First Round in Turkey's Presidential Elections
By Zeynep Önal Aytaç
Turkey has experienced one of the most important elections on the 100th anniversary of the republic. Under rising competitive authoritarianism, democratic backsliding and economic crisis, the main opposition block united its powers against Erdogan for this existential election. On the other side, Erdogan and his ultra-Islamist, nationalists partners have employed populist right rhetoric and benefitted from state sources which they have enjoyed for the last 20 years. However, the presidential election could not be finished in the first round. Neither Erdogan nor his main rival, Kılıçdaroğlu, reached half of the votes, so Turkish people will go to the ballot box one more time and make their final choice on May 28.
Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 took place under an intense socio-political climate. Soaring inflation, rising political polarization, and increasing authoritarianism have controlled Turkey's social, political, and financial atmosphere. Because of the worsening conditions and the recent earthquake disaster, analysts generally believe that the 2023 election has been the most difficult challenge for President Erdoğan’s political career so far.[i] Apart from the opposition's strategy, the current status of the country in terms of economy was Erdoğan's disadvantage. Thus, common sense in Turkish intelligentsia and independent polls predicted that Kılıçdaroğlu, the main rival of Erdoğan, would be victorious, which has been highly anticipated by the opposition party for the last twenty years.[ii]
Former bureaucrat Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, chairman of the main opposition party CHP, has united six opposition parties ranging from the centre-left to nationalist Islamist branches. This alliance and the strong cooperation of the six-opposition parties have named their coalition as the “Nation Alliance” against Erdoğan’s AKP and nationalist MHP’s “People’s Alliance.”[iii] Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu has gained the support of one of the major opposition parties, the pro-Kurdish HDP/YSP, who have a solid voter population apart from the cooperation of Nation Alliance. Kılıçdaroğlu and his six partners from Nation Alliance have pledged to halt democratic erosion, return to the parliamentary system, tackle the economic crisis, and send 5 million refugees back home voluntarily. During the campaign process, contrary to Erdoğan’s aggressive and authoritarian attitude, Kılıçdaroğlu intentionally adopted very soft rhetoric and an inclusive image in the public realm.
On the other side, as a dominant power in the country, Erdoğan and his AK Party have employed functional tools of populist discourse and competitive authoritarian regimes to eliminate their rivals. Both Erdogan and his staff, who serve as either vice president or ministers in the cabinet, took advantage of their position and enjoyed limitless state resources. From having a state media monopoly at their fingertips to unethical beneficiaries of administrative-financial resources, they utilized many state benefits for their MP or president position campaigns. Erdoğan and his party have created an uneven playing ground for the election. He insisted on harsh rhetoric, escalating societal political polarisation and attempting to incriminate the opposition by creating ‘deep fake’ videos that show PKK member’s support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the meetings.[iv] It can be claimed that by playing on these societal tensions, Erdoğan aimed to mobilize and consolidate his supporters.
After an intense campaign process, on May 14, since neither Erdoğan nor Kılıçdaroğlu could secure more than half of the presidential votes, the election could not determine a new president. Turkish Supreme Election Council (YSK) has declared results as 49.51% for Erdoğan, 44.88% for Kılıçdaroğlu, and 5.17% for Ogan. Thus, to finalize the presidential race between Erdogan and Kılıçdaroğlu, the runoff is announced for the 28th of May. Election results have created deep frustration for the opposition side. Also, the main opposition party has raised severe speculations and objections about irregularities in some ballot boxes and YSK’s lack of transparency.[v] After preliminary investigations, it is apparent that the detected misadministration in ballot boxes did not cause any significant change to the opposition’s advantage. Thus, the campaign process has been restarted for the upcoming runoff election. Unlike the first round, the election results have shed new light on another presidential candidate who will not join the race for the second round. Election results show that the third presidential candidate from the right-wing “Ancestral Alliance,” Sinan Ogan, and his 5% voter group, have become the main obstacle in concluding the first round's presidential race. Now, since Ogan and his voters’ support plays a decisive role in the upcoming runoff, he has clearly turned to a kingmaker for the elections.[vi] In the following days, both for Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu, it is essential to transfer some of the Ogan's power base to their voters. Ogan’s strategy and the candidates’ runoff campaign performance will most likely be more visible in the next few days.
As the international media’s great interest in the process has shown, Turkey's 2023 Presidential election is vital not just for the country's political agenda but also for the future projection of other hybrid regimes like Hungary or Poland, which show illiberal tendencies. As various analysts and scholars highlighted, under Erdogan's rule, Turkey is showing several symptoms of competitive, authoritarian, and illiberal democracy.[vii] Freedom of expression, the rule of law, media control, and a few other issues have emerged due to democratic erosion in the country.
Before concluding, it should be highlighted that the election results clearly showed Erdoğan has gained the upper hand in the first round, but the runoff will be completely independent of the first round's results. The one who gets the most votes will be elected as the new president of Turkey. Although Erdogan and his followers have been able to have psychological advantages in the political atmosphere, the opposition still holds a deep belief in victory. The recent example from world politics has demonstrated that this belief is not just a basic hope for the opposition. In Montenegro’s 2023 presidential elections, pro-EU candidate Milatovic earned fewer votes than the country's dominant 20-year-leader Dukanovic.[viii] However, in the runoffs, Milatovic secured most of the votes, defeated Dukanovic, and initiated a completely new chapter for Montenegro.[ix] The Montenegro case shows that despite demoralizing first-round results and long-standing dominant rule, the opposition still has a substantial chance to win. Within two weeks, we’ll see how the story will evolve for Turkish version of this case.
[i] Stamouli, Nektaria. “2023’s Most Important Election: Turkey.” POLITICO, 26 Apr. 2023, www.politico.eu/article/turkey-2023-election-erdogan-kilicdaroglu/.
[ii] “Turkey Elections: Kılıçdaroğlu Close to Victory in First Round, Poll Suggests.” Bianet, bianet.org/english/politics/278540-turkey-elections-kilicdaroglu-close-to-victory-in-first-round-poll-suggests. Accessed 22 May 2023.
[iii] Topcu, Elmas. “Turkey Vote: Who Are Erdogan’s Allies? – DW – 04/11/2023.” Dw.Com, 12 Apr. 2023, www.dw.com/en/turkey-vote-who-are-erdogans-allies/a-65281080.
[iv] Elci, Aylin. “Ai Deepfakes and Disinformation Loom over Turkey’s Election.” Euronews, 12 May 2023, www.euronews.com/next/2023/05/12/ai-content-deepfakes-meddling-in-turkey-elections-experts-warn-its-just-the-beginning.
[v] Burcu Karakas and Huseyin Hayatsever. “Turkey Opposition Contests Thousands of Ballots after Election.” Reuters, 17 May 2023, www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-opposition-says-irregularities-thousands-ballot-boxes-2023-05-17/.
[vi] “Turkey Election Results 2023: What We Know so Far.” The Guardian, 15 May 2023, www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/15/turkey-election-2023-results-live-election-result-polls-what-we-know-so-far.
[vii] Esen, Berk, and Sebnem Gumuscu. “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 9, 2016, pp. 1581–1606, https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2015.1135732.
[viii] “IFES Election Guide: Elections: Montenegro President 2023.” IFES Election Guide | Elections: Montenegro President 2023, www.electionguide.org/elections/id/4077/. Accessed 22 May 2023.
[ix] Aleksandar Vasovic. “Montenegro’s Ex-Economy Minister Milatovic Declares Victory in Presidential Run-Off.” Reuters, 2 Apr. 2023, www.reuters.com/world/europe/montenegro-holds-run-off-presidential-election-2023-04-02/.