Türkiye 2023 elections, voting on Sunday: Erdogan at sunset?

The Sultan’s reign falters after 20 years

A tightrope walker who walks a razor’s edge without perception of risk. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political action has always been a continuous gamble. And even in his last mandate he remained faithful to the line, between ‘impossible’ mediations on Ukraine, the clash with NATO over the entry of Finland and Sweden and the preparations for new military operations against the Kurds in Syria.

And, in view of the elections on Sunday 14 May, there would still be dozens of issues for a leader who has been in power for 20 years and who never ceases to amaze. A continuous relaunch of him, in which new fronts (and clashes) open up, while others close with a handshake. Today, despite the health problems manifested during the electoral campaign, he is preparing for his tried and tested number of which he is the absolute champion: winning the elections. On his way, however, he will find opposition as fierce as ever.

On the international front, Erdogan, once a firefighter and another arsonist, in recent years has played on several tables at the same time, with a secret dream: to host a historic meeting between Putin and Zelensky on Turkish soil. Getting the two leaders to make peace is a worry and declared objective of the Sultan who in March 2022 touched the big target, hosting the foreign ministers of the two countries at war in Antalya.

However, mediator Erdogan achieved a great result with the signing in Istanbul of the agreement that unblocked grain exports from Ukraine, averting a global food crisis. A diplomatic success that the Turkish president, currently the only world leader able to hold a dialogue with Zelensky and Putin at the same time, intends to replicate by snatching the go-ahead for the extension of the agreement. And in his reckless transitions from one front to another, he also facilitated an exchange of prisoners between the sides.

But Erdogan’s hand cannot be just a feather. Again in the Ukrainian context, the Turkish leader has engaged in a furious political battle against the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO. The two Scandinavian countries, intimidated by Russian warmongering, asked the Alliance for hospitality, receiving messages of jubilation from all members. All but two: Orban’s Hungary and, of course, Turkey.

Ankara, after granting Helsinki’s accession, is forcing Sweden’s hand to have certain personalities linked to the PKK or the Gulen network, movements considered to be terrorist groups. A tug of war, the one with Stockholm, which for the moment sees no winners, but the only certainty in life is that in the end Erdogan will get something in return, as his approach to the migrant crisis also teaches ‘EU.

Meanwhile, the Turkish president is weaving his regional fabric, creating new alliances. In fact, he made peace with the Emirates and Israel and began a “new era” in relations with Saudi Arabia after the chill following the atrocious death reserved by Gulf hitmen to journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. A rapprochement sanctioned by Erdogan’s visit to King Salman’s reign reciprocated by that in Ankara of the heir to the Saudi throne, Mohammed bin Salman.

In the background, but not so much, remain the new campaign in northern Syria against the Kurds that the Turkish president has been threatening for some time, but which now seems to have been set aside in the name of a possible reconciliation with Assad, and the clash with Greece.

But Erdogan will play the decisive match for his political fate on Sunday, when the parliamentary and presidential elections are held in Turkey. The country has been in the pre-electoral climate for some time, but it arrives wounded by the attack in Istanbul last November and, above all, by the devastating earthquake which last February 6 almost wiped out some areas of the south, causing almost 50 thousand deaths. Erdogan, politically speaking, everything is on the line. Prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and head of state since then, he steered the country – through a disputed constitutional referendum in 2017 – from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. However, as the results of the administrative meetings in Istanbul and Ankara in 2019 also demonstrate, his consensus seems to be declining.

Faithful to the motto ‘the winning team doesn’t change’, the Turkish leader confirmed the alliance between the AKP, his party, and the MHP nationalists led by Devlet Bahceli, with whom he won the latest consultations. A completely different strategy has been adopted by the opposition which, in view of the crucial appointment, has formed a coalition of six parties, with the clear leadership of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which has always been the main opposition force to the Akp . And the polls circulating in recent months are not entirely reassuring for Erdogan: according to some of these, there would be a head-to-head between the Turkish leader and his most accredited challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Economy and post-earthquake reconstruction were the dominant themes of the electoral campaign, with Erdogan ready to play the card of diplomatic successes to obscure a financial picture of Turkey judged critical by all. The Turkish central bank – on strong ‘advice’ from the president and in contrast with Europe and the United States – has cut interest rates. Year-on-year inflation, after exponential growth, has finally begun its downward spiral. And a few days after the polls opened, the Sultan announced substantial increases in the salaries of civil servants.

Erdogan’s idea that the economy must grow at all costs has recorded a 3.5% increase in GDP in 2022, but the knots are coming home to roost and the polls will determine whether the Sultan will have been right this time too. Who knows if next October 29, the day in which the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey will be celebrated, Erdogan will still be walking the razor’s edge ready for a new challenge.