Turkish Elections 2023: A Crucial Battle for Democracy and International Relations

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The upcoming Turkish elections on May 14th, 2023, is a significant and controversial issue that affects NATO solidarity, political stability in Eastern Europe, and the West’s ability to counter Iran, Russia, and China in the Middle East. The incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is advocating for an "executive presidency," while Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is a moderate pro-parliamentary process candidate. He is backed by a six-party coalition committed to ending Erdogan’s reign of economic error, police intimidation, and destructive corruption.


The election is particularly crucial to the Turks, as they mark the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a true revolutionary who successfully created a political system to modernize a culturally Islamic nation. Erdogan, who is jealous of Ataturk, has attacked and diminished Turkey’s democratic institutions, leading to the decline of secularism and the rise of authoritarianism since 2003.


Erdogan's record for jailing journalists and intimidating opponents is well-known. He has also threatened NATO's integrity and US security by purchasing the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which puts the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s technological edge at risk. His behavior has damaged the alliance, and there are concerns among active and retired NATO officials about Erdogan’s unreliability, leading to suggestions to expel Turkey from NATO.


Kilicdaroglu vows to revive Turkey's bid to join the European Union and support Sweden's admission, while Erdogan's economic and political mismanagement may lead to his defeat. Erdogan won his first national election in 2002 on a platform to attack inflation, improve the economy, and fight corruption. However, in fall 2022, annual inflation hit 86 percent, a 24-year high. Additionally, the February earthquakes were the worst natural disaster in the history of modern Turkey, and Erdogan's slow and poor response has made the earthquakes an election issue he cannot shake.


The government's failure to enforce construction standards and allegations of corruption by national and local officials contributed to the disaster. The government's "construction amnesties" allowed builders to ignore safety codes in areas where housing shortages existed. In 2018 Erdogan allowed one in the city of Kahramanmaras, and in March 2019, he publicly touted new housing in Kahramanmaras as one of his administration’s significant achievements. However, in February, the quakes leveled the city.


Kilicdaroglu, who has a narrow lead in opinion polls, promises to bring freedom and democracy to Turkey, while Erdogan advocates authoritarian power and control vested in the president. This election has significant implications, affecting not only Turkey but also its relations with the European Union and NATO and its position in the Middle East.


Furthermore, Kilicdaroglu's pledge to revive Turkey's bid to join the European Union could have significant implications for Turkey's relationship with the EU and the broader international community. Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999, but progress has been slow due to a range of issues including human rights concerns, Turkey's relations with Cyprus, and opposition from some EU member states. Kilicdaroglu's commitment to restarting the EU accession process could help to improve Turkey's relationship with the EU and signal a renewed commitment to democratic values and human rights.


The outcome of the May 14 election in Turkey will also have implications for regional stability in the Middle East. Turkey has played a significant role in the Syrian conflict, hosting millions of Syrian refugees and carrying out military operations against Kurdish militants in Syria. Erdogan's policies have been criticized for fueling instability in the region and undermining efforts to resolve the conflict. Kilicdaroglu has signaled a more conciliatory approach to foreign policy, which could help to reduce tensions in the region and promote stability.


In addition to these regional implications, the outcome of the election could have significant consequences for global politics. Turkey is a key player in NATO and a strategically important partner for the United States. Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian policies and his purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system have raised concerns about Turkey's reliability as a NATO ally. Kilicdaroglu's commitment to NATO and his more moderate foreign policy stance could help to strengthen Turkey's relationship with the United States and other NATO allies.


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