Turkey’s knife-edge election

Most important vote in a generation goes down to the wire amid concern President Erdogan could refuse to cede power

President Erdogan
President Erdogan (left) faces a tight race against coalition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu
(Image credit: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey heads to the polls next week for the most tightly contested and important presidential election in a generation.

The vote on 14 May, which coincides with parliamentary elections, could define the course of the country for decades and have huge ramifications for the region, the war in Ukraine and the future course of Nato and the European Union.

A reported case of gastroenteritis has “disrupted Erdogan’s attempts to seize momentum in the run-up to Turkey’s most important election in generations”, said Al Jazeera. These elections are about “legacy and history, which seem to be catching up with the most powerful Turkish leader since Kemal Atatürk”, said The Observer.

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Who is Erdogan up against?

The presidential election, held every five years, sees the candidate who receives more than 50% of the first-round vote elected. If no one reaches the majority threshold a second-round run-off is held between the two highest-polling candidates, this year scheduled for 28 May.

According to Politico, 2023 is “expected to be the most hotly contested race in Erdogan’s 20-year rule” as he faces a neck-and-neck race against the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential nominee for the six-party Nation Alliance bloc.

The 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu “cuts a starkly different figure than the incumbent” said The Independent. “Where Erdogan is a mesmerising orator, the unassuming Kemal Kilicdaroglu is soft spoken,” the paper added. As the “polarising Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian, Kilicdaroglu has built a reputation as a bridge builder and vows to restore democracy,” The Independent continued. This has earned him the nickname the “Turkish Gandhi”.

Having defied expectations to unite the opposition behind him, polls give Kilicdaroglu a “slight edge” but there are many intangibles that could sway the result either way.

A record turnout is predicated this year with nearly five million first-time voters, many of whom have only ever known Erdogan as leader, expected to cast their ballot. “Turkey’s demographics are also expected to play a role”, said CNN, with most of the provinces struck by the February earthquake being strongholds of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), leading to claims that at least a million displaced voters could be denied the chance to vote.

In his favour is the decision by former presidential candidate and centrist Homeland Party leader Muharrem Ince to stand, potentially drawing enough votes away from Kilicdaroglu to carry Erdogan through to a run-off. The Financial Times reported Erdogan is “counting on diaspora support as he battles to cling to power”, courting German Turks and increasing the number of polling stations across Europe in search of votes. There is also a big unknown around supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has backed Kilicdaroglu and are expected to play a “decisive role” in the elections, said CNN.

The parliamentary elections are also too close to call, although Erdogan’s AKP currently holds a slight lead.

Where will the election be decided?

In the 20 years since coming to power, Erdogan and AKP have “left a deep mark on the country – expanding the role of Islam in the traditionally secular state and growing Turkey’s influence abroad”, said Foreign Policy. “But years of unorthodox economic policy and a deadly February earthquake have undermined confidence in the government, leading many voters to question the reputation for competent administration that has traditionally been central to the AKP’s appeal.”

Even before the earthquake, Turkey had been struggling with a long-running currency crisis that last year saw inflation hit 85%. Voters also list the country’s slide into authoritarianism as a key concern. Tapping into these fears, The Independent said the Nation Alliance has “vowed to roll back Erdogan’s efforts to concentrate vast powers in the president’s hands” while the coalition has also pledged “to reinstate a parliamentary democracy with checks and balances, to return to more conventional economic policies and to fight corruption”.

Erdogan has instead “focused on listing his achievements, including the construction of millions of new houses, and his push to resurrect Turkey’s military might”, reported Al Jazeera.

What happens next?

If, as current polls suggest, Erdogan loses the vote by a small margin, “it opens up the possibility for him to contest the results”, said CNN, “and if past experience is a gauge, then the president and his AK Party may not take a defeat lying down”.

“Much of the anxiety surrounding Turkey’s presidential contest – and how Erdogan will respond to its results – is a consequence of his unique position in Turkish political history,” said Foreign Policy. “It is hard to imagine Erdogan gracefully accepting defeat because it would be unprecedented: no Turkish president has ever been directly voted out of office”.

Were he to cling on to power, “the fear in the West is that he will see this as his moment to push toward an increasingly religiously conservative model, characterised by regional confrontationalism, with greater political powers centred around himself,” said Politico.

The news site added that the election “will also weigh heavily on security in Europe and the Middle East”. The candidate who is elected “stands to define: Turkey’s role in the NATO alliance; its relationship with the US, the EU and Russia; migration policy; Ankara’s role in the war in Ukraine; and how it handles tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean”, it concluded.

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