On May 14, Turkey is set to conduct presidential and parliamentary elections that are expected to be tightly contested and highly consequential, both domestically and internationally.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69, and his ruling AK Party (Justice and Development Party) are facing unprecedented challenges amid social, political and economic woes, punctuated by high unemployment and record-breaking inflation.
But Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, a top Erdogan ally, ignored the domestic factors and chalked up the threat of potential electoral defeat to an external plot allegedly fomented by U.S. President Joe Biden.
“Yes, they want to stage a political coup on May 14. I'm not the one saying this. The President of the United States, Biden, said it years ago,” Soylu said.
That is false.
Biden did not say the U.S. should stage a coup in Turkey. In fact, he said the opposite.
Before becoming president, Biden suggested to New York Times editors that the United States should support Turkish opposition leaders over Erdogan, whom Biden called an “autocrat”:
“What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him [Erdogan] now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership … we can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”
Biden is not alone in arguing that Erdogan has been bad for democracy. As Turkey celebrates the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2023, critics have accused Erdogan of undermining the secular foundations of the republic, if not trying to do away with it all together.
Six opposition parties have teamed up to unseat Erdogan and his AK Party after two decades in power. The party came to power in 2002, and Erdogan served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014. Erdogan then became president in 2014, and was reelected in 2018. Turkish presidents are limited to two five-year terms.
But Erdogan's first term ended early in 2017 because of a constitutional referendum that expanded his powers. His supporters say Erdogan is serving his first term under the new system, while opponents say his current presidential bid is unconstitutional.
For the presidential race, some polls have given a slight edge to Erdogan’s main challenger, Republican People’s Party head Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Erdogan also has faced criticism for his handling of deadly February earthquakes, which killed more than 50,000 people and left almost 6 million without homes, most of them in southern Turkey – the stronghold of Erdogan and his AK Party.
Reports have linked the large number of deaths and collapsed buildings to negligence and corruption. The government has also faced criticism and public anger for poor management of the ensuing humanitarian crisis.
National Public Radio (NPR) framed the Turkish election as a referendum on the government’s earthquake response.
Turkey’s demographics intensify challenges to Erdogan in upcoming election.
Kurds, who make up roughly 20 percent of Turkey’s population, have complained of ethnic discrimination and a botched humanitarian response following the earthquake.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, which has won about 10 percent of the vote in past elections, has thrown its support behind Kilicdaroglu.
Kilicdaroglu has framed the race as “an election for those defending democracy against authoritarian rule,” citing Erdogan’s bigoted conservative drift.
In addition, Turkey has a relatively young demographic. Roughly eight percent of those set to cast ballots will be first-time voters. Some polling and reports suggest that younger voters, more secular and less religious, may be less willing to vote for the socially conservative Erdogan.
Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey transformed from a parliamentary into a presidential republic: Constitutional changes saw the role of prime minster eliminated, making the president the head of state and government. Presidential power over the judiciary was expanded, and the president, who controls all executive functions, can now rule by decree. As a member of the ruling party, he is also able to control the parliament.
In 2018, following elections held under a state of emergency, Erdogan was sworn in for his second five-year term in office. The German government broadcaster Deutsche Welle then said “checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy are now essentially gone” in Turkey.
Turkey has also been known as "the biggest jailer of journalists in the world,” with freedom of speech routinely curtailed.
The rights group Freedom House ranked Turkey Not Free in its Freedom in the World 2023 annual report on political rights and civil liberties worldwide.
Interior Minister Soylu has regularly relied on anti-American sentiment to score political points.
He previously accused the United States of playing a role in a failed July 2016 coup. There is no evidence to support that claim, and the U.S. roundly condemned the coup attempt.
Erdogan also criticized Biden on the campaign trail after U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake met with Kilicdaroglu in late March.
In Western democracies, it is normal for ambassadors to meet the leaders of opposition parties.