The number of domestic and foreign issues demanding the attending of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkiye is growing. The elephant in the room is next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. Scheduled for June 2023, they could, of course, be held earlier. Indeed, it is fair to say that the country is already gripped with election fever.
The Turkish opposition has made mistakes, especially the "Table for Six", the major parties seeking to return the country to a parliamentary system. The group is led by the Republican People's Party, the largest within the opposition. Among the most important of these mistakes has been the fragmentation of the six parties, as well as a lack of a consensual presidential candidate. The six also lack convincing programmes for voters to consider and face a credibility dilemma regarding reconciliation with the conservative parties in particular. There are also the marginal battles that the opposition has engaged in, sometimes even in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's court and the AK Party.
None of this means that an Erdogan-AK Party victory is assured. Both have also made mistakes.
The AK Party has been ruling Turkey for twenty years and dominates Turkiye's political life with the presidency and a parliamentary majority with its ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It has the same sort of issues that all parties tend to come up against when they have ruled for a long time without strong opposition, including careless staff, poor achievements and a decline in the ability to attract votes.
I think it was a mistake to grant so much power to the president under the current system, with his extreme centralisation in the leadership of the party and government, resulting in the regression of the reform agenda. Moreover, the alliance with the MPH has harmed the AK Party on an ideological, political and electoral level even though Erdogan benefited in the presidential election. Such mistakes cast a shadow over the 2023 elections and reduce Erdogan's and his party's chances.
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The failure to respond to messages from the electorate, despite official discourse to the contrary, has seen the AK Party suffer a gradual loss of popularity over the past few years. After each election, Erdogan's victory speech mentions that the messages have been received and the party will look into the protest votes and make relevant changes. However, in the most recent elections, the party changed some branch officials, suggesting that the officials who were removed were responsible for the party's decline, rather than voters' reservations about policies.
What's more, the AK Party's well-balanced leadership has been compromised, with some senior people being removed even though they were among its founders and have made major contributions to its successes. Regardless of whether they were expelled from the party or they left of their own accord, it was surely possible to keep them within the party framework — a path which has its merits — instead of turning them into competitors and opponents. The result is that the AK Party is facing strong competition for the first time since its establishment from parties that share many of its ideas and programmes, and are led by some of the party's former leading figures. This is one of the most important reasons for the decline in the party's popularity and its percentage of votes in recent opinion polls.
It's a fact that the AK Party itself is arguably why opposition parties have united against it, despite their own disagreements and differences. This was neither possible nor expected years ago. The party came up with the idea of electoral alliances after the adoption of the presidential system, and adopted a sharp discourse towards those parties which were not convinced enough to join the ruling coalition.
There is also the dilemma of foreigners, particularly Syrian refugees in Turkiye, as a card played by the opposition against the ruling party. The issue has been exploited by racist parties and movements. It looks as if the AK Party and the government weakened in the face of such racist discourse and adopted policies in line with the demands of these groups. Sometimes the official discourse was changed in an effort by the AKP to pull the rug out from under the racists, as stated by the party's candidate for the 2019 municipal election in Greater Istanbul.
It seems that the party is unaware that not confronting the racist discourse and its false information, hatred and incitement, has a harmful effect on foreigners. The AK Party needs to adopt a clear position and present a convincing narrative to all citizens. It may not benefit from this directly, but at the very least it should not be harmed or give support to other parties.
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The way in which some economic aspects are managed by the government has damaged the party's image to a great extent. I do not mean adopting policies that most other parties and economists have opposed; this is an economic and political bet that President Erdogan and his party have chosen deliberately and persistently. Rather, I mean the impressions produced by the successive changes in the positions of finance minister and Central Bank Governor, for example.
To sum up, none of the above means that the election results are foregone conclusions one way or the other; it is still too early to make predictions. We don't even know how many parties will be fielding candidates, or who they will be. However, mistakes have been made by the AK Party and Erdogan himself that the opposition can highlight in their election campaigns to tip the balance in their favour.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 7 November 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.