With Erdoğan Just Short of Another Victory, This Election Is Not Over Until It’s Over

May 17, 2023
The Parliamentary and presidential elections held in Turkey on May 14 place Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been governing Turkey since 2002—first as Prime Minister and then, since 2014, as President—on the threshold of yet another victory.

The People’s Alliance led by Erdoğan’s AK Party got around 50% of the votes in the parliamentary election and gained a simple majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. In the presidential election, Erdoğan got 49.50 % of the votes, short of the required 50% by a mere fraction. Despite bringing together a large and diverse alliance and conducting a dynamic election campaign, Erdoğan’s main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, got only 45%. Since neither candidate reached 50%, there will be a second round, and although Kılıçdaroğlu has not yielded, Erdoğan’s numbers bring him very close to winning the election in that round.

There was a general impression among international observers that the elections would be neither free nor fair, and that there would almost certainly be attempts to tamper with the voting. The elections were free but, indeed, not fair. Erdoğan enjoyed asymmetric access to public resources and controlled much of the media, and opposition politicians were often subjected to verbal and physical attacks. There were no major incidents on election day and voter turnout reached a stunning 85%, a sign of the importance Turkish citizens attach to elections.

However, there were also irregularities in the registration of the votes. Nationwide, the main opposition party filed more than 2,200 complaints related to the presidential election and 4,800 related to the parliamentary election. We do not know whether these irregularities were systematic, or whether they would have made a difference in this round. However, if the margin in the second round is smaller, election integrity will certainly remain an important factor to watch.

Although Erdoğan was not able to win a victory in the first round, he was more successful than many in the opposition expected him to be. Turkey has been on a downward economic trajectory at least since 2018, when the country experienced an exchange-rate crisis. Inflation remains high at 50%, and the rising cost of living has pushed millions of families below poverty level. Young people are disillusioned and look to build their futures elsewhere. The catastrophic earthquakes in March took at least 50,000 Turkish citizens’ lives. In this context, Erdoğan and his party looked increasingly tired, and many polls suggested that he was losing votes in a significant way. And why would he not, given the dire situation of the country he is governing? However, the decline in Erdoğan’s vote was limited.

On the other side, observers expected the opposition to rise in popularity and dramatically increase their share of the vote. They had formed a diverse alliance representing almost every ideological group in Turkey other than the Kurdish Political Movement, which also unilaterally supported their presidential candidate. While Erdoğan had no one who could campaign in his place, Kılıçdaroğlu had others, most notably the popular mayors of Ankara and İstanbul, organizing rallies on his behalf. They brought together an impressive team to manage the economy, and came up with a comprehensive government program and a roadmap for restoring parliamentary democracy. They appeared more than ready to govern if they could win. But they may not get the chance.

The international community was also watching these elections, eager to see Turkey setting an example of the defeat of an authoritarian government through democratic elections. Almost every major poll in Turkey suggested that the election would be close, and most suggested that Kılıçdaroğlu would win the presidency in the second round, if not the first. They also suggested that there was no way Erdoğan’s alliance could win a majority in the parliament. Yet Erdoğan did gain a majority in the parliament and is close to retaining his office after the second round of the presidential election.

Erdoğan played the polarization game vigorously, repeatedly accusing the opposition of promoting LGBTI culture among Turkish youth, supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and acting as puppets of foreign powers. While the support of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was crucial for Kılıçdaroğlu and could have served to marginalize the PKK and demilitarize the Kurdish problem in the long run, it also made it easier for Erdoğan to claim—albeit baselessly—that Kılıçdaroğlu was cooperating with the PKK.

The opposition assumed that they could counter such polarizing tactics through a positive campaign and conciliatory politics, but they were not able to do so effectively. The opposition spent months on a comprehensive government program that they believed would impress the voting public, but it should come as no surprise that in the end voters showed little interest in the lengthy document.

The opposition agreed on a joint candidate, but some did so only grudgingly, after months of drama and a conflict that almost ripped the alliance apart. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as the most senior leader in the opposition alliance and someone who had played a major role in bringing it together, was a natural candidate for many, although others thought his belonging to the Alevi minority would make him less electable. To Turkey’s discredit, the latter were proven right. While Erdoğan kept his focus on a few polarizing messages, Kılıçdaroğlu lacked a corresponding focus. And although it was perhaps a good thing that the mayors campaigned on Kılıçdaroğlu’s behalf, they also took some attention away from him.

As a result of these factors, Erdoğan won the day. His alliance has maintained its majority in the parliament, and Erdoğan is very close to retaining his office. Yet Kılıçdaroğlu has not conceded, and claims that he can win in the second round against all odds. Most Kılıçdaroğlu supporters remain defiant and motivated. Erdoğan may be just short of another victory, but no matter the odds, this election is not over until it’s over.