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Turkish elections: A nation divided, yet democratic

Amanda Paul , Demir Murat Seyrek

Date: 15/05/0023
After a night of high drama, including long delays in counting and confirming votes, along with distorted narratives, Türkiye’s 14 May presidential elections ended with no outright winner. While the final numbers haven’t been announced, President Erdoğan secured over 49%, while the leader of the opposition bloc, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, obtained approximately 45%. The nationalist opposition candidate Sinan Oğan came in third with 5%, making him a kingmaker in the second round on 28 May. Erdoğan is undeniably the frontrunner for the second round, but the opposition still has a chance to turn the tide.

Despite the incumbent’s advantage, Erdoğan’s failure to win in the first round is a partial success for the opposition. Nevertheless, it is also clear that despite the economic and cost-of-living crisis and the devasting February earthquakes, a large part of Turkish society preferred to stick with Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance, his nationalist ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and two new allies, the populist Islamist New Welfare Party (YRF) and Kurdish Islamist Hüda Par, rather than aligning with the more progressive opposition bloc. While this could, in part, be down to the unfair playing field given that Erdoğan controls most of the media and the state institutions, it also reflects the evolving character of Turkish society.

The nationalists emerge as the evident victors of the elections, as the AKP's support base has regressed to the levels seen during the 2002 elections, experiencing a 7% decrease compared to the 2018 elections. In contrast, there has been a definite increase in nationalist votes, which can be attributed, in part, to anti-refugee sentiments and societal polarisation.

The road ahead for the opposition will be tough. While Sinan Oğan and his base are no fans of Erdoğan, translating his votes into support for Kılıçdaroğlu will be hard, not least because of his rhetoric against the pro-Kurdish HDP. Erdoğan will campaign to divide the opposition and reach out to the nationalist voters.

The People’s Alliance won a majority in the parallel parliamentary election. If Kılıçdaroğlu becomes president, this will derail the opposition’s plans to move Türkiye back to a parliamentary system from the current executive presidency, a priority of the opposition bloc.

These elections also have positive aspects. Voter turnout was exceptionally high, at around 87%. Moreover, there appear to be no significant irregularities in the overall electoral process, thanks partly to the vigilance of civil society and other volunteers guarding the ballot boxes. These factors demonstrate that Turkish democracy is alive and kicking. Türkiye possesses a vibrant civil society, and regardless of the outcome in the second round, they will persist in pursuing a liberal democratic system. Although millions of democrats who had anticipated an opposition victory may feel disappointed, they still represent almost 50% of Türkiye’s population, and their influence seems to grow with each election cycle.

No matter who wins on 28 May, the outcome will have major implications for Türkiye’s domestic and foreign policy trajectory, including ties with traditional Western allies. An opposition win would open the door to revitalising relations with the EU, NATO, and the US and improving civil liberties and freedoms. At the same time, a further term for Erdoğan is likely to see relations with allies difficult, further strategic autonomy in Türkiye’s foreign policy, and ongoing concerns over democracy backsliding. However, since improving the economy will be a priority for Erdoğan, further large-scale attacks on civil liberties and freedoms seem unlikely, given the importance of relations with the West to achieve this.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

Demir Murat Seyrek is a Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy.

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