Turkish presidential election enters second round as candidates vie for votes.

By Elijah J. Magnier:

As Turkish expatriates in 73 countries worldwide cast their ballots and the run-off date for the Turkish presidential election approaches, the competition between the two rivals, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is intensifying. This election marks the first time in Turkish history that no presidential candidate has won in the first round. The race between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu is intensifying Turkey’s identity struggle, dividing the population between secularism and ‘Erdoganism’.

Both candidates are trying to win over new voters or those who did not vote in the first round. The power candidate, Erdogan, has a relatively more straightforward chance, as he needs less than one point to win if the electoral map remains unchanged. On the other hand, Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate, faces a complicated situation as Erdogan’s constant incitement and the weak defence of his allies and campaign have hampered his chances. Kilicdaroglu has adopted a more thoughtful and negative discourse to counter the accusation of “alliance with terrorism” that Erdogan has levelled at him, particularly about the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Relying on the nationalist candidate, Sinan Ogan, is not seen as a suitable strategy for Kilicdaroglu, as Ogan’s votes are mostly questionable, and Kilicdaroglu is looking for a third way between the Nationalist Movement and the Justice and Development Party. 

In the first round, Erdogan received 27,133,000 votes (49.52%), while Kilicdaroglu received 24,600,000 (44.88%), a difference of about two and a half million votes. Sinan Ogan received two million and 830 thousand votes (5.17%), while Muharram Ince, who withdrew a few days before the first round, received 235 thousand votes (0.43%). The number of people who abstained in the first round was 8,300,000. The number of spoilt votes was around one million, and the number of new voters in the second round was about 48,000.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

The Turkish nationalist movement, represented by the Justice and Development and National Movement parties, is determined to do more than get President Erdogan close to the 50% threshold. The upcoming run-off on 28 May has given this movement growing influence, with the nature of the second round run-off crucial. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Nation’s Alliance candidate, faces a complex task in his bid for the presidency. 

It will be increasingly more work to win over those who abstained in the first round, those whose votes were invalidated or those who opted for Sinan Ogan. Despite the split within his alliance, Ogan has chosen to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatening the unity of the ‘Ata’ coalition and Kilicdaroglu’s already slim chances of success. Even if Ogan wants to prevent his voters from supporting Kilicdaroglu, it is not sure that he has enough power over the 5.2% of those who voted for him in the first round to divert them to Erdogan, who already feels he is on the verge of victory. 

While attention remains focused on Ogan, his votes were more of an “intercept” than a personal endorsement, making it difficult to predict where they will go. There is disillusionment among some voters, especially young first-time voters who supported Sinan Ogan in the first round. These voters are seen as a protest vote with diverse ideological affiliations and are likely to split their votes between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan. Their motivation to participate in the second round may be diminished as they believe neither candidate represents the ideal choice for the next five years.

The opposition focuses on the relatively low turnout in 19 provinces with a Kurdish majority, suggesting that an increase in turnout in these provinces could benefit Kilicdaroglu. Of these 19 provinces, Kilicdaroglu won a majority in 14. The Kurdish “Democratic People’s Party” (the “Green Left Party”) is leading in 17 of these provinces. The opposition is therefore betting that the Kurdish party will step up its campaign in the second round to support Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan’s plan for the second round focuses on television appearances and visits to earthquake-hit areas to thank the regions where he received significant support. He is also holding festivals in cities that favoured him over his rival and has ordered members of his party to work intensively in major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which gave his opponent the majority of votes. Erdogan believes that he can close the gap between himself and Kilicdaroglu in these significant Turkish cities and have a better chance of winning more votes. 

In his speeches, Erdogan emphasised stability, social inclusion, achievements in the defence industry and economic relief measures. He intensified his criticism of the opposition’s ‘National Alliance’ and its alleged collaboration with the ‘Peoples Democratic Party’ and ‘Kurdish terrorism’. Nevertheless, Erdogan has ruled the country for twenty years, and people voted for him in the first place because of his ability to boost the domestic economy. Both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are aware of the pressing economic concerns of the Turkish people, which have become the top issue for many voters as the weakening currency and high inflation take a toll on their livelihoods. However, neither candidate has presented a comprehensive and workable plan to address these economic challenges.

Kilicdaroglu attributes his lower-than-expected vote to a widespread hate campaign and Erdogan’s accusations of collaboration with Kurdish terrorism. The opposition candidate plans to focus on the hardline religious Free Dawa party, which supports Kurdish separatism and fielded candidates on the Justice and Development lists. Kilicdaroglu’s attempt to win over Ogan voters by promising to return refugees to their country has little chance of success against his strong rival Erdogan. 

The opposition’s strategy for the second round adopts a sharper and more negative tone, focusing on exposing the true face of power in terms of terrorism and appealing to nationalist segments of the electorate. They are targeting regions where Erdogan has strong support, particularly Central Anatolia and the Black Sea regions, and using television and social media for propaganda campaigns.

The outcome of the second round is predictable due to several factors, starting with the fact that Erdogan has the upper hand over his opponents in parliament. The ‘Public Alliance’, formed by the Justice and Development Party and the National Movement Party, retained its majority in parliament with 322 deputies. However, it remained below the threshold of 360 deputies needed to put a bill to a referendum and 400 deputies, or two-thirds of the members, needed to amend the constitution in parliament.

The National Alliance won 212 deputies out of a total of 600. The Turkish parliament largely maintained the current control map, as the opposition did not make the progress it had hoped for in gaining a parliamentary majority. The Public Alliance, composed of the Justice and Development and National Movement parties, made progress contrary to opinion polls that gave it a lower percentage than it won. However, it remained more melancholy than it won in the 2018 elections. The “Power Alliance” won 49.48% of the vote, compared to 53.97% in 2018. The “National Alliance”, comprised of opposition parties (the six-party table), won 35.51%, compared to 33.95% in 2018. The Coalition of Labour and Freedom, consisting mainly of the Kurdish Green Left Party (the Democratic People’s Party) and its allies, won 10.43%, compared to 12% in the previous elections.

The survival of Syrian refugees has also emerged as a critical issue, with Kilicdaroglu trying to win over Ogan’s supporters by promising to repatriate them. Kilicdaroglu argues that the Turkish people deserve better, capitalising on the perceived negligence of the ruling party that has run the country for two decades.

The leaders of the opposition parties, known collectively as the ‘Table of Six’, have met to plan for the coming days ahead of the second round. The focus is on the qualifications and importance of ministerial posts, particularly in the interior, foreign affairs, justice, defence, education, environment, health and transport. In a coordinated effort, the Kurdish Green Left Party announced its continued support for the opposition candidate in the second round. The party acknowledges that the results of the parliamentary elections were below expectations. 

Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, is relying on grassroots organising, social media campaigns and support from opposition parties to rally his supporters. On the other hand, Erdogan has the advantage of visibility and influence thanks to his robust party machinery and control over state resources. 

The battle between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu symbolises a clash of personalities and a contest between different ideologies and visions for Turkey’s future. The game has sparked an intense identity struggle, dividing the population between those who lean towards secularism and the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and those who identify with the symbol of Islamic values.

The outcome will determine not only the president but also the path Turkey will take on crucial issues such as democracy, human rights, the role of religion in public life, and regional and international relations. The electorate’s decision will shape the nation’s trajectory, determining whether it moves towards consolidating power or away from it.