Protestors demonstrate against Turkey's presence in Syria

On the cusp of the May elections, the most astute analysts of Turkish politics were confident that Erdogan’s two decade of ruling was coming to an end. Discredited by economic setbacks as well as by the high death toll of the February s earthquake, Erdogan political future seemed doomed.

Against all odds, on May 15, 2023, he garnered 49.40% of the vote versus 44.96% for his main opponent, Kilicdaroglu from the CHP party. So it seems that he is well positioned to win the second round of the elections on May 28 and embark on his third decade in power.

However, to the distress of analysts and his detractors, it appears that the result of the first tour is the outcome of a free and fair election with no evidence so far of wide-range electoral fraud. As pointed out by Frank Schwabe, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation [Turkey], an important caveat to this optimistic view is that “Key political and social figures are in prison even after judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, media freedom is severely restricted and there is a climate of self-censorship.”

Even if Erdogan wins the second tour, he will nevertheless have to reassess his policies and deal with three main outcomes of this historical election.

Jocelyne Cesari, Professor of Religion and Politics - University of Birmingham

Even if Erdogan wins the second tour, he will nevertheless have to reassess his policies and deal with three main outcomes of this historical election.

Firstly, his popularity is still strong but waning. As a matter of fact, the first round of the May elections can also be interpreted as a setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Because he failed to secure a majority of the vote, he is forced into a runoff for the first time since he came to power in 2002. In this respect, the opposition - namely the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the newly formed Future Party (GP) - is gaining strength. These parties have capitalized on public discontent and managed to rally support by offering alternative visions for governance, focusing on issues such as economic reforms, human rights, and democratic values. The opposition’s rise presents a formidable challenge to Erdogan's dominance in Turkish politics. He will have to navigate a more fragmented political landscape, necessitating coalition building and, therefore, inevitable compromises in policymaking.

Secondly, the results of the first round indicate a growing demand for greater democratic rights and institutional checks and balances. To maintain public support and credibility, Erdogan may face pressure to address these concerns, improve transparency, and uphold democratic principles, or risk further erosion of his popularity.

Thirdly, Erdogan’s government will need to prioritize economic reforms to address rampant inflation and unemployment. Failure to effectively tackle these issues may further diminish his popularity and political influence. He faces two choices. Either he maintains his current policy to keep interest rates low with the risk of increasing state financial burden and discouraging foreign investment or he returns to the more “orthodox” option to raise interest rates and further alienate the population, including the AKP followers.

To complicate matters further, his economic choices are linked to the future orientations of his foreign policy. Since Europe and the US remain Turkey top trading partners, Erdogan may want to de-escalate his hostile stand against the EU, for example by dropping his objections to Sweden’s membership in NATO before the alliance’s next summit in June. Not to mention that pressure from the West for Turkey to join sanctions against Russia can only grow as Ukraine gears up for what many hope will be a final and decisive offensive against Russian forces.

Overall, the May elections constitute a turning point for the political future of Turkey domestically and internationally: With or without Erdogan.