MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.

This could well be the last Turkish Election Watch post; voters go the ballot boxes this Sunday, May 14. Whatever the outcome, this will be a watershed election, with far-reaching implications for Turkey and beyond. 

Regardless of the outcome, the shape of the Turkish parliament should be clear by Sunday night. Here, the most recent polling suggests that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s coalition has a slight lead that may well be exaggerated by the vagaries of district maps and the D’Hondt method of electoral allocation, which tends to exaggerate the majorities of parties that have won in a particular district (which also makes Turkey’s parliament particularly susceptible to gerrymandering).

The question of the presidency, greatly aggrandized under the constitutional referendum of 2017, may not be determined Sunday night (which is why this may not be the last Turkish Election Watch post). As in France, the president must be elected with more than 50% of the vote; if no candidate wins a majority, the election goes to a run-off between the top two candidates, which would be held on May 28. The most recent polling here is less favorable to President Erdoğan, showing his main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, with just under 50% of the vote (Konda shows him at 49.3%; Metropoll at 49.1%).

İnce and Oğan: Could minor candidates affect the outcome?

The last minute decision of dark horse candidate Muharrem İnce to pull out of the race, however, would seem to favor Kılıçdaroğlu; the opposition calculates that the more the presidential race is a two-man contest between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu, the more it works in their favor. Will it make a difference? İnce was polling at less than 2% of likely voters, but the election is so close that even these small percentages may matter. The opposition certainly welcomed his withdrawal, but his name remains on the ballot; his followers may or may not decide to vote or may decide to vote for him anyway as a protest. Moreover, another candidate, the nationalist Sinan Oğan, remains on the ballot and has been polling higher than İnce in recent weeks, though still in the low single digits. Still, Kılıçdaroğlu’s polling numbers seem to have been trending up in recent days; a run-off — which many fear would favor Erdoğan — seems less likely today than it did a week ago.

Putin votes

There was never really a question of who Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate has been: His cooperation with Erdoğan (and vice versa!) is well known. Still, it was something of a surprise when Kılıçdaroğlu publicly called out Moscow for meddling in the elections this week, telling Reuters that the opposition had evidence that Russia was preparing “deep fake” propaganda to undermine his election. The irony is that most experts agree that the opposition, should it take power, would still want to maintain good relations with Russia. That said, it is unlikely that the new government would be as aggressively anti-Western as the Erdoğan government has been, or that it would make strategic blunders that harm its allies with the regularity that the current leadership has.

Erdoğan meets the young — and makes some threats

Days before the election, President Erdoğan made a final pitch to the country’s young people in what it appears was a staged meeting. The youth were hand-picked loyalists who asked well-prepared questions that echoed opposition talking points. Erdoğan responded with well-rehearsed answers. Whether young voters were moved by the show is unclear, but nobody can question the importance of the youth vote — an estimated 5.2 million young people will have their first chance to vote for president this election. They have known no other leader than Erdoğan in their lifetimes. At the same time, they are facing tremendous economic uncertainty. In 2022, a poll by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation found that more than 70% of Turkey’s youth wanted to live abroad (in the same poll, young people were asked which leader they respected most; 20% responded, “none of them”).

The same day, in a tweet on his official account, Erdoğan mixed promises of golden days ahead with the promise that, in defending Turkey’s national will and democracy, he and his followers would be willing to “lay down their lives as they did on the night of July 15,” referring to the attempted coup d’état in 2016. This language, coupled with portrayals of the opposition as terrorists or tools of foreign (mostly U.S.) forces, has been endemic to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rhetoric in recent weeks. It may be a real threat. It may be the bluster of campaigning. At this point, maybe Erdoğan doesn’t even know yet.

For his part, when Kılıçdaroğlu was asked whether Erdoğan would leave office if he lost the election, his answer was a clear and resounding, “yes.” On the other hand, in the face of intelligence suggesting a possible attack against him, Kılıçdaroğlu felt obligated to wear a bulletproof vest as he campaigned Friday.

No predictions

I don’t have any predictions. There are too many moving parts and too many unknowns for any honest analyst to try to guess the future. That said, there is no question that this election will be momentous, shaping the future of Turkey and the region for years to come. Hayırlı olsun, “may the outcome be a good one.” 


Howard Eissenstat is a non-resident scholar with MEI's Turkey Program and an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University, where he teaches courses on Middle East history and politics.

Photo by Tunahan Turhan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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