On 14 May, Türkiye held presidential and parliamentary elections. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shattered expectations by winning 49.52% of the vote over the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.88%. As no candidate won over 50% of the votes, a second round will take place on 28 May.
The election was a strong showing for democracy with around 87% voter turnout.
Opinion polls suggested a close race, but placed the president’s main rival for power—Kılıçdaroğlu—significantly ahead during the weeks preceding the vote. They turned out to be wrong, with Kılıçdaroğlu and his “Table of Six” alliance of six opposition parties from across the spectrum significantly underperforming and President Erdoğan’s votes being substantially higher than anticipated. The third candidate, Sinan Oğan, to the surprise of many received 5% of the votes.
While a first-round victory was denied to Erdoğan for the first time, the outcome presents the opposition with one of the worst-case scenarios.
Rather than the economy, this turned out to be an election determined by identity and security concerns. President Erdoğan and the AK Party used TV and print media to disparage Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi identity and the Kurdish nationalist party HDP’s tacit support for him in the leadup to the vote. Notably, the turnout in the Kurdish population was around 70-80%, which is lower than the total turnout.
President Erdoğan performed most strongly in the Anatolian and Black Sea heartlands, while
Kılıçdaroğlu won most major cities and in the Kurdish majority areas in the southeast. The results revealed the President’s enduring appeal to his core base of voters predominantly in Anatolia, who were unswayed by criticisms over his handling of the economy and the response to February’s devastating earthquake. In fact, strong support for President Erdoğan held up in earthquake hit areas, despite expectations that the government’s response to the quake—widely condemned as slow and uncoordinated—would hinder support.
In parliament, the opposition also failed to win a majority. AK Party maintained its majority but lost a number of seats, meaning that they are dependent on the support of other parties, such as the nationalists and political Islamists to maintain power. AK Party vote share dropped significantly to 35%, compared to the 42% it achieved in 2018. The entry of far-right fringe parties into the parliament will almost certainly influence policy direction.
One of the largest surprises was that the far-right MHP, allied with Erdogan’s AK Party, received around 10 percent of the parliamentary vote. The “Table of Six” opposition alliance largely failed to deliver on their promise. The presence of four right wing conservative parties within the alliance did not appeal or translate into votes from AK Party and MHP. This is surprising as MHP’s has manifestly backed President Erdogan who made public that he was against every kind of nationalism. The expectation was that MHP constituents would choose the centre-right nationalist Good Party (IYI) over MHP who have been accused of appeasing Erdogan and helping him achieve his interests.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 25 percent of the vote, up 23 more MPs than 2018.
There does not appear to be concrete evidence of election rigging. While there are increasing incidents reported by the opposition party, it seems unlikely that these accusations will gain much traction. The counting process on the night was relatively transparent despite AK Party’s attempts to slow it down by requesting multiple rounds of recounts in major cities.
The second round of voting will take place on 28 May.
The demoralised opposition, who had called on voters to “finish it” in the first round, is recovering from its shock and is now regrouping. With the second vote now less than two weeks away, the opposition faces an uphill struggle and the path to victory is not immediately obvious. One strategy might be to push for maximum turnout in key metropolitan cities like Istanbul, Ankara and the opposition stronghold Izmir.
As it appears that Turkish nationalists are the largest and only major floating constituency, the opposition has started to pivot its campaign and rhetoric to appeal to this faction. With a growing number of ballot irregularities being reported especially in the south of the country, there is also increasing emphasis for the opposition to ensure the coordination of opposition observers across the country.
Until the second round, the government is expected to take every measure—including swap agreements with other nations—to keep the foreign exchange rates (and inflation) stable.
It is unclear where ultra-nationalist candidate Sinan Oğan’s votes (5%) will go. Oğan says he will decide in a few days’ time which contender he will publicly back, underlining that he would not support “those who do not distance themselves from terrorism.”
Overall, the likelihood that the opposition will defeat President Erdogan appears to be a remote possibility, but Kılıçdaroğlu has made it clear that he will fight to the end.