Electoral interfence, inflation and military coups: forecasting the Turkish presidential election and its consequences
Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections, set to take place on Sunday, could be the most consequential of the year. The nation's democracy is deeply flawed, with concerns that it may slide into a full-blown dictatorship. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has grown more autocratic during his time in power — co-opting legal institutions, distorting the media, and harassing opponents — leading many to speculate that Erdoğan will not respect the election result if he loses.
If he does lose (and steps down), a change of leader would have large and far-reaching effects. Due to Erdoğan’s belief that high central bank interest rates cause inflation (when they are in fact a critical tool for taming it), the rate of inflation has been twice that of wage increases. According to Turkey’s central bank, inflation stood at 43.7% in April. This is already the second-highest level in the G20 (though some forecasters expect this official figure is an intentional underestimate).
Additionally, the result of the election is set to determine events outside of Turkey’s borders, from the future of Syria’s ongoing civil war to Sweden’s chances of joining NATO.
Will Erdoğan win?
Erdoğan is facing a close contest with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate. However, poll results fluctuate wildly, as polling in Turkey is not particularly reliable, and forecasters are wary about putting too much weight on them.
Many citizens were disillusioned with the government after its perceived failings in response to the huge earthquake that struck Turkey in February, but forecasters do not expect this to affect outcomes as much as recent sentiment would suggest. The topic is fading out of political discourse and most of the displaced will need to return home in order to vote (and those who stayed put are presumed to be older voters that are more likely to vote for Erdoğan).
While betting market odds imply an Erdoğan loss is likely, none of our forecasters gave more than a 50% chance of this outcome. The aggregate of our forecasts comes to 55%. One forecaster explains why:
With almost all commentary and polls saying this is a dead heat, with more tools at his disposal to help ease a victory, I think Erdoğan has a slight advantage (despite the inflation situation and the aftermath of the earthquake). Despite countries such as Germany limiting polling stations for Turks abroad, the majority of the voters who could be affected by polling "irregularities" are obviously based in Turkey.
As it is expected the election will go to the second round, there will be more time for Erdoğan to influence the situation at the polls.
Given the economic conditions, this election should be an easy win for the opposition. One forecaster would give Ekrem İmamoğlu, the Istanbul mayor who has been barred from running, a 75% chance of winning if he were in the race. However, as things stand, there is little that unites the coalition beyond opposing the incumbent, and their candidate Kılıçdaroğlu is broadly regarded as lacking charisma.
Erdoğan is already doing what he can to tilt the odds further in his favour by arresting social media users who post “provocative” content, controlling the media, and using the courts to prevent potential challengers from standing for office.
Additionally, apart from its high inflation, the Turkish economy is not looking all bad. As they avoided fully participating in Western sanctions against Russia, Turkey’s economy has been buoyed by the high levels of foreign investment from Russian businesses and cheaper fuel. Employment levels are improving, too, with the unemployment rate at 10%, down from pre-pandemic levels of around 14%.
The president’s ability to affect the electoral process is clearly dominant in forecasters’ thinking:
Erdoğan showed in his response to [the attempted coup in 2016] that he is willing to go far beyond norms and the rule of law. Even his dictatorial suppression across the street from the Turkish Embassy in DC in 2017, including having his guards fight the US Secret Service, are not indicators of a person likely to follow the rules.
How far will the electoral interference go? The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observes the elections held in its 57 participating states and writes up comprehensive reports detailing their findings. In 2017, they criticised how Turkey's 2017 constitutional referendum was conducted, saying that "fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed and voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform". It's apparent that forecasters expect similar concerns to be reported this time too, but what are the chances that Erdoğan will go as far as manipulating the vote count?
Forecasters think this is a high bar and one that is unlikely to be crossed, putting the chances of an OSCE report of vote manipulation at just 6%. While some interference is feasible, there are strong limits on how far Erdoğan can go.
Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has seen several military coups and periods of military rule, and the Turkish Armed Forces continue to have a strong influence over both Turkey's politics and economy. While Erdoğan conducted a huge purge of the military after the 2016 coup attempt, removing 24,339 officers over 5 years, forecasters still see Erdoğan as beholden to the military's interests. One explains their view of the situation:
The military is a big commercial enterprise and has a direct financial interest in the stability of Turkey. That constrains him from going all out on electoral interference.
They are a huge political and economic actor (even despite the purge) and own key pieces of infrastructure; they’re not going to sit by and let things go crazy.
In addition to safeguarding its vast commercial enterprises from destabilisation, the military considers itself the guardian of the Republic. Therefore, in order to avoid military intervention, Erdoğan is compelled to preserve at least the appearance of election integrity.
Will Erdoğan leave office if he loses?
While our forecasters do not think the election will be rigged outright, they do not guarantee that Erdoğan will accept the result. They recall the Istanbul mayoral election in 2019, where the initial results were contested, leading to a re-run. In that case, the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won by an even larger margin in the re-run.
For this election, our forecasters are generally inclined to think that Erdoğan would accept a loss, putting the chances at 80%. For the same reasons that make ballot stuffing unlikely, the Turkish military would probably oust Erdoğan rather than let him illegally cling onto power (and forecasters do not expect him to risk such an outcome).
