The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has intensified the role of Islam in the public sphere. Successive purges and crackdowns have resulted in a dismal human rights record. And Turkey, never really a beacon of liberal democracy, has now become one of the most prominent examples of democratic backsliding.
In foreign policy it has made tangible Turkey’s long-standing aspirations to play a larger role in the world through trade, diplomacy, and ambitious efforts at intensifying its military profile in the region. At the same time, Turkey’s relations with its Western allies are at a nadir; whether in European capitals or in Washington, there are few who still view Ankara as a reliable ally.
Moreover, Turkey’s economy is in crisis. The skyrocketing inflation of the pre-AKP era is now back with a vengeance. The standard of living of everyday Turkish citizens has plummeted. Turkey’s youth — and especially its most educated young people — are increasingly looking for futures abroad.
All of this means that the AKP, as it prepares for elections in 2023, is facing perhaps its greatest electoral test at a moment of particular vulnerability. At the same time, the breakdown of democratic norms, restrictions on freedom of expression, and the government’s near monopoly on broadcast media all mean that the opposition faces a decidedly challenging electoral environment. Experts regularly claim that the next elections may be “the most important.” The 2023 elections in Turkey may well live up to that claim.
What has been the impact of the AKP’s rule and how might the opposition change Turkey’s direction if they manage to come to power? In this series of papers, seven prominent Turkish scholars weigh in on these questions, thinking about this from a wide variety of perspectives and focusing on a range of specific fields of policy, explaining how we got to the current juncture and where Turkey might go from here.
Photo by Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
1. The Strategies and Struggles of the Turkish Opposition under Autocratization
Despite its early democratization efforts during the EU accession negotiations and various political and judicial reforms, the AKP has since become the main driver of rising autocratization in Turkey. The country is now categorized as a “competitive authoritarian” regime, where elections are held regularly but the competition among political parties is not free and fair. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has thus far enjoyed a fragmented opposition and utilized polarization to cement divisions. However, the introduction of a hyper-presidential system after the 2017 constitutional referendum and Erdoğan’s 2018 election victory have provided the necessary impetus for the opposition parties to form an alliance. This paper charts Turkey’s autocratization under AKP rule, addresses the strategies adopted by its political opposition, and maps out the opportunities and risks they face in the run-up to the June 2023 presidential elections.
2. Religion, Nationalism, and Populism in Turkey Under the AKP
Over its two decades in power, the AKP has shaped relations between different social groups in Turkey based on religious belonging. It altered people’s perceptions of national identity by making “being a Muslim Turk” more appealing for many at home and abroad, and created new public spaces and collective memories embellished with national heroism sacralized by religious references. The AKP's increasing resort to religious-nationalist appeals and symbols over the last decade has turned politics into a manifestation of a religious-like mission, and Erdoğan's performative style as a man of the mission and personalized power are crucial in keeping AKP supporters mobilized. Moving beyond Turkey’s oft-cited secular-pious cleavage, this paper aims to shed light on the AKP’s complex relationship with religion through the lens of nationalism, populism, and performance as a means of political mobilization.
3. Can Erdoğan Survive without the Kurdish Question?
Since Erdoğan adopted a nationalist and militarist approach to reverse the results of the June 2015 elections, the Kurdish political movement has faced immense pressure. The line between the PKK and other non-violent political actors has blurred in the eyes of the elites in Ankara. Leaders and officials of the pro-Kurdish HDP have been arrested and the party has been demonized in the media. The similarities between Erdoğan’s attitude toward the Kurdish question after the June 2015 elections and the Turkish military’s security paradigm before the AKP came to power in 2002 have led some scholars to argue that Erdoğan has surrendered to the nationalist line on the issue. Other scholars, however, argue that the launch of the Kurdish peace process and Erdoğan’s decision to abandon it were part of the same strategy, and both moves were aimed at consolidating his power. This paper aims to understand the motivation behind Erdoğan’s approach to the Kurdish question and explore the potential implications for the upcoming elections in June 2023.
4. The Turkish Economy under the Presidential System
Over the past decade, Turkey has been on a steadily downward economic trajectory. Throughout this long period of turmoil the government has pursued a range of different economic policies, most of which were inconsistent with one another. The transition to a presidential system under Erdoğan has had a disastrous impact on Turkey’s economic institutions and administration. The lack of consistency, continuous uncertainty, weak communication, and repeated mistakes have resulted in the loss of confidence by all economic actors — domestic and foreign, individuals and companies alike. This paper explores the impact of the presidential system on the Turkish economy, the country’s economic outlook, and potential solutions to the current crisis, as well as the opposition’s role and ability to implement them, with an eye to the June 2023 elections.
5. The New Civil-Military Relations in Turkey
Following the AKP’s rise in 2002, civil-military relations in Turkey began to change significantly. The military’s tutelage over Turkish politics was gradually replaced with the AKP’s control over the Turkish Armed Forces. The July 2016 coup attempt put an end to the military’s prestige and popularity and ushered in a new era, with Erdoğan and his AKP asserting full civilian control over the military. The Turkish Armed Forces was stripped of its reputation and traditionally dominant role in society and politics, and the AKP government simultaneously solidified into a populist, authoritarian regime. This paper explores the factors that paved the way for the new civil-military relations between 2002 and 2016, reviews how the 2016 coup attempt became an opportunity for the AKP to further eliminate all opposition, and analyzes the impact of the upcoming 2023 elections and the opposition’s stance on civil-military relations.
6. The Costs of a Presidential System: The Impact of Hyper-centralization on Turkey’s Educational and Cultural Affairs
Turkey’s transition to a hyper-centralized presidential system has had a devastating impact on its educational and cultural affairs. The erosion of the rule of law and due process and the ensuing arbitrary rule by an all-powerful president have given rise to a growing malaise in the educational and cultural fields. The fragility of academic and media freedoms and the lack of legal and cultural norms guaranteeing freedom of speech compound the problem. Widespread purges have had a chilling effect on academic and cultural life, prompting many dissident academics and intellectuals to seek refuge in the West. The academic and cultural impoverishment of the country not only pushes youth outside lifelong learning opportunities but also fails to equip those enrolled in secondary and tertiary education with the skills required to succeed in today’s global economy. Exacerbating all these problems is the refusal within Turkey’s ruling Islamist-ultranationalist coalition to recognize the country’s troubling trajectory.
7. Turkish Foreign Policy After Presidentialism
Since June 2015 and especially after the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the AKP has taken an increasingly nationalist and Eurasianist turn, as Erdoğan worked to consolidate power by satisfying various nationalist elements. The transition to the presidential system in mid-2018 has intensified Turkey’s existing foreign policy problems and given rise to new ones. The country has become more authoritarian, more anti-American and anti-Western, more confrontational, more isolated, and more pro-Russian, and its foreign policy has been militarized. The personification of the decision-making process and the exclusion of traditional mechanisms under the presidential system has led to the weakening of key institutions, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This paper lays out the evolution of the AKP’s foreign policy, the consequences of the transition to the presidential system, the impact of Erdoğan’s coalition with the nationalists and Eurasianists, and potential pathways forward.