Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times

Current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during a joint news conference in Iran in 2022. On Friday, April 14, Cornell's Critical Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies program hosted a webinar where they discussed the importance of the upcoming Turkish elections.

April 17, 2023

Çağaptay, Hintz Discuss Importance and Impacts of Turkish Elections

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Cornell’s Critical Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies program organized a web conference titled “Turkish Elections: A Pivotal Change?” on Friday, April 14, in which Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute and a columnist for The Hurriyet Daily News, and Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, discussed the election and its potential impacts for Turkey. 

The upcoming Turkish elections — in which citizens will vote for both the president and the parliament — carry an immense importance due to the potential overturn of current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 20-year rule. 

Turkey has faced several national challenges over the years — including an eroded right to freedom of expression through imprisoned journalists, democratic backsliding, human rights violations including hundreds of femicides, two massive earthquakes that caused thousands of deaths and destroyed several cities, a major economic crisis leading to spiraling inflation and extreme political polarization

The webinar discussed these national challenges within Turkey’s current political state, the role of democracy within the elections, the strategies that the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s coalition should follow for a greater chance at victory, the potential fallout if  Erdoğan loses and the groups that will have a large impact on the results.

The webinar opened with Hintz’s analysis of Turkish politics and the political atmosphere in the country.

“The current regime in Turkey is, by academic standards, a competitive authoritarian regime,” Hintz said. 

Hintz asked several questions to help the audience think about how the election could impact the authoritarian government’s potential future. 

“Does Turkey continue down its path towards even fuller, more fully consolidated authoritarianism?” Hintz said. “Or do we see a turn to some sort of coalition politics and perhaps a step back from the highly consolidated executive presidency that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has put in place with his ruling Justice and Development Party?”

Hintz noted that Turkey’s recent crisis — the two devastating earthquakes that occurred in February — revealed Turkey’s corrupted disaster response mechanisms in the current authoritarian political state.

“The earthquakes exposed not only the problems of an authoritarian, consolidated regime in which disaster response teams are not getting the messaging that they need to get out — you’ve had so much power consolidated in such a small amount of hands, or in one person’s hands, that it was very difficult to respond to the earthquakes in an appropriate manner —  but also, the crony capitalism that was baked into construction, which meant that so many buildings collapsed that shouldn’t have,” Hintz said. “[Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party] engaged in some of the amnesty laws that they approved that allowed structures to be constructed that were not up to code.”

In addition to the aftermath of the earthquakes, one of the most critical issues in Turkey’s current political climate is the ongoing economic crisis. Multiple Turkish students, some of whom plan to vote in the elections, highlighted the crisis to The Sun.

“I think one of the biggest problems in Turkey right now is the lack of foreign investment into the country, which causes a lot of economic problems — the biggest one being inflation, which causes the dollar exchange rate to go up,” said Doğa Dinçbaş ’26, who is registered to vote in the elections. 

Taylan Özgür Ercan ’25, president of the Turkish Student Association, added that the growth of the Turkish economy is a mirage, largely due to the rising population.

“There is an increase in [gross domestic product], but it is mostly because of the population increase,” Ercan said.

Çağaptay concurred with both of the students’ points, saying that although the economy is no longer in recession, it is now experiencing hyperinflation that younger generations have never seen in their lives.

“The economy is not in recession anymore, but its nosedive dive in lira [has] stabilized after losing many times its value in just as little as five years,” Çağaptay said. “This all happened [since] the switch to the executive presidential system that was supposed to improve decision-making in Turkey. … At the same time, hyperinflation has returned, something that Turkey’s citizens will only remember if they are in their 40s and 50s and above.”

According to Çağaptay, the Turkish economy has done well during every election that President Erdoğan had previously won, which has been a strong point of his electoral campaigns. 

Hintz suggested that it would be difficult for the opposition to officially take over the administration, despite the polls showing Kılıçdaroğlu to be the leading candidate.

“We have kind of a prototypical competitive authoritarian regime — which means that it’s possible that the opposition could win, but it’s very, very difficult, and the incumbent will do everything [to win],” Hintz said. “It can use all the tools in what we call its authoritarian toolkit to try to stay in power.” 

Hintz and Çağaptay said that the best way the opposition can prevent Erdoğan from turning the election results in his favor — with tools from his authoritarian toolkit, such as  manipulation of news sources, falsely declaring victory, military power and other non-democratic strategies — is to resist until the very end. Hintz noted the country’s 2018 elections, in which the opposition leader, current third-party candidate Muharrem İnce, disappeared, as a cautionary tale. 

“The Supreme Electoral Council in 2018 declared victory for Erdoğan as president based on [an] unofficial ballot count relatively early in the day,” Hintz said. “He made his balcony speech and the opposition candidate disappeared.” 

According to Çağaptay, in addition to resisting the authoritarian tools of Erdoğan and protecting the votes, the opposition also has to stay united to win. 

In Turkish politics, parties are often labeled with social segments or their biggest voter-base. A few of the largest parties have been labeled “religious,” “secular,” “right,” “leftist,” “nationalist” or “pro-Kurdish.” Çağaptay said that the opposition must avoid identity politics, setting aside these distinctions and aiming to lead the entire nation.

“If the opposition stays united — and that means not going into any kind of identity politics, staying united as a pro-democracy front — President Erdoğan might lose,” Çağaptay said. “But if the opposition does [delve into identity politics] I can see him cruising to victory.” 

The opposition bloc consists of six parties with different characteristics. Ercan expressed an optimistic viewpoint regarding the opposition’s ability to rule. 

“Other than individual satisfaction, if [the future administration] think[s] about the country, if they invest and if they increase interest rates in order to reduce inflation, [they can succeed],” Ercan said. “They have to accept that they cannot change everything and do a revolution in one year — it’s a long-term process.”

Dinçbaş, meanwhile, expressed excitement to vote for the first time, as this marks the first election for which she meets Turkey’s minimum voting age of 18 years. She is one of six million new voters in this election, and the youth vote will likely be one of its determining factors.

“I feel excited because this is the first election that I will be voting [in],” Dinçbaş said. “I have long been looking forward to fulfilling my duty as a Turkish citizen.” 

Hintz emphasized the influence of Turkey’s youth in the upcoming election.

“One thing that I think is incredibly important to highlight is the role of youth in this,” Hintz said. “The fact that… about 20 percent of the voter base is youth under 24 and that about half of that — about [six] million — is going to be voters who haven’t voted before, who’ve essentially grown up with the AKP as the only game in town, and they now have the chance to vote. Different parties have been trying to court the youth vote.”  

Hintz also indicated that the Kurdish vote and conservative women vote might switch away from Erdoğan’s party due to Turkey’s exit from the Istanbul convention. The AKP’s alliance with extremist parties, which many claim violate women’s rights, are also going to be determining factors, she said. 

Çağaptay said it is almost impossible to completely predict the outcome of elections in a country with as active and complex a political climate as Turkey has, especially with a month left until the elections.

“So much could happen between now and the elections that the outcome could change,” Çağaptay said. “But right now, it looks like the opposition bloc is leading in both the presidential race and the parliamentary race.” 

Aslı Cihangir ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].