If Erdoğan were to lose, it is unlikely that he would face severe consequences from the opposition. Aggressive actions against him could risk destabilizing the country, as it would anger the pro-Erdoğan half of the population, and Kılıçdaroğlu does not appear to be signalling any intent to purge the government of Erdoğan's influence.
Furthermore, if things did turn against him, our forecasters expect that Erdoğan already has a well-prepared exit plan, so the stakes of giving up power are not as large as they could be. Additionally, it may be sensible for Erdoğan to gracefully accept an unfavourable election outcome; the opposition coalition might not stay together for long and another election may be just around the corner.
However, a 20% chance is not negligible, especially given that forecasters think this carries the risk of a subsequent military intervention.
What changes if Erdoğan loses?
Chances of a military takeover
The probability of the Turkish military taking control of the government before 2024 is estimated at 5.1% if Erdoğan wins the election and 6.7% if he loses. T; there have been four coups (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) and one coup attempt (2016) since the country's founding 100 years ago.
Tensions are currently high, leading to the elevated risk, but the loyalties of the Turkish military are a subject of debate among forecasters. Some forecasters argue that the top generals are pro-Erdoğan, while others believe that Kemalists, who advocate for Turkey's secular and democratic principles, still hold significant influence within the military's lower ranks.
"If there are credible allegations of election interference that could have changed the results, military intervention is much more likely," one forecaster explains. "But on which side is difficult to determine."
Both candidates are expected to behave within the guardrails expected of them, and the military is likely to step in only if either candidate acts out of line or if there is a significant threat to stability. For example, if the new administration attempts to purge Erdoğan loyalists from the military, it could provoke a coup. You can explore forecasters' detailed rationales in this interactive graphic:
Despite the differences in opinion among forecasters, the aggregated view is that the chances of a military coup are relatively similar for both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu.
One major issue that will be affected by the outcome of the election is Turkey's inflation rate. Inflation plays a critical role in a country's economy, influencing purchasing power, investment, and competitiveness. It is unusual for election outcomes to significantly impact inflation, as it is typically determined by macroeconomic factors. However, the difference in expected economic policies between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu is substantial, making this election highly consequential for Turkey's economy. According to our forecasters, if Erdoğan wins, there is a 48% probability that Turkey's annual inflation rate will drop below 25% before June 2024. However, if he loses, that probability increases to 71%.
Inflation in Turkey is currently at about 50%, having trended down from a high of 85% in October 2022. However, forecasters suggest that it is unlikely for inflation to drop below 25% under Erdoğan, since he believes that high interest rates cause inflation instead of taming it. This stance stems from his dependence on the construction and real estate industries, which thrive on low rates and form his core support base.
Erdoğan has pledged to lower inflation down to single digits, but achieving this is likely to be difficult given his reluctance to raise interest rates. According to forecasters, the primary factors influencing inflation include energy prices and fluctuating levels of Russian investment in Turkey. Russian investment has surged since the invasion of Ukraine, but its continuation is uncertain given the unpredictable nature of the conflict.
Kılıçdaroğlu is expected to reinstate orthodox monetary policy in Turkey by reestablishing the independence of the central bank and permitting it to raise interest rates to combat inflation. However, both candidates may face challenges due to structural pressures from the construction industry, which thrives on low interest rates and holds significant influence over politicians like Erdoğan. While Kılıçdaroğlu might be less bound by these interests, a significant drop in inflation is not guaranteed under either candidate, according to our forecasters.
Sweden joining NATO
Erdoğan recently approved Finland's bid to join NATO but continues to block Sweden's accession. Turkey has requested the extradition of several Turkish government critics, some of whom are long-time Swedish citizens. Swedish courts have generally dismissed these requests, except in cases where sufficient evidence was provided. Relations between Turkey and Sweden were put under additional strain when, in Stockholm, a Quran was burned by Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan.
If Erdoğan wins, our forecasters believe the likelihood of Sweden's entry into NATO by 2024 stands at 63%. It is expected that Turkey and Sweden would eventually come to an agreement, but Turkey's strained relationship with the West, its dependence on Russia for gas and wheat imports, and its ongoing dispute with Greece could complicate matters.
One forecaster argues that Erdoğan has "a fairly rational case" for blocking Sweden's entry into NATO, even if it irritates other partners. This perspective cites Turkey's history with Greece, where cooperation with international procedures led to adverse outcomes. For instance, Turkey and Turkish Cypriots backed the 2004 UN-supported Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus, but Greek Cypriots rejected it. Consequently, only the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU, isolating the Turkish Cypriot region. Since then, Turkey's refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus has resulted in the EU suspending its accession talks since 2006. This past experience may influence Erdoğan's caution in allowing Sweden to join NATO, given the two countries' conflicting interests.
(Forecasters floated the idea of Turkey being kicked out of NATO under Erdoğan, but this was deemed very unlikely. It is too strategically important, and has remained a member despite taking actions that are at odds with the alliance's interests, such as purchasing Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems.)
If Kılıçdaroğlu emerges victorious, the probability increases to 94%, as he has clearly stated that, if he wins, Sweden can join NATO before the July Summit. However, Hungary, under the increasingly authoritarian Viktor Orban, must also agree to Sweden's NATO membership. They quickly fell in line to approve Finland once Turkey changed their view, but a repeat of that is not a certainty.