Turkey election rivals both claim early lead but runoff likely

Published May 14, 2023
A supporter reacts during a rally at the Republican People’s Party (CHP) headquarters as voters await election results in Ankara, Turkey May 14, 2023. — Reuters
A supporter reacts during a rally at the Republican People’s Party (CHP) headquarters as voters await election results in Ankara, Turkey May 14, 2023. — Reuters

Turkey appeared headed for a runoff presidential election, with the parties of both Tayyip Erdogan and opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu both claiming the lead but sources in both camps admitting they may not clear the 50 per cent threshold to win outright.

Early results put Erdogan comfortably ahead, but as the count continued his advantage eroded, with a runoff on May 28 beckoning.

Both sides dismissed the other side’s count, with no official result announced. Ankara’s opposition mayor Mansur Yavas said a count by his party suggested Kilicdaroglu was ahead with 47.42pc, while Erdogan had 46.48pc.

Opinion polls before the election had given Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, a slight lead, with two polls on Friday showing him above the 50pc threshold.

A senior official from the opposition alliance, asking not to be named, said “it seems there will be no winner in the first round. But, our data indicates Kilicdaroglu will lead”.

Citing figures from state-owned agency Anadolu, Turkish media said that with almost 75pc of ballot boxes counted, Erdogan was on 50.83pc and Kilicdaroglu on 43.36pc.

Sunday’s vote is one of the most consequential elections in the country’s 100-year history, a contest that could end Erdogan’s imperious 20-year rule and reverberate well beyond Turkey’s borders.

The presidential vote will decide not only who leads Turkey, a Nato-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost of living crisis and the shape of its foreign policy.

The elections, which are also for parliament, are being intently watched in Western capitals, the Middle East, Nato, and Moscow.

A defeat for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most important allies, will likely unnerve the Kremlin but comfort the Biden administration, as well as many European and Middle Eastern leaders who had troubled relations with Erdogan.

Turkey’s longest-serving leader has turned the Nato member and Europe’s second-largest country into a global player, modernized it through megaprojects such as new bridges, hospitals, and airports, and built a military industry sought by foreign states.

People gather outside a polling station during Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, in Ankara, Turkiye May 14, 2023.—Reuters
People gather outside a polling station during Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, in Ankara, Turkiye May 14, 2023.—Reuters

But his volatile economic policy of low-interest rates, which set off a spiraling cost of living crisis and inflation, left him prey to voters’ anger. His government’s slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey that killed 50,000 people added to voters’ dismay.

Kilicdaroglu has pledged to set Turkey on a new course by reviving democracy after years of state repression, returning to orthodox economic policies, empowering institutions that lost autonomy under Erdogan’s tight grasp, and rebuilding frail ties with the West.

Thousands of political prisoners and activists, including high-level names such as Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala, could be released if the opposition prevails.

Polarised politics

“I see these elections as a choice between democracy and dictatorship,” said Ahmet Kalkan, 64, as he voted in Istanbul for Kilicdaroglu, echoing critics who fear Erdogan will govern ever more autocratically if he wins.

“I chose democracy and I hope that my country chooses democracy,” said Kalkan, a retired health sector worker.

Erdogan, 69, is a veteran of a dozen election victories and says he respects democracy and denies being a dictator.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, May 14, 2023. —Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, May 14, 2023. —Reuters

Illustrating how the president still commands support, Mehmet Akif Kahraman, also voting in Istanbul, said Erdogan still represented the future even after two decades in power.

“God willing, Turkey will be a world leader,” he said.

The parliamentary vote is a race between the People’s Alliance comprising Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP) and the nationalist MHP and others, and Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance formed of six opposition parties, including his secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

With 62pc of ballot boxes counted, HaberTurk put Erdogan’s alliance on 52pc and the opposition alliance on 33pc in the parliamentary vote.

Change or continuity

Erdogan, a powerful orator and master campaigner, has pulled out all the stops on the campaign trail. He commands fierce loyalty from pious Turks who once felt disenfranchised in secular Turkey and his political career has survived an attempted coup in 2016, and numerous corruption scandals.

However, if Turks do oust Erdogan it will be largely because they saw their prosperity and ability to meet basic needs decline, with inflation that topped 85pc in Oct. 2022 and a collapse in the lira currency.

Erdogan has taken tight control of most of Turkey’s institutions and sidelined liberals and critics. Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2022, said Erdogan’s government has set back Turkey’s human rights record by decades.

Kurdish voters, who account for 15-20pc of the electorate, will play a vital role, with the Nation Alliance unlikely to attain a parliamentary majority by itself.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is not part of the main opposition alliance but fiercely opposes Erdogan after a crackdown on its members in recent years.

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