Turkey’s crucial run-off Presidential vote: What you should know

This handout picture released on May 24, 2023, by the Press Office of the Presidency of Turkey shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting the audience as he attends the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and Muhtars Meeting at Taha Akgul Sports Hall in Ankara, on May 24, 2023.—AFP 

Turkey is preparing for a momentous run-off presidential election, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s long-term leader, will face opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The build-up to the first round of voting indicated a close race, with Erdogan under unprecedented pressure after two decades in power. However, Erdogan defied expectations and narrowly missed winning outright.

The election comes nearly four months after an earthquake on February 6 claimed the lives of over 50,000 people and displaced more than 5.9 million individuals across southern Turkey and northern Syria. It also coincides with a severe economic crisis and concerns of democratic erosion under Erdogan’s government, as highlighted by analysts.

Here is an overview of the run-off vote and its key aspects:

How do Turkey’s elections work?

Turkey holds elections every five years. Presidential candidates can be nominated by parties that have crossed the 5% voter threshold in the last parliamentary election or those who have gathered at least 100,000 signatures supporting their nomination. If no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes in the first round, a second round takes place between the two candidates with the highest number of votes.

The first round of voting on May 14 saw a turnout of nearly 90%, according to the Supreme Election Council (YSK). However, no single candidate received an absolute majority, leading to the run-off between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan garnered 49.52% of the votes in the first round, giving him a five-point lead over Kilicdaroglu. In the parallel parliamentary vote, Erdogan’s bloc secured a comfortable majority.

The run-off is scheduled for Sunday, with polls opening at 8:00 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) and closing at 5 pm The results are expected to be announced after 9 pm local time.

Who are the contenders?

The two candidates participating in the run-off are Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan, the longest-serving Turkish leader since the establishment of the modern Turkish republic, has been in power for two decades, initially as the prime minister and then as the president. Over the years, Erdogan has consolidated power, leading to a decline in Turkey’s $800 billion economy due to unorthodox fiscal policies.

Kilicdaroglu, a lawmaker representing the CHP (Republican People’s Party) since 2002, became the party’s seventh chairman in 2010. Representing the party formed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Kilicdaroglu stands in stark contrast to Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party and its conservative base. Despite his secular leanings, Kilicdaroglu and his alliance have vowed to represent all factions of Turkish society.

Sinan Ogan, a right-wing Ancestral Alliance candidate who received 5.17% of the votes in the first round, endorsed Erdogan in the run-off, urging his voters to support him. Ogan’s endorsement was conditional on hardened policies towards refugees and certain Kurdish groups perceived as terrorists.

What are the international implications?

Turkey, with one of the world’s largest economies and a population of 85 million, holds a strategic position in an increasingly polarized world order. As a NATO member and possessing the alliance’s second-largest army, Turkey has strengthened its ties with Russia in recent years, raising concerns in the West. Erdogan’s growing friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn attention, particularly amid Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Erdogan emphasized Turkey’s special and growing relationship with Russia in an exclusive interview with CNN. He stated that Turkey is not bound by the West’s sanctions against Russia and that the two countries need each other in various fields. Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, expressed a desire to recalibrate Turkey’s relationship with Russia to be more “state-driven” rather than personality-driven.

The outcome of the election could have implications for Turkey’s foreign policy. While some figures close to the opposition suggest a potential reorientation towards the West if they emerge victorious, experts believe that core foreign policy issues are likely to remain unchanged. Despite disagreements, Turkey has been beneficial to its Western allies under Erdogan, mediating important deals and supporting countries like Ukraine.

What are voters’ main concerns?

The state of the economy and the aftermath of the devastating earthquake are top concerns for voters. Even before the disaster in February, Turkey was grappling with rising prices and a currency crisis that resulted in high inflation. This has significantly impacted the public’s purchasing power and contributed to the erosion of Erdogan’s popularity.

Voters are also considering candidates’ ability to manage the fallout from the earthquake and protect the country from future disasters. Erdogan’s turn away from democracy is another significant concern for voters, and the opposition has campaigned to reverse this trend.

Who is likely to win?

Despite facing strong opposition, Erdogan’s prospects appear brighter than previously predicted. He enjoys substantial support from the religious sector, which has not been significantly affected by the struggling economy or the government’s initial response to the earthquake. Erdogan’s critics argue that he consolidated his support base by levelling unsupported allegations against the opposition, particularly accusing Kilicdaroglu of collusion with Kurdish terror groups.

Although Erdogan’s messaging resonated less in major cities and affluent regions, it garnered considerable support in poorer parts of the country, especially in central regions and on the Black Sea coast. Critics also point out that Erdogan’s influence over Turkish media amplified his message.

While the run-off represents a first-ever presidential second round in Turkey, with Erdogan’s ruling party losing major cities in the 2019 mayoral elections, the outcome remains uncertain. If Erdogan secures a landslide victory, it would be seen as a vindication of his economic policies, the lack of rule of law, and reduced social autonomy.

In summary, Turkey is preparing for a consequential run-off presidential election between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. The election follows significant challenges, including an earthquake, an economic crisis, and concerns about democratic erosion. The outcome could have international implications, given Turkey’s strategic position. Voters’ main concerns revolve around the economy, disaster management, and democratic values. While Erdogan holds significant support, the final result remains uncertain, with potential consequences for Turkey’s future.

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