MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.

Erdoğan launches his re-election campaign

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pressing all the buttons to boost his prospects in the upcoming May elections. He has nominated cabinet ministers to run for parliamentary seats in important provinces. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for instance, will be running in his hometown of Antalya, while Defense Minister Hulusi Akar is campaigning for a seat in his hometown of Kayseri. The move is meant to mobilize support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lags behind Erdoğan’s popularity. The goal is to capture a majority in the parliament, which will come in handy if the presidential vote goes to a second-round runoff.

Erdoğan is not doing great in the polls either. He is sagging largely due to a teetering economy and surging inflation. Particularly concerning for voters is food inflation, which has been the highest in decades. Erdoğan launched his re-election campaign on Tuesday, April 11, with a pledge to lower inflation to the single digits and boost growth. That is unlikely to ease the growing anxiety among the electorate about the economy though. A businesswoman from Istanbul who voted for Erdoğan in previous elections told me that she has lost faith in his ability to turn things around. “Erdoğan is so desperate that he is trying to convince Şimşek, the man whom he fired, to join his economy team,” she told me, referring to Erdoğan’s unsuccessful efforts to bring back the market-friendly former Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, who left government in 2018.

Erdoğan’s recent adoption of a few items from the opposition’s list of election promises has only fed the perception among skeptics that he has run out of ideas as a leader. Not everything in Erdoğan’s election campaign is uninspiring though. Last week, he unveiled Turkey’s first drone carrier, which is expected to increase the country’s operational capabilities in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. He previously displayed a model of Turkey’s first fighter jet along with models of attack aircraft and combat drones. Campaigning on home-grown military assets might impress his disillusioned supporters but it may not be enough to turn the tide in his favor in a country with the highest food inflation among OECD members and where some 14.8 million suffer from undernourishment, according to the U.N.

Kılıçdaroğlu announces pledges for the first 100 days

Meanwhile, the opposition bloc’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, announced pledges for his first 100 days in office if elected. Among them are promises to key constituencies that have been hit hard by Erdoğan’s policies, such as youth, farmers, women, and those who were fired from their jobs by presidential decree on dubious grounds. Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign slogan is “I promise you, spring will come again.” He has promised to build a prosperous and democratic Turkey where everyone gets their due and has pledged radical changes in every field from economic policy to security and justice. Key among his promises is a return to orthodox economic policy after years of unorthodox measures under Erdoğan that have seen inflation surge. Tackling inflation is high on the opposition’s agenda. It has promised to implement monetary and fiscal policies to bring inflation to the low single digits in two years’ time. It has also pledged to restore the Central Bank’s independence, which has been eroded under Erdoğan, and task the bank with ensuring price stability.

The opposition bloc has a strong coterie of economic advisers. Key among them is Professor Bilge Yılmaz, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Yılmaz oversees economic policies for the Good (İyi) Party, the opposition bloc’s second-largest party. Former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan is another market-friendly face. There are reports that Turkey's main opposition alliance plans to make Babacan a vice president responsible for the economy. There are other trusted names in the bloc who are hatching plans for the economy if the opposition wins, pledging to bring about major changes.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy for president caused controversy in the opposition’s ranks, with many claiming he was not popular enough to beat Erdoğan at the ballot box. That now seems to be changing. According to a recent poll, the percentage of respondents who said Kılıçdaroğlu could defeat Erdoğan has increased from 31% to 45% in four months.

İnce’s difficult week

Muharrem İnce, a former member of parliament from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who recently announced his candidacy for the presidency under the Homeland Party (MP) banner, has continued to fuel anxiety among opposition supporters that he could push the tight presidential race to a second round and boost Erdoğan’s chances. Kılıçdaroğlu’s inner circle, however, thinks that the surprising surge in support for İnce is already dying down. İnce’s party is a one-man show. The MP does not have strong enough local branches to help his campaign. Neither does he have a clear, consistent narrative about Turkey’s pressing problems.

His meeting with a group of young people last week exposed his lack of a vision for the country. A young man from the audience criticized İnce for dancing while his loved ones, who had voted for İnce in 2018 when he was the opposition’s presidential candidate, were trapped under rubble after the recent earthquake. Another questioned why members of parliament from his party rarely attended parliamentary sessions. After İnce lost his temper following a question from the audience, a young woman told him that they were tired of being scolded and treated disrespectfully, a reference to Erdoğan’s condescending and insulting tone towards those who criticize him. Compounding İnce’s problems is increased scrutiny of his party’s finances from journalists.

All of these issues have dented İnce’s image, but again, all he needs is a couple of percentage points of support to push the presidential vote to a second round.


Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative. She is the author of Erdogan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria

Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

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