Türkiye’s elections for the history books

Türkiye holds presidential, parliamentarian, and local elections on 14 May 2023. The stakes could not be higher for elections that have been called the most important elections of 2023 worldwide.

The importance stems from the fact that elections in the world’s 19th biggest economy with about 85 million people, in a country at the crossroads between East and West, Europe and Asia, an influential player in the Middle East and South Caucasus, always has consequences both within and beyond the national borders. But more importantly, Türkiye’s democracy is at stake, which many fear will be further eroded if Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains president after the elections.

During his 20 years in power, he has, step by step, led the country in an autocratic direction. In the first years, the economy developed rapidly, but in recent years his policies increasingly hurt ordinary Turks due to high inflation and a stalled economy. And like other autocratic leaders, Erdogan has taken control over the media and the judiciary, partly through intimidation, and partly through control of appointments and ownership. Opposition and civil society activists risk long prison sentences for exercising their human rights.

Many young Turks, which constitute a large part of the population, leave or plan to leave the country, looking for better opportunities and respect for their rights in Europe and North America. A combination of the votes of these unsatisfied young people, who grew up under Erdogan and are now voting for the first time, and the Kurdish minority may be decisive for the chances of the main opponent of Erdogan. If Kemal Kilicdaroglu succeeds in attracting their support, he can win.

The elections are therefore followed around the world with great interest, including by the Swedish government whose NATO membership has been put on hold due to Erdogan’s impossible demands. EU’s interests span a whole range of areas, such as refugee policies, Türkiye’s contentious relationship with EU Member Greece, and its role in ensuring that grain can be exported from Ukraine.

Officially, Türkiye is still a candidate for EU membership, but few if any believe this can happen either in the short or in the medium term. Erdogan and his governments failed to implement the necessary reforms.

Its membership in another European organization, the Council of Europe, illustrates how the state has drifted away from upholding democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. After Russia’s expulsion from the organization in March 2022, due to its invasion of Ukraine, Türkiye is the member who is furthest from upholding its obligations. It has, i.a., twice neglected decisions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to release the philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala and keeps a former head of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) behind bars in contravention of ECtHR rulings. There are a range of other judgments which Türkiye fails to implement in full. With effect from 1 July 2021, Türkiye left the Istanbul Convention, which protects women against violence and abuse.

Free and fair elections?

This leads to another pivotal question: can we trust that the elections in themselves will be free of manipulation, fraud, or pressure on voters? The answer is unfortunately ‘no’. The elections are not held on a fair playground, which is probably known to everyone in Turkey, including the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan’s supporters. The big difference in screen time between President Erdogan and the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu provided by TRT, the state broadcast, is an obvious example. Most of the TV channels, the most effective media for influencing voters in Türkiye, are either directly controlled by Erdogan’s cronies or under his influence.

As a sign of shifting allegiances and expectations of a possible Kilicdaroglu win, some TV channels have now started to be more balanced in their coverage. Even so, the media landscape is a long way from providing a level playing field for the presidential candidates.

Erdogan also makes efforts to control social media. In October 2022, legislation was adopted that criminalises ‘disinformation’. The law’s Article 29 raised the most concerns over free expression, stipulation one to three years prison sentence for those who are found to spread false information online about Turkey’s security to “create fear and disturb public order”. The law fails to define “false or misleading information”, leaving it open to abuse by courts that have cracked down on open dissent in recent years.

Serious questions are also posed regarding the independence and impartiality of the Supreme Election Council, which is the highest electoral authority in Turkey, and other parts of the election apparatus.

However, the question most publicly discussed is whether Erdogan will leave office if he loses. Will he try to “steal” the elections or refuse to acknowledge defeat? Kilicdaroglu and his coalition of six parties speak optimistically about respect for the election outcome, underlining that if Erdogan loses, he will concede defeat. According to Kilicdaroglu, the opposition will have more than one observer in all polling stations. They have prepared for the elections during the last 1 ½ years and will be able to control that there will be no significant fraud.

Conditions in the country differ vastly, however, in particular when it comes to security on election day. While some Western and Central parts of the country may be well protected, this may prove more difficult in the southeast regions where the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is still powerful. AKP’s ally the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR), which had strong links with Kurdish Hezbollah in the past, may constitute a real threat to security during the elections in these regions. Southeast Türkiye experienced widespread fighting just a few years ago, and its history is rife with power struggles and violence.

Rhetoric and violence undermine political rights

There is, however, more to say about the incumbent President and his government’s willingness to abide by election results. Süleyman Soylu, the Minister of Interior stated recently that the elections provide a pretext for the opposition to commit a political coup attempt supported by the US. President Erdogan himself stated that “my nation will not hand power to someone elected president with help from the PKK”, which was interpreted by many as a direct threat that he can refuse to concede defeat. It looks like the President is raising the level of rhetoric to mark the opposition as illegitimate and supported by terrorists. This may be a tactic in the face of a looming defeat at the ballot box, but it can also be perceived as a threat against the political right of freely choosing whom to support.

Another concern is the occurrence of physical attacks against supporters of the opposition and the security services’ unwillingness to prevent or stop such attacks. On 7 May, at an election rally in Erzurum, supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular CHP mayor of Istanbul who campaign for Kilicdaroglu, were stoned by a local mob. Several people were injured, while the police remained passive, watching the attack on the side-line. An investigation of the incident has since been established.

Interior minister Soylu Soylu and other AKP executives later downplayed the attack, referring to “only one person being injured there”. Another Erdogan ally, the Great Unity Party (BBP) leader Mustafa Destici, stated that “the participants of the rally in Erzurum are PKK people and The Dadas (a local name for people of Erzurum) would not allow that to happen”.

On 8 May, Imamoglu held a rally in another conservative stronghold, the city of Konya. Some local directors of the Turkish Red Crescent posted on social media ahead of the rally that “the Hajj season in our homeland started early [implying the devil stoning ritual during the Hajj], state your political slogan in Konya tomorrow, we are waiting”. Another local director posted that “if you want to stone the devil, you can go to the Anit Square in Konya”. That is where Imamoglu’s rally was held. It appears, though, that they were sacked because of these postings.

Attacking sexual and gender minorities

Erdogan, having skilfully made use of most of the tools in the authoritarian playbook, also attacks sexual and gender minorities as part of his campaign. Both Interior Minister Soylu and President Erdogan have made demonising the LGBTQ community part of their attack on the opposition, which they brand as LGBT themselves or LGBT promoters.

Minister Soylu has stated that “LGBT designation includes the marriage of animals and humans” and accuses the opposition of “trying to ‘ungender’ the whole of our society under the name of LGBT. If Kilicdaroglu wants to ‘ungender’ himself, let him do so. Family is important for us, woman is important for us, man is important for us.”

This represents classic hate speech against the LGBTQ community. President Erdogan uses similar language, stating that “we know Mr. Kemal (Kilicdaroglu) is an LGBT person. CHP (the main opposition party) is LGBT, IYIP (CHP’s main ally) is LGBT, and HDP (the pro-Kurdish party that is not in the CHP alliance but supports Kilicdaroglu in the presidential elections) is LGBT… As the People’s Alliance (AKP’s alliance), we are against this.”

Favouring Sunni Islam

Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan’s main contender and leader of the largest opposition party, the social-democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by Kemal Ataturk, represents a very different style from the president. He is seen as without much charisma, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered; sometimes described as ‘Türkiye’s Gandhi’. He promises to create a different Türkiye, if he wins, respecting human rights, accepting criticism and cultural and religious diversity. In one of his recent videos, he openly declared that he belongs to the Alevi group in Turkey, a large Muslim minority who experience discrimination in religious matters.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has for years supported monitoring and advocacy for the Turkish state to respect the freedom of religion or belief of everyone. During Erdogan’s tenure, observers often claim that “religion made a comeback”, being more visible and influential in society and politics. However, this is mainly true for the dominating Sunni Islam of the ruling AKP. Members of smaller religious minorities or even the large Alevi group may face discrimination and obstacles when exercising their legal right to adhere to a religion or belief according to their choosing. Conscientious objectors are not tolerated, and the police may ignore hate speech and violence against minority religious groups. The teaching of religion in schools is not neutral but based on the outlook of Sunni Islam.

Competing visions

The two main candidates represent different visions for the country. Erdogan talks about how Türkiye has become a respected power in the world, making huge progress in technology, military and in projecting its power to influence developments in the Middle East and South Caucasus regions. It does not need to bow any more to Western powers, being able to decide its direction.

Erdogan’s main reaction to the devastating earthquakes in Eastern Türkiye in February this year has been to mobilize for rapid reconstruction of the thousands of buildings that fell, often due to negligence or cheating concerning building regulations. He seems largely to have managed to avoid the issues of slow humanitarian assistance to the victims as well as corruption in the construction industry, portraying himself as the strongman who can rebuild quickly and restore normality.

Kilicdaroglu talks about creating a more tolerant society, easing the life of ordinary Turks in terms of their daily struggles to uphold their lives, and also about Türkiye becoming more cooperative with Europe and the West. He has presented his central ideas in a series of so-called kitchen videos, widely distributed on social media. One of them goes right to the core of the human rights issues of the country and Turkey’s place in a democratic Europe. He wants to restore freedom after years of government repression targeting opposition politicians, independent journalists, activists, and others. Tens of thousands of people are investigated every year for the crime of “insulting” the president, an infraction under Turkey’s criminal code that Erdogan has vigorously enforced.

Which vision will sell best to the Turkish public, remains to be seen. A concern remains, however, that even the presence of hundreds of international election observers will not be enough to ensure the outcome represents the will of the people. We likely also have to wait until a second vote is cast on 28 May between the two top candidates to know who will reign in the enormous presidential palace in Ankara, built by Erdogan.

That visions differ and compete is normal in any democracy. A decisive principle of democratic rule is, though, to respect the rights of the losing side and those who supported it. President Erdogan has not upheld that principle during the last decade of his reign.

This may be an important part of the change that Türkiye needs.

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Gunnar M. Ekeløve-Slydal

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Mine Yildirim

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