With the vote count in Turkey nearly complete, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have fallen just short of the majority vote he needed to be reelected. This will hurtle Turkey into a second and final round contest May 28 between Erdogan and his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP.
According to the most recent official figures – apparently uncontested – Erdogan received 49.51% of the vote and Kilicdaroglu 44.88%. Separately, a coalition led by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has won a clear parliamentary majority over a CHP-led coalition.
For three reasons, Erdogan seems to be a prohibitive favorite to win outright on May 28.
First, two minor candidates, who collectively attracted about 5% of the vote, will no longer be on the ballot. And those who voted for Sinan Ogan, who drew the lion’s share of that 5%, are mainly nationalists who will probably break for Erdogan if they go to the polls. Ogan is indicating his support in the next round is negotiable, but it’s doubtful that he can carry many of his voters with him, anyway. He received his votes as a vehicle for protest or for a statement of anger about Syrian refugees or about other areas where the two major candidates fell short nationalistically or ideologically in the eyes of his voters – not because of Ogan’s personal charisma.
Second, given what they see as a disappointing result, it will be a challenge for Kilicdaroglu to maintain morale among his supporters and bring them back to the polls in force on May 28. This may be particularly true of one of Kilicdaroglu’s main constituencies, Kurds. In the first round, Kurds were able to vote for one of their own for Parliament – the former Peoples’ Democracy Party, or HDP, now rebranded as the Green Left Party, or YSP, a Kurdish-dominated, pro-Kurdish-rights party. With the parliamentary elections concluded in the first round, however, Kurds may not be as motivated to come out to vote for Kilicdaroglu when only the two main presidential candidates will be on the ballot. Even in this round, turnout in Diyarbakir, the region’s leading Kurdish province, was significantly down compared with 2018, perhaps because there was no HDP/YSP candidate for president. Selahattin Demirtas, the unofficial YSP/HDP leader who ran for president in the previous two elections (and has been in jail on contrived charges since 2016), endorsed Kilicdaroglu. Indeed, most Kurds who voted did indeed vote for Kilicdaroglu.
Many Kurds harbor historic grievances toward the CHP, however, and that may explain the low turnout. The CHP ruled Turkey as a single-party state from 1923 to 1950; until recent years, it projected a Turkish nationalist ideology that essentially denied the Kurds’ cultural and linguistic legitimacy. In the early decades of the state, it actually insisted that Kurds were ethnically Turkish.
Erdogan’s third and perhaps most important advantage in a second presidential round is the parliamentary vote itself, which also took place on May 14 and is one round only. Erdogan’s AKP and his coalition partners won some 324 seats, a clear majority of the 600-seat body. That will make for a powerful talking point for Erdogan in the second-round presidential vote. Turkey has never experienced what the French call “co-habitation,” that is, opposing parties holding the presidency and the Parliament at the same time. It will be particularly difficult for Kilicdaroglu and his six-party coalition to persuade voters that he can govern effectively in the face of a Parliament that can effectively overrule most of what he tries to do. And Erdogan likewise will argue that, with Parliament already under the control of his coalition, only he can offer smooth governance.
The May 14 vote was only the third in which Turkish voters elected their president directly. Prior to 2014, Parliament elected the president, a weaker office in those days. And the recent election was only the second since Turkey adopted a “strong presidency” system, under which presidential and parliamentary elections are held simultaneously. So, although the option of co-habitation exists, Turks have never experienced it and most likely would be uncomfortable with it.
It would also be somewhat ironic – and, some might say, a touch hypocritical – for Kilicdaroglu to campaign as the counterpoise to an AKP-dominated Parliament. Kilicdaroglu and his coalition have made a return to parliamentary rule a cornerstone of their campaign.
Is There a Chance for Kilicdaroglu?
Nonetheless, it is not impossible for Kilicdaroglu to be elected. Voters can always surprise. Turnout, based on the commitment of each candidate’s supporters, will be important. Kilicdaroglu’s best hope, however, is probably that an intervening event before May 28 will change the dynamic of the campaign. A severe economic crisis, for example, would have that effect but is hardly likely in the next two weeks.
One way in which Kilicdaroglu could try to create a change in the dynamic of the campaign is to propose a nationally televised debate. If Erdogan rejects the request, the opposition could portray the swaggering president as fearful or anti-democratic. If Erdogan accepts, Kilicdaroglu, with a strong performance, would have a chance to sway more voters, including perhaps some who voted for Erdogan in the first round. Such a candidates’ debate was a factor in helping the CHP score its greatest success of the Erdogan era: winning the Istanbul mayoralty in 2019. Kilicdaroglu is no stranger to debates; he first achieved national attention in 2008, in a nationally televised parliamentary debate about corruption in the AKP, leading to the resignation from Parliament of a senior AKP official.
Voter fraud seems to be the dog that didn’t bark as loudly as some feared. The playing field was certainly unbalanced, with Erdogan in full control of mainstream media; an opposition representative on the state media watchdog agency said that state TV gave Erdogan 32 hours of coverage in April, while giving Kilicdaroglu 32 minutes. There were also numerous instances of censorship, including blockage of some Twitter accounts, and political arrests. These are serious stains on Turkey’s claim to being a democracy, but they were anticipated, and the opposition ran a clever social media campaign to compensate as much as possible for its unfair treatment by the mainstream media.
During the elections, there were isolated charges of cheating and voter intimidation aimed at the AKP and its partners but no claims of widespread voter fraud, at least not thus far. The opposition focused its ire on the pace at which the vote count was released, as the government tried to create an early impression that Erdogan was the sure-fire winner – something it has done in previous elections as well. But the opposition has not directly disputed the accuracy of the actual vote count. On the evening of May 14, the opposition was claiming that Kilicdaroglu was actually running ahead of Erdogan, but it never substantiated that claim and now, with more votes reported, seems to have dropped it.
A sense of shock purveys opposition quarters over the election results. Most polls prior to the election had shown Kilicdaroglu ahead, some by several points. One in particular drew considerable attention, the well-respected KONDA poll, which had called the last election, in 2018, most accurately. KONDA’s final election poll this time put Kilicdaroglu at 49.3% (versus Erdogan’s 43.7%) and cited an unexplained pro-Kilicdaroglu trend that had taken hold over the previous week that, if it held – KONDA speculated – would vault Kilicdaroglu over the 50% mark and into the presidency. Shortly after that poll dropped, a minor presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, announced that he was withdrawing from the race (although it was too late to remove his name from the ballot). Ince had been the CHP’s losing candidate against Erdogan in 2018, but he subsequently broke from the party; his withdrawal seemed likely to add votes to Kilicdaroglu’s total, punctuating KONDA’s conclusion.
Regarding Parliament, virtually every poll also showed that neither the CHP-led Nation Alliance nor the AKP-led People’s Alliance was going to win a majority of seats; the parliamentary balance of power between those two main blocs, the polls projected, would be held by the Kurdish-dominated YSL, giving the Kurdish minority unprecedented leverage in Turkey. Of course, notwithstanding the polls, the AKP-led coalition ended up winning a clear majority.
So, with preelection expectations sky-high among the opposition – and probably among many Kurds – the sense of letdown is no doubt profound.
Erdogan on the Verge of Victory
Despite declines in Erdogan’s and the AKP’s votes compared with previous elections, the Erdogan/AKP staying power is remarkable. The May 14 vote marks the eighth consecutive presidential or parliamentary election over more than two decades in which Erdogan and the AKP have finished first.
There are no exit polls in Turkey, but it is a safe guess that many Turks looked past current economic woes and earthquake-related failures and decided rather to reward Erdogan for past performance – such as bringing rights and dignity to religious people, significantly increasing Turkey’s diplomatic and arms-industry profile, and, more recently, providing countless benefits (early pensions, minimum wage boosts, etc.) that only governments can bestow. During his unremittingly negative campaign, Erdogan also played the nationalist card to the hilt. He viciously exploited Turks’ currently strong anti-Western, and particularly anti-U.S., sentiments and accused the CHP of support for terrorism because of the latter’s unofficial working relationship with the pro-Kurdish YSL. Erdogan regularly equates the YSL with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, insurgents considered terrorists by Turkey, the United States, and most of the Western world.
Whatever the reasoning behind their votes, Turkish voters seemingly have brought Erdogan to the verge of victory – a victory likely to bring more autocracy, a muscular but more neutralist foreign policy, and more of an unorthodox economic approach that may cause Turkey to turn increasingly to like-minded governments in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps elsewhere for more currency swaps and subventions, like those recently provided, to help keep the country afloat.
Should he indeed clinch his third presidential term on May 28, Erdogan’s detractors at home and in the West will have little choice but to place their hope in his pragmatic side – the West remains Turkey’s leading export market and its main source of foreign direct investment – and in the possibility that the unpredictable Erdogan somehow has another zig left, this one democratic and pro-Western, in his career of zig-zag policy choices. This latter prospect is particularly unlikely.