On 14 May, Turkey will hold its most significant election in recent times, when, for the first time since his election in 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces a realistic prospect of defeat. The presidential election will run concurrently with parliamentary elections. In 2017, a constitutional referendum approved reforms which replaced the existing parliamentary system with a presidential system, endowing the president with broader executive powers. Amid this environment, the presidential vote is being framed by opposition activists as a choice between solidifying autocracy and the restoration of parliamentary democracy. Given the febrile atmosphere and the projected tight result, civil unrest is extremely likely during the extended election period.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – President Erdoğan is seeking his third term as president representing the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party is part of the broader People’s Alliance, a coalition of five parties. Erdoğan has previously received nationwide acclaim, but in recent years a drift towards authoritarianism coupled with economic mismanagement have eroded his popularity. In March, the People’s Alliance incorporated the Islamist New Welfare Party and the Kurdish-Islamist Free Cause Party into the coalition, a move that signified to many his recognition that the election will be extremely tight. He retains fervent support in the AKP strongholds of central Anatolia and Black Sea communities.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu – Kılıçdaroğlu has been leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010, during which time he has lost two presidential elections to Erdoğan. The CHP is part of the Nation Alliance, a collection of six ideologically disparate parties united by a loathing of Erdoğan. Kılıçdaroğlu is seen as the antithesis of Erdoğan: a soft-spoken figure seeking to portray himself as the healer of entrenched nationwide divisions. Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to revert Turkey back to a parliamentary system and restore the independence of the judiciary, central bank and foreign ministry – all of which he claims are under Erdoğan’s control. However, Kılıçdaroğlu has faced criticism for his overcautious response to Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian nature, breeding scepticism over whether he has the capacity to win.
An additional factor to consider in the election is the role of other parties and candidates. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party which historically receives between 10% and 12% of the vote, is not fielding a candidate in the election and instead is likely to lend tacit support to the CHP. Muharrem Ince of the Homeland Party is currently polling in third place with around 5% to 8%. Ince is a former CHP candidate who is likely to draw supporters away from Kılıçdaroğlu.
A Fair Election?
In recent years Turkey has witnessed several developments which indicate that the election is unlikely to be conducted in wholly fair circumstances. Erdoğan has enacted several attacks on independent journalists which have led to Turkey’s media environment becoming increasingly partisan, limiting the CHP’s coverage in recent weeks. Erdoğan also retains exceptionally tight control over the judiciary and the Supreme Election Council (YSK), the ultimate arbiter on election activity. Erdoğan’s influence over the YSK has invoked previous allegations of electoral fraud: there were successive claims of voter fraud during the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections, whilst in 2019 the YSK cancelled the Istanbul Mayor Election once it became clear that the AKP candidate would lose.
Given the historical precedent for election fraud and the expected narrow result in the presidential election, further meddling by the YSK on behalf of the AKP is likely. The likelihood of this is heightened by the effects of February’s devastating earthquake, which has led to the displacement of over a million people: voters from affected areas will now vote in their new place of residence, providing an administrative hurdle which both sides are likely to weaponise to substantiate claims of irregularities. This notion has already been observed, as in March 2023, a deputy chair of the CHP claimed 500,000 additional people had been added to the electoral register without sufficient explanation.
Additional Electoral Factors
Economy – Turkey has been suffering from a prolonged economic crisis which many have directly attributed to Erdoğan’s unorthodox policies, specifically the reduction in interest rates at a time of record inflation. The crisis has left many Turkish nationals now unable to afford everyday essentials, which may be a key determining factor for many voters.
Earthquake – In February, Turkey suffered a devastating earthquake which displaced over a million Turkish nationals and led to the deaths of 50,000 people. The government’s lacklustre initial response (for which Erdoğan personally apologised) drew ire from many and has threatened to draw additional support to the CHP. Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu has claimed that policies pursued by Erdoğan – specifically the expansion of construction which had been a core tenet of Erdoğan’s economic policy – led to the disregard of appropriate safety measures, exacerbating the impact of the earthquake. The effect this will have in swaying the election is unclear however, as the earthquake-affected area is an AKP stronghold, where reportedly many of the residents have rallied around the government owing to the extensive provision of financial aid and tents to help affected residents.
Likelihood of Civil Unrest and Deterioration in Security Environment
The realistic prospect of Erdoğan losing the election has stirred a febrile political environment which heightens the prospect (and intensity) of civil unrest in the fallout. Given that the expected margin of victory for either candidate is projected to be extremely slim, demonstrations from supporters of both sides are likely in the immediate aftermath. The intensity of civil unrest is also likely to be determined by whether the election is perceived to be fair and free; allegations of irregularities adversely impacting the CHP are likely to draw the most zealous unrest. Following the cancelled Istanbul Mayor Election in 2019, demonstrations were held in several districts across the city when hundreds of protestors banged pots and pans chanting anti-Erdoğan slogans. Such scenes illustrate the historic precedent of unrest following contentious elections.
Ankara and Istanbul are the expected focal points of unrest, especially as both cities have diverse electorates who offer strong support to both the AKP and CHP. Likely locations of unrest based on historical precedent include: Taksim Square, Istiklal Avenue, Kadikoy’s Pier Square, and Bakirkoy’s Freedom Square in Istanbul; in Ankara, the central Kizilay district around the Parliament, the Ankara Courthouse, and Ataturk Boulevard. Izmir, whose electorate is comparatively more secular and consequently an CHP stronghold, is also likely to see unrest, either to denounce an AKP victory or celebratory rallies for a CHP victory. Likely locations for such rallies include: central areas near the waterfront, including Konak and Karsiyaka Piers, Gundogdu and Konak Squares, and Sumerbank Mosque.
In the event of an AKP victory, CHP supporters are extremely likely to engage in civil unrest in urban centres nationwide, which has a credible threat of leading to a deterioration in the security environment. The impact of this is likely to be contingent on the response of the state security apparatus, over which Erdoğan is believed to have extensive control. Turkey’s police force is seen as particularly partisan as it is tightly controlled by Erdoğan’s personal ally, Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu. The police force is therefore likely to be complicit in any crackdown on civil society or opposition groups disputing the validity of the election. Turkey’s police has faced recent criticism over deploying excessive violence including rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons to disrupt peaceful protests – such scenes are likely to re-occur to dispel anti-government protests.
In the scenario of an AKP defeat, the prospect of Erdoğan immediately using executive powers to introduce some form of emergency measures to maintain his grip on power cannot be ruled out. However, given that Turkey’s military is a conscription force whose loyalty to Erdoğan is uncertain, its full complicity in any form of crackdown against civil society is unlikely.
–Monitor the local media for any information about planned demonstrations
– Avoid any political gatherings in urban centres during the pre and post-election period
–Maintain heightened vigilance due to protest activity when travelling to the following areas of Istanbul: Taksim Square, Istiklal Avenue, Kadikoy’s Pier Square, and Bakirkoy’s Freedom Square
–Maintain heightened vigilance due to protest activity when travelling to the following areas of Ankara: the central Kizilay district around the Parliament, the Ankara Courthouse, and Ataturk Boulevard
–Maintain heightened vigilance due to protest activity when travelling to the following areas of Izmir: central areas near the waterfront, including Konak and Karsiyaka Piers, Gundogdu and Konak Squares, and Sumerbank Mosque
–Refrain from public statements or social media posts which may be interpreted as critical of Erdoğan, the AKP or Turkey more broadly
–Do not photograph any security personnel or state infrastructure
Author: Edward Bach, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
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