Understanding The Current Stalemate Of Turkey’s Elections – Analysis


By Mohammed Sinan Siyech and Eleni Anna Bozini 

The Turkish elections that were held on 14 May 2023 were a high-stakes affair. Incumbent President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan—who spent over two decades burnishing his strongman and conservative credentials—was facing, as some dubbed it, his toughest challenge yet.

Erdoğan, who was formerly the Prime Minister of Türkiye, was responsible for bringing in some key economic changes in the first part of his tenure, such as the building of infrastructure across Türkiye and improving its economic and political status in the world. However, over time, especially after the attempted coup against him in 2016, Erdoğan’s critics have accused him of being an authoritarian ruler, aiding corruption and stifling the judiciary. His popularity dropped further due to the economic downturn, with the Lira falling from a value of parity to the Euro, to one Euro valued at about 20 Turkish Lira. Energy, food, and other essential items have also seen drastic increases in their prices over the last few years.

Against this backdrop, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu emerged as the leading candidate against Erdoğan. Kiliçdaroğlu, who has been the main Opposition leader since 2010, ran his campaigns on several issues: a) the economic crisis; b) Erdoğan’s authoritarian governance and corruption; c) bringing Turkish secularism—pioneered by the founder of modern Türkiye, Kemal Ataturk—back to the fore.

Kiliçdaroğlu joined hands with about five other parties with different goals to form a coalition and challenged Erdoğan. The campaigns were spirited, and there was a real chance that the Opposition was about to dislodge Erdoğan. Yet, the results were almost anti-climactic with none of the two candidates securing a majority. Despite the Opposition’s efforts, Erdoğan had secured a 5-percent lead over Kiliçdaroğlu, with a third candidate, Sinan Ogan, snatching the remaining 5 percent.

This raises the question,  despite soaring prices, an earthquake that devastated large parts of southern Türkiye, and rising discontent with Erdoğan—why did the vigorous Opposition still trail behind?

Pro-incumbency support

To better understand the result of last Sunday, it would be useful to look briefly at the main groups that support each presidential candidate. Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that the numbers of voters who participated in this election are vast. The population of Türkiye is about 80 million, out of which, about 60 million of them (88 percent of the eligible voters) are estimated to have voted in this election.

On the one hand, the profile of the supporters of AKP, Erdoğan’s party, are predominantly working-class people, grouped around family values and a conservative, Islamist-oriented administration. Erdoğan’s emphasis on religion as well as his strong rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community and those undermining traditional values was highlighted by his choice to finish his campaign by praying in Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine monument, which he had converted to a mosque. Additionally, Erdoğan steered his country away from the European Union (EU), and partly from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) too, by standing ambiguously close to Russia and vouching for a strong but independent military nation, which appealed to large numbers of the electorate.

In terms of votes, AKP drew from its traditional strongholds of Central Anatolia as well as in the Northern Black Sea region. To the surprise of some analysts, the February earthquake-affected areas of southeast Türkiye supported Erdoğan as well. The President’s popularity and perceived efficiency was thought to have suffered since many affected areas were late to receive state help and were relying on foreign humanitarian support for days. This stemmed from the fact that these provinces were already strongholds of the AKP, and Erdoğan’s response in these areas was both empathetic and visible as he visited the affected areas multiple times. As such, this helped to maintain his vote share, with voters trusting his promises to rebuild the region over the Opposition’s.

Lastly, a great percentage of voters living abroad, for example in Germany, also voted for Erdoğan since they are less sensitive to the economic failures within the country and favour his powerful stance amongst other leaders. Field observations by one of the authors during the election period also revealed that many voters did not like the fact that the Opposition had previously banned the hijab, was against refugees, and was more secular than Erdoğan who has cultivated a strong Muslim credential, both nationally and globally.

The Opposition voter profile

Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu showcased a more modern and informal profile, which mainly appealed to the progressive and younger voters, who are negatively affected by the dire economic circumstances that was created by  Erdoğan’s administration, as well as policies that left women and minorities less protected and supported. Younger voters are more inclined towards a modernised nation, with better ties with European nations, allowing more freedom of movement and educational opportunities. Also, some of the Opposition’s policies seemed to favour the business world, which was reflected in the support secured from the voters of Türkiye’s big cities, such as Izmir, Istanbul, and Ankara.

In the recent voting, Kiliçdaroğlu appealed more to progressive voters in the big cities, for example, Istanbul. This, however, comes as no surprise as Istanbul voters had shown preference for the main Opposition since the election of 2019, when they voted Ekrem İmamoğlu, a powerful member of the Opposition, for mayor. Also, a part of the electorate abroad, for example in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States, voted overwhelmingly for the Opposition, too. All in all, the more economically advanced regions of western Türkiye supported the candidate of the Opposition in big percentages. However, they weren’t able to shift the result decisively in the Opposition’s favour.

Given the official results, there are many suggestions as to why the Opposition did not win this election, despite the backing of a considerable number of voters. Firstly, although the Opposition ran a strong campaign to unite voters of various parties that oppose Erdoğan, the President has a large and stable base, which continued to vote for him. Also, since this election was decided by a small margin, there were even allegations of obstruction tactics being used with regard to the counting of the exact number of votes in regions that supported the Opposition—although the Opposition later recanted this view. Lastly, Erdoğan enjoys the support of the majority of mainstream media, which has also been accused of presenting polls that were favouring him and of contributing to a “psychology of victory” amongst his supporters, which renders the Opposition’s race to power even harder, especially after the first result remained unclear, but unfavourable for them.

The road ahead

Immediately after the election, Kiliçdaroğlu overhauled his whole campaign team and doubled down on his anti-immigrant rhetoric, promising to send all Syrian immigrants back to their home countries in a bid to win the nationalist vote. This could bring in some nationalist voters but it goes against the left-wing principles he espoused. As such, this could have negative unintended ramifications. For example, while Kiliçdaroğlu’s campaign was able to convince some voters that hijab won’t be banned like it was in the 1980s, questions were already raised about the legitimacy of this claim, and the recent backtracking on the immigrant issue could further weaken his claims on Islam too.

Nevertheless, Kiliçdaroğlu is also relying on the eight million GenZ voters and Kurdish populations, who did not vote due to their scepticism about making a change. If he is able to woo even three out of the eight million voters, he will be able to overcome the numbers that voted for Erdoğan and win the elections. In addition, if he were to be able to form a coalition with the third candidate, he will also be able to make a difference in the results. Ultimately, chances seem to be skewed in Erdoğan’s favour on the basis of the first result, although there is still a tiny possibility of change in the runoff vote scheduled on 28 May.

About the authors:

  • Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Non-Resident Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation 
  • Eleni Anna Bozini is a doctoral candidate at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation 

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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