This article is part of a longer report from MEI's Turkey Program on the upcoming Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkey's 2023 Elections: Perspectives on a Critical Vote.
We’re only in May but it’s safe to say that 2023 has been one of the longest years in the history of Turkish politics. Turkey's political scene is now more active than at any time in the past two decades. The main issues in the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 are the deteriorating economic conditions and identity politics. The roughly 40% government, 60% broad opposition balance in the polls in early 2022 remains largely intact with less than two weeks to go until the elections. For the first time in two decades President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is heading into an election not in the lead.
Potential for change
One of the most interesting aspects of the 2023 elections is undoubtedly the potential for change. There are three main reasons for this. First, in order to win the presidential election and become the head of the executive, a candidate must win at least 50% of the votes in the first or second round. If no candidate receives 50% in the first round, a second round is held two weeks later pitting the two candidates with the most votes against one another. If Turkey were still a parliamentary system, the People's Alliance, which received about 42% of the votes as of the last week of April, could easily form a government and would have no difficulty in obtaining a vote of confidence. But conditions have changed and Turkey now has a presidential system. The outcome of the parliamentary election on May 14 will play an important role if the presidential election goes to a second round. However, it seems that no alliance in parliament can secure even a simple majority without the support of the Green Left Party (YSP), under whose banner candidates from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are running.
The second reason we talk about change is related to a structural feature of Turkey’s multi-party political life. To put it in simple terms, there are around 35% left-wing and 65% right-wing voters in the country. Previous election results reveal that voters who change their party preferences between elections do so within the left-wing and right-wing blocs and not across them. In fact, one of the most important reasons behind the electoral success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the last two decades is that Erdoğan has managed to keep a very large right-wing bloc under the roof of the AKP for many years. What is different in this election is that after a very long time, the center-left — the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — and center-right parties — mainly the Good Party (
The third reason is that the opposition came together in the 2019 local elections and won the metropolitan cities, Ankara and Istanbul in particular. On the one hand, this success created and popularized a “winning formula,” and on the other hand, the change in the allocation of local resources following the elections empowered the opposition in many areas. Undoubtedly, without the opposition's success in the 2019 local elections, it would not have been possible to talk about change despite the two previous factors. Indeed, the mayors of Ankara and Istanbul are both playing a critical role in Nation Alliance presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign across the country.
Direction of the polls
In early March, right after Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy was announced, our polls showed him leading by 9 points in the second round of the presidential election. At the end of April his lead narrowed to 6 points. The main reason for this is Erdoğan’s propaganda that if the opposition were to win, they would not fight terrorism. This rhetoric has worked so far, although the opposition is trying very hard to combat it.
In polls of the first round of the presidential election Kılıçdaroğlu continues to lead the race by 3-4 points. Erdoğan rarely breaks the 43% mark in terms of support, which appears to be a glass ceiling for him. The outcome of the first round depends not on these two candidates, however. Muharrem İnce of the Homeland Party and Sinan Oğan of the ATA Alliance, who have recently started to show up in the polls, are the kingmakers. As of the end of April, they accounted for roughly 10% of the vote between them, which is enough to carry the presidential election to a second round. İnce’s support has waned significantly in the past month, yet neither Kılıçdaroğlu nor Erdoğan managed to benefit. Rather it was Oğan who gained as a result. Unless the combined support for İnce and Oğan falls below 4%, a second round looks like a certainty. Young voters, who account for the majority of support for these two candidates, are proving to be a very volatile group. The volatility in the polls in the past few weeks has been mainly due to young voters changing their minds rapidly. So come May 14 it remains to be seen if they will indeed stick with one of these two candidates or gravitate toward one of the other two, Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu, that have a chance of winning. If that turns out to be the case, Kılıçdaroğlu is more likely to win their support and make it over the finish line in the first round.
If the presidential election goes to a second round, Turkey will go through two weeks unlike anything it has experienced before. Economic turmoil is likely and the impact of the parliamentary result on electorate behavior is difficult to assess at this point.
Can Selçuki is an economist, data analyst, and the director of Türkiye Raporu, which publishes an influential monthly report on Turkish public opinion.
Photo by Muhammed Selim Korkutata/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.