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Erdogan has the edge as Turkey’s elections head to a runoff

The opposition forced a runoff — but also showed how challenging it will be to unseat the Turkish president.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan waves to his supporters from a balcony on May 15, 2023 in Ankara, Turkey. 
Yavuz Ozden/Dia Images via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Turkey’s very big deal elections are headed to a May 28 runoff, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main opposition challenger failed to win a majority in the first round of voting.

This election was perhaps the biggest test yet to Erdoğan’s authority. The populist has led Turkey for 20 years. He has consolidated power around him, and largely controls the media and state resources, so the opposition forcing the leader to a run-off for the first time in his presidential career is a remarkable feat.

Yet Erdoğan emerged from the first round in a strong position, winning 49.5 percent of the vote Sunday, according to Turkey’s Supreme Election Council, with Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the leader of a six-party opposition alliance, tallying 44.89 percent.

That’s a disappointment for the opposition, especially as Kiliçdaroğlu appeared to have a slight edge in the polls before Sunday’s vote. Kiliçdaroğlu had promised to restore Turkey’s democracy and independent institutions and press, along with tackling Turkey’s floundering economy. He had run a plainspoken campaign that spoke directly to constituents, and had tried to soften his party’s (the Republican People’s Party, or CHP) secularist stances to try to appeal to a broader swath of voters.

But Erdoğan once again proved his electoral strength, even if this is the first time he hasn’t won a presidential election outright. His party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and its biggest allies, also looked poised to retain a majority in parliament, based on preliminary election results.

Both candidates promised victory in the May 28 runoff, but Erdoğan has the clear advantage. He already has a built-in edge, dominating the airwaves and using state resources to do things like give public workers big raises, and he may reprise similar tactics in the next two weeks. His biggest potential challenges — Turkey’s economic woes, and his government’s handling of an earthquake that killed 50,000 just a few months ago — didn’t force him into a first-round loss, as some experts thought was possible ahead of this weekend.

What’s more, a nationalist candidate, Sinan Ogan, took about 5 percent of the vote this first round. Ogan is milking his status as kingmaker by being cagey about who he’ll endorse in the runoff, but in reality, Ogan is even more extreme on issues like refugees and Kurdish rights, and so his voters are more likely to drift back toward Erdoğan.

And even if they don’t, Erdoğan doesn’t need all that many new voters to tip him toward victory, cementing another five years of Erdoğan rule in Turkey and likely keeping Turkey on its current economic, political, and foreign policy trajectory.

Turkey’s elections were the biggest challenge to Erdoğan in years — but it might not have been enough

Erdoğan has dominated Turkish politics for most of this century. He served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, until being elected president in 2014. The presidency used to be a mostly ceremonial role, but Erdoğan has moved the country from a parliamentary democracy to a strong presidential system. Erdoğan used a failed coup attempt in 2016 to accelerate his consolidation of power and to purge the civil service, the judiciary, and the military. He has cracked down on independent media, arresting journalists and other civil society members. Through referenda, he has expanded the powers of the presidency and removed many of the checks against that power.

Even as Erdoğan has become more of a strongman, he’s remained a pretty popular leader. His tough-guy persona has real appeal, especially when rallying fervor against certain groups he labels terrorists or picking fights with the West. He has raised Turkey’s profile internationally — though as a NATO member, Turkey has been a bit of a thorn in the alliance’s side — and all of that seemed to work in his favor this election, too.

But 2023 presented Erdoğan with some undeniable challenges. Turkey’s economy was the big one. Inflation is around 40 percent; people can’t afford basic necessities. The Turkish lira has crashed, which means Turks have far less purchasing power. Erdoğan has embraced a heterodox economic policy that has made things worse — specifically, he doesn’t believe in raising interest rates, thinking it will slow economic growth.

Turkey’s economic situation has been getting worse and worse, which means Erdoğan’s promises for new infrastructure and growth are starting to sound a little hollow, and the pain is very real for ordinary Turks. “He’s never entered an electoral campaign where he cannot sell an economic message,” said Sinan Ciddi, associate professor of security studies at Marine Corps University. Still, ahead of the election, Erdoğan used his position to try to insulate voters from the economic pain, raising the minimum wage in December and hiking public workers’ salaries.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has relied on systems of clientelism and patronage for political and personal gain. None of this is exactly secret, but the devastating February earthquake in southeastern Turkey showed how deep that corruption and government mismanagement went. That quake killed around 50,000 people in Turkey, and anger erupted over the government’s handling of the disaster.

Yaprak Gürsoy, professor of European politics and chair of contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said she expected the earthquake to be a bigger issue in the lead-up to the elections. “That surprises me a bit, because I think it could have been something that the opposition could have really used to show the deficiencies of the government,” she said. “And they chose not to do that.” In earthquake-affected areas in the southeast, Erdoğan and the AKP’s vote softened, according to the preliminary results, but not enough to really swing toward the opposition.

And even though the opposition fell short of first-round expectations, it was a surprisingly strong challenge to Erdoğan. Kiliçdaroğlu, the CHP leader, wasn’t the obvious favorite to lead the opposition, but he played a key role in uniting the so-called “table of six” alliance that promised to restore Turkey’s parliamentary democracy and undertake pro-democratic judicial and institutional reforms.

The CHP is the biggest party within the six-party coalition. It is the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, and has traditionally been a staunchly secular party — compared with Erdoğan’s AKP, which promotes Islamic values. But Kiliçdaroğlu has helped soften the CHP’s stances and done outreach to Islamists to try to broaden the party’s appeal.

Kiliçdaroğlu himself turned out to be a surprisingly strong candidate, although having fallen short of expectations in the first round, that perception may change a bit. Kiliçdaroğlu has been in politics and government for a long time, but even so, he’s largely seen as someone untarnished. “He is not an exciting kind of leader, he’s not a great politician, but he’s to be trusted and he’s the right person for this particular moment,” said Ateş Altinordu, assistant professor of sociology at Sabanci University in Turkey. He’s frequently described as “soft-spoken.” He’s been called Turkey’s Gandhi or “Gandhi Kemal” because of his manner, but also because he led a hundreds-of-miles-long justice march in Turkey in 2017, protesting the jailing of civil servants and activists.

Kiliçdaroğlu is an Alevi, which is a heterodox Islamic tradition that has faced discrimination and persecution in Turkey. There were some fears that the predominantly Sunni Muslim country might be reticent to vote for Kiliçdaroğlu, though he had candidly addressed his faith in a recent video, where he told the public, “I am an Alevi. I am a Muslim. ... God gave me my life. I am not sinful.” The video was widely viewed and was seen as breaking something of a taboo in Turkish politics. Right now, it’s hard to know for sure how much Kiliçdaroğlu’s identity factored into the vote, though some analysts think it might have weakened his support among some groups of Turkish voters.

In addition to his Alevi video, Kiliçdaroğlu has relied on these videos to speak directly to voters. He delivers these low-key speeches from a kind of messy desk, or a kitchen table. His messages have tended to be hopeful and optimistic — a marked contrast from the guy he is running against. “He is not engaging with any of that combativeness or any kind of polarizing attitude,” said Sebnem Gumuscu, associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. “He’s much more at peace with his own identity, his views, his welcoming and inclusive rhetoric.”

Kiliçdaroğlu has continued to be optimistic after the first round of voting. “We will definitely win this election in the second round,” he said. “Everyone will see it.”

At the same time, the first round of voting might have shown the limits of Kiliçdaroğlu’s message — or at least its reach. The opposition has gotten little airtime on Turkish media, because Erdoğan is mainly in charge. That, of course, is not changing in the lead-up to May 28.

The Erdoğan machine is still running strong

Erdoğan undoubtedly had a tough election fight, but Sunday showed that he is still an elections machine. Yes, the scales are tipped in his favor. Yes, the economy is in shambles. But Erdoğan is still very popular with a very solid and reliable base, and experts and observers never underestimated that he could still win, as fair-ish and square-ish as you can get. “You’ve got six political parties huddled around one opposition candidate trying to defeat one guy,” Ciddi said. “It just shows how powerful Erdoğan is.”

The runoff election still offers the possibility that Kiliçdaroğlu and the opposition could prevail. But it looks way, way harder than it did just 24 hours ago.

First, the obvious: Erdoğan was pretty close to winning the election outright. The opposition accused the AKP of stalling the process of vote-counting in opposition strongholds, but, in the end, both sides accepted the preliminary results.

Erdoğan AKP and its allies, again, also look like they’re about to retake parliament, which will give Erdoğan a case to make that if Turkish voters want results, they should elect him, and create a unified government. Kiliçdaroğlu, who has promised to return Turkey to a parliamentary democracy, will find it extraordinarily difficult to do that, or anything else on his agenda, if he were to prevail in a divided government.

Ahead of the first round of voting, a big question loomed: If Erdoğan did lose, would he even respect the results? But that question may have been less relevant than the reality: The scales were always tipped in Erdoğan’s favor.

That reality is hard to square with the enthusiasm and participation in this election. Turnout was high: more than 88 percent, with more than 64 million voters in Turkey and overseas.

It creates a kind of confusing split-screen for Turkey — not fully a democracy anymore, but also not quite an autocracy either. Of course, this election is not over yet. Kiliçdaroğlu still offers the possibility of a break with the past: a move away from a Turkish government centralized around one man, and a reorientation of Turkey’s domestic, foreign, and economic policy.

But the opposition will face the same challenges in this run-off, and Erdoğan still has all his baked-in advantages. Which means it is likely Erdoğan will win yet again — and he seems unlikely to abandon the fiery playbook that continues to bring him success at home, and abroad.