MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.
May 14 election results
The Turkish elections held on May 14 did not go as many had expected. The election was marred by an uneven playing field in which both the state and the 90% or so of the media that is effectively under state control clearly were working in favor of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his coalition. It was also marred by effective voter suppression, particularly in the earthquake zone, and by voting and tabulation irregularities elsewhere. Without truly independent institutions, of course, we will never know the full extent to which Erdoğan’s control put a