015 and 2016. A United Nations reports referred to an excessive use of force by state forces, involving killings, enforced disappearances and torture. Turkey also launched military actions against Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria.

The emergency powers following the coup in 2016 were also used to target Kurdish groups and politicians. Several members of parliament, local mayors and the co-leaders of the main Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), were arrested. The constitutional court is currently considering a case brought by the state prosecutor to close down the HDP.

International concerns

International organisations have expressed concerns about developments in Turkey. In 2017, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) placed Turkey under a monitoring procedure until “serious concerns” about respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law were addressed. A report by the United Nations Human Rights Hight Commissioner in 2018 also expressed concern about the deterioration of the human rights situation and the erosion of the rule of law in Turkey. 

Turkey was also criticised in 2021 by the Council of Europe, EU, USA for withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

In December 2022, the EU criticised a prison sentence for the opposition mayor of Istanbul, as a “major setback for democracy in Turkey” and called on Turkey to “reverse the continuous backsliding on human rights and rule of law”. In March 2023, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers (Foreign Ministers of the Member States) reiterated calls for the release of former HDP co-chair  Selahattin Demirtaş, and activist Osman Kavala, following European Court of Human Rights’ judgments in their cases.

Foreign policy

Turkey has developed a more assertive Turkey foreign policy under Erdoğan. This has involved interventions in the Syrian civil war,  support for Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and support for government forces in Libya. There have also been increased tensions with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, notably over drilling rights. Erdoğan has also backed Turkish Cypriot leaders in rejecting the UN-backed model of a unified federal Cyprus in favour of a two-state solution.

Turkey has sought to play a mediating role since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While it joined other NATO members in condemning the invasion and has provided military equipment to Ukraine, it has not imposed sanctions on Russia. In July 2022, Turkey brokered a deal allowing for Ukrainian and Russian grain and other agricultural exports across the Black Sea. In May 2023, Erdoğan said Turkey has a special relationship with Russia and President Putin.

Turkey has held up Sweden’s application to join NATO, claiming that it provides a safe haven for Kurdish terrorists.

The 2023 elections

Opinion polls in the lead-up to the general elections in May 2023 indicated that opposition challengers could defeat Erdoğan in the Presidential election. Turkey has suffered economic problems in recent years, with inflation reaching 85% in 2022, and the government’s popularity initially appeared to be impacted following the devastating earthquakes in southern Turkey in February 2023.

Six opposition parties joined forces for the parliamentary elections and united to back a single presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, pledging a return to a parliamentary system. The HDP also gave their backing to Kılıçdaroğlu.

Erdoğan gained ground during the election campaign, emphasising themes including national security, public investment and traditional conservative family values. He accused Kılıçdaroğlu of supporting Kurdish terror groups and being a “puppet of the West”. Another campaign theme was attacks on the opposition for being pro-LGBT and “anti-family”.

Erdoğan and the governing parties benefitted from pro-government media coverage, with independent media outlets facing fines for criticising the government. On 13 April 2023, a group of international human rights and journalist organisations issued a joint statement calling on the regulator to stop these fines and said it was being “weaponised by the governing parties”  to provide them with an unfair advantage in the elections.

The HDP accused Turkish authorities of trying to intimidate its supporters after police raids on 25 April which led to over 150 people detained.

A monitoring report by the OSCE following the election referred to the advantage enjoyed by the ruling parties through biased media coverage, the blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state, and intimidation of one political party (the HDP).

In the parliamentary elections, the AKP and its allies in the far-right Nationalist Movement Party won 323 of the 600 seats. President Erdoğan received 49.5% of the vote in the presidential election, while Kılıçdaroğlu received 44.9%.

In the lead-up to the second round of the presidential election President Erdoğan received a further boost when, Sinan Oğan, a far-right candidate who came third with 5.2% of the vote in the first round of the election, said he was endorsing Erdoğan. Kılıçdaroğlu sought to court nationalist voters by promising to expel Syrian refugees and announcing a memorandum of understanding with the leader of another small far-right party. This involved a promise not to reinstate Kurdish mayors removed by the Turkish authorities.

[1]      The Republic of Türkiye changed its official name from The Republic of Turkey in a request submitted to the United Nations Secretary-General on 26 May 2022. This briefing paper continues to use Turkey as the short form for the Republic of Türkiye, in line with the current list of approved British English-language names for countries and territories issued by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) [accessed 19 May 2023]

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