Erdoğan is Losing but the Turkish Opposition is Far from an Assured Victory

Turkish Opposition
Mansur Yavaş, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Selvi Kılıçdaroğlu on March 6th, 2023. Photo from a video published by the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) via Wikimedia Commons.

By Kemal Kirişci and Berk Esen

There is less than a month to go until what will be by far be the most consequential presidential and parliamentary elections of recent decades. The results will determine whether Turkey will have an opportunity to return to the ranks of democratic countries or slide further into an autocratic style of government.

In 2018 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after a referendum in 2017, got himself elected as president to oversee the transformation of Turkey’s decades old parliamentary system into a presidential one with practically no checks and balances on executive powers. A candidate must receive more than 50 % of the ballots to get elected. If no candidate receives a majority of the ballots cast, then the top two proceed to a second round of voting. On May 14 a new election will take place. Voters will also elect a new parliament, albeit a very weakened one whose task in this new system of governance has been limited to rubber stamping Erdoğan’s legislative agenda.

The hyper-centralized system has left Erdoğan exposed and vulnerable as never before in his political career. The Turkish economy is plagued with widening trade and current accounts deficits, growing public debt, a destabilized currency, and an Annualized Consumer Price Index running officially at over 50 % but at more than 112 % according to an independent research organization. The massive damage caused by the earthquake in February laid bare the institutional decay and corruption in a system that Erdoğan had promised would bring stability and prosperity. This is offering the opposition, composed of six political parties led by the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), a major opportunity to mount a credible challenge to Erdoğan and his governance model. However, there are also challenges faced by the Turkish opposition that are likely to curtail the prospects of a decisive electoral victory that could pave the way to a democratic transition.


In competitive authoritarian regimes like Turkey, where the playing field is heavily tilted in favor of the government, Turkish opposition parties can only expect to increase their electoral prospects by forming alliances. The opposition Nation’s Alliance came together a little over a year ago with the objective of defeating Erdoğan and transitioning the country to a “strengthened parliamentary system” as well as formulating a list of amendments to the constitution. The opposition also dubbed as the “Table of Six” is composed of the main Turkish opposition party CHP, led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, İYİ (Good) Party, led by Meral Akşener, two small splinter parties from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), DEVA and Geleçek, led by Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, two former ministers of Erdoğan, Saadet (Felicity) Party led by Temel Karamollaoğlu and finally the Democrat Party, a minor party led by a little known politician, Gültekin Uysal.

This coalition of parties trailed the ruling bloc in polls until it finally overcame its failure to agree on a joint candidate in early March and nominated Kılıçdaroğlu. After months of what seemed like fruitless inter-party negotiations and committee discussions, the Nation’s Alliance enters the final month of the campaign with a joint candidate and a partially joint parliamentary list (though supported by five parties). The complicated alliance is a response to a revised electoral law passed in 2022 that favors alliances with joint lists for parliamentary elections.

To his credit, Kılıçdaroğlu, otherwise an uncharismatic but principled and clean politician, (often considered a poor adversary against a combative Erdoğan), skillfully weaved together and maintained this unlikely opposition alliance composed of a wide spectrum of political parties representing the secular left and right, Turkish nationalist and conservative constituencies. Against the governing coalition’s incessant propaganda demonizing the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP,) which commands 10-12 % of the electorate, Kılıçdaroğlu also succeeded in obtaining their tacit endorsement as a presidential candidate.

Moreover, the opposition alliance also brought on board Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, as vice-presidential candidates, thus enhancing his chances of defeating Erdoğan. For months polls had constantly put these two names considerably ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu in matchups against Erdoğan. Many, including Akşener, believed they would serve as better options as presidential candidates given their popular appeal and strong mayoral performance. With this “ticket formula”, Kılıçdaroğlu may appeal to a larger constituency of voters and benefit from the popularity of both names during the campaign.

Unsurprisingly, his prospects of winning the presidential election have significantly improved in recent months. He is, even if marginally, ahead of Erdoğan after having trailed behind him for months. However, with the election date fast approaching, there are quite a few challenges necessary for a Turkish opposition victory.


Despite these positive developments, defeating Erdoğan and his regime will not be an easy task. Having first come to power in December 2002, the AKP achieved an electoral dominance that allowed Erdoğan to both erode institutional checks and balances and tilt the playing field against the opposition. The judiciary is weaponized to target Erdoğan’s political opponents as in the political ban verdict against İmamoğlu and the ongoing closure case against HDP. Moreover, the national media remains under tight government control. Therefore, the Turkish opposition faces an uphill to broaden its electoral base in its campaign against Erdoğan .

In contrast to Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership, some view Kılıçdaroğlu as an uninspiring politician who is prone to making gaffes that the pro-government media picks up. His campaign was recently shaken by a scandal, when a photo released by his own press advisers showed Kılıçdaroğlu stepping on a prayer rug with his shoes on, a taboo in Islam for conservative voters in Turkey. Although this was clearly a genuine mistake and Kılıçdaroğlu immediately apologized after the incident, both the pro-government media and the AKP politicians, including Erdoğan himself, used the photo to portray Kılıçdaroğlu as out of touch with the values of  pious voters. Such blunders play into the hands of Erdoğan’s abuse of Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi background, a heterodox religious group practicing a more liberal Islam adherents of orthodox Sunni Islam often dislike.

For those voters who are accustomed to Erdoğan’s autocratic leadership, the Turkish opposition may come across as an ideologically diverse and fragile coalition. This fragility became conspicuous when early in March Akşener briefly parted her way with the Nation’s Alliance in a dramatic fashion over the nomination of Kılıçdaroğlu as its joint candidate. Erdoğan has skillfully exploited this fragility by associating the opposition alliance with political and economic instability reminiscent of weak coalition governments from the 1990s in Turkey. Moreover, the Nation’s Alliance’s formula of nominating five party leaders and the two popular mayors as vice presidents (7 in total compared to one currently!) reinforces such public concerns over governability of Turkey under such a formula.

Erdoğan will surely seek to portray Kılıçdaroğlu as a weak leader heading an unlikely coalition, while he reiterates the need for a strong leader to push Turkey through these difficult times. Although AKP voters feel the toll of the economic crisis, this dissatisfaction has not yet translated into support for the opposition. Not surprisingly, when the polling company Metropoll asked respondents who they thought would be better at helping the earthquake zone to recover, 45 % put their bet on Erdoğan’s coalition in contrast to 43 % for the coalition led by Kılıçdaroğlu.

The internal precarity of the Nation’s Alliance is also reflected in Akşener’s reluctance to campaign with Kılıçdaroğlu and her preference to highlight her ties with the two popular mayors, İmamoğlu and Yavaş. This lackluster support, in a country where the electorate often follows guidance from party leaders, risks causing some of her base to refrain from voting for Kılıçdaroğlu. In an election that promises to be particularly tight such a loss of support will seriously narrow Kılıçdaroğlu’s chances of winning against Erdoğan.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s prospect of winning the presidency is also complicated by the presence of one additional contestant: Muharrem İnce. He is an ambitious, energetic, and populist campaigner who was the CHP’s 2018 presidential candidate. Currently, his ratings in the polls stand between 5 and 8%. He draws support primarily from young voters who are disillusioned with Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. İnce’s candidacy also draws some support from İYİ Party’s nationalist base resentful of Kılıçdaroğlu. If Ince sustains this performance, he will surely become a spoiler by pushing the election to a second round.

In the event that the presidential elections advance to a second round, all bets are off. Erdoğan easily won the 2014 and 2018 presidential elections in the first round with a clear margin. His failure to do so this time may be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage anti-Erdoğan voters to coalesce behind Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round. Yet, the second round will not be positive news for Kılıçdaroğlu either since he will need to negotiate with his long-time rival Muharrem İnce to secure a direct endorsement. The price for such an endorsement may be too high for Kılıçdaroğlu. In recent weeks, İnce has repeatedly targeted the Nation’s Alliance and called out on Kılıçdaroğlu and Akşener to ditch their conservative alliance partners in favor of a “principled alliance” between his Homeland Party, İYİ Party and CHP.

Meanwhile, relying on his control over the national media and bureaucracy, Erdoğan can still run a spirited campaign against Kılıçdaroğlu after the first round. In the event that his People Alliance retains a parliamentary majority, Erdoğan will emphasize the dangers of divided government and ask voters not to split their vote in the second round. If his ruling bloc falls short of securing a parliamentary majority, Erdoğan would resort to scaring some Turkish nationalist voters into supporting him by suggesting that otherwise the pro-Kurdish bloc will emerge as the key actor in the legislature.


In the end, the ultimate challenge faced by the opposition may be the possibility of Erdoğan seeking to hang onto power through electoral irregularities. Although Turkey has a long record of holding relatively clean elections, creeping authoritarianism under Erdoğan’s rule has pushed the country into the 123rd spot out of 167 countries according to the Electoral Integrity Project. The country’s Supreme Election Council (SEC) recently made controversial decisions that favored the government such as the repeat of the 2019 Istanbul mayoral elections. More recently, SEC ruled in favor of Erdoğan being able to run for a third time in the presidential elections even though the Constitution in no uncertain words says that “a person can only serve as president two times.” Although large scale fraud is not expected in this election, even small partisan interventions may tilt the balance in a tight race.

In order to prevent this outcome, Turkish opposition parties have waged a concerted campaign to appoint observers at each of the approximately 200,000 ballot boxes across the country. These efforts, however, may fall short in two areas. First, the recent earthquake has created a high level of uncertainty regarding the election. Many schools that were previously designated as polling stations are either damaged or destroyed. It is not clear where voting will take place in the disaster zone and whether the opposition parties will have enough volunteers on the ground to oversee this process. Hundreds of thousands of voters who left the earthquake area did not register to vote in their new addresses. Second, the HDP’s decision to nominate its candidates under the banner of Yeşil Sol Party (Green Left Party), in circumvention of the closure case, will complicate efforts to protect the ballot boxes in its strongholds. Since only the top five parties with the largest vote share can appoint election monitors at each ballot box, the HDP’s decision (3rd party in 2018 elections) will forfeit this right and weaken the opposition’s capacity to oversee the electoral process in Kurdish-populated provinces.


With less than a month to go, reconstituting Turkish democracy through an opposition victory is far from secure. The outcome of the elections will undoubtedly be critical in terms of which way Turkey goes and its implications for geopolitics will be profound. Furthermore, the sheer size of the economic, judicial, institutional and social wreckage, as well as the physical one left behind by the earthquake, is likely to strain post-election politics. Hence, it would not be surprising if the country finds itself compelled to hold an early election unless of course Erdoğan wins and uses the excuse of this wreckage to transform Turkey formally into an autocracy Tunisian style.

About the Authors

Kemal Kirişci is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe‘s Turkey Project at Brookings, with an expertise in Turkish foreign policy and migration studies. From 2013 until 2020, he was TÜSİAD senior fellow at Brookings and director of the Turkey Project. His most recent book, Turkey and the West: Faultlines in a Troubled Alliance, was published by the Brookings Institution Press in November 2017. He is the co-author of the monograph The Consequences of Chaos: Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis and the Failure to Protect which considers the long-term economic, political, and social implications of Syria’s displaced and offers policy recommendations to address the humanitarian crisis. Kirişci was a professor of international relations and held the Jean Monnet chair in European integration in the department of political science and international relations at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. His areas of research interest include EU-Turkish relations, U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkish foreign and trade policies, European integration, immigration issues, ethnic conflicts, and refugee movements.

Berk Esen is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Sabancı University, Turkey. He received his PhD in Government from Cornell University in 2015 and was a IPC-Stiftung Mercator Fellow in the Center for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. His research interests include the political economy of development, party politics and authoritarian regimes with a focus on Latin America and the Middle East. His research has appeared in political science journals such as Party Politics, Journal of Democracy, Third World Quarterly, Government and Opposition, Armed Forces & Society, PS: Political Science & Politics, South East European Society and Politics, Journal of Near East and Balkan Studies, Mediterranean Politics, Middle East Journal, Turkish Studies, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies and Review of Middle East Studies. Berk is the recipient of the Sakıp Sabancı International Research Award for his work on democratic backsliding in Turkey and Hungary and the Turkish Science Academy Young Scientist Award (BAGEP).

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