In the Turkish presidential elections, no candidate secured the 50% of the vote needed to claim outright victory. The election will now go to a runoff later this month. Massimo D’Angelo assesses whether a united opposition can, in the second round, defeat the incumbent President Erdoğan, who is seeking his third re-election
On 14 May, Turks voted to elect their new President of the Republic. At the time of writing, just over 99% of ballot boxes have been counted. Current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gained 49.4% of the vote; his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu 44.96%. Third-placed Sinan Oğan, who attracted 5.2% of the vote, is out of the race. The election now goes to a runoff, because neither of the two leading candidates secured the 50% required for a win.
Many analysts considered these elections the most important of the year, in global terms. Observers have watched them closely for their international and geopolitical implications. For the first time since he rose to power in 2003, it looked like Erdoğan might be beatable.
Indeed, after the pandemic, Turkey’s economic growth came to a dramatic halt, as the country suffered an acute economic crisis. The monetary policy imposed by Erdoğan deepened the country’s economic difficulties. Turkey suffered skyrocketing inflation, and the Turkish lira plunged against the major currencies.
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Erdoğan attempted to put Turkey back at the centre of world diplomatic activities. Following years of diplomatic isolation, Turkey’s good relations with Russia, and its important trade agreements with Ukraine, primed the country for a privileged mediation role.
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Erdoğan attempted to put Turkey back at the centre of world diplomatic activities
However, on 6 February 2023, two powerful earthquakes struck southern and central Turkey. The disaster was to prove an important contextual factor for the election. After days of intense rescue efforts, the country counted more than 50,000 casualties, shocking the Turkish population deeply. This atmosphere of economic uncertainty, and mourning for the many lives lost, cast a long shadow over this week's elections.
Throughout the campaign, polls judged the election too close to call. This, in an authoritarian but competitive regime, was surely relevant. Among other things, it revealed political adeptness on the part of the opposition parties.
In February 2022, six opposition parties signed an historic pact pledging to run together to defeat Erdoğan. The pro-Kurdish HDP party declined to join the coalition. However, in order to make victory for coalition leader Kılıçdaroğlu more likely, HDP decided not to field its own candidate.
In February 2022, six opposition parties signed an historic pact pledging to run together to defeat Erdoğan
If it wins, the coalition will reform the constitution, returning Turkey to a parliamentary system, and it will reorganise the state according to its more democratic standards. Once the coalition has achieved these aims, its constituent political parties, well aware of their fundamental differences, would then return to their independent courses.
This seems a smart choice. As American political scientist Yascha Mounk wrote in his 2018 book The People vs. Democracy, in the face of longstanding populist leaders, the only effective strategy is to unite and form an obstructive force.
We can read the first-round results in several ways. The fact that Erdoğan needs a runoff to win is testament to the opposition parties' achievement. At the same time, the coalition had been hoping for outright victory in the first round. Its failure to do so complicates matters.
Third-placed Sinan Oğan, a far-right figure with strong nationalist and anti-Kurdish positions, gained around 5% of the vote. When a runoff appeared inevitable, Oğan promptly declared that his support for the coalition depended largely on its willingness to ban Kurdish parties from the political system. But this condition is unthinkable for Kılıçdaroğlu. His victory in the south-eastern regions was made possible only because the pro-Kurdish party decided not to stand.
Indeed, nationalist and far-right parties had an unexpectedly good showing in the election – both the MHP, which supports the incumbent president, and the ATA, founded by Sinan Oğan. According to political scientist Cihan Tuğal, this echoes recent elections in the US and Brazil, in which surveys also massively underestimated the strength of the far-right vote. Clearly, more comprehensive research (and better theorisation) of the global far-right is necessary.
At this point, though Erdoğan is in the lead, his victory is by no means inevitable. Kiliçdaroğlu has held together a heterogeneous coalition, and run a positive election campaign. He focused little on his opponent, concentrating instead on detailing how he would create a serious, credible future for Turkey. If Kiliçdaroğlu wins, however, he faces an uphill battle to revive the economy and rebuild the country in the aftermath of the earthquake. Moreover, as leader of the opposition, Erdoğan would no doubt be breathing uncomfortably down his neck.
Erdoğan's victory is by no means inevitable. Kiliçdaroğlu has held together a heterogeneous coalition, and run a positive election campaign
It would also be interesting to see how Europe – and the West more generally – could react to a change of government. Might dialogue between Europe and Turkey reopen? Has Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian leadership allowed the European Union to sidestep the issue of Turkey's EU accession?
Today, Turkey still enjoys important spaces of freedom, but if Erdoğan wins, he is likely to put Turkish civil society in an even tighter authoritarian stranglehold. Turkish society continues to resist, but another victory for the populist leader could weaken it. An Erdoğan defeat, on the other hand, could offer a glimmer of hope to other countries currently grappling with seemingly unbeatable populist leaders.
Polls reopen on 28 May. The first round saw an exceptional turnout of around 90%. Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu must therefore focus on encouraging as many voters as possible back to the polls, and winning the trust of those who voted for the third-placed Oğan, who is now removed from the contest.
This is the first time in history that a Turkish presidential election has gone to a second-round runoff. It is impossible to predict which of the two remaining candidates will gain the upper hand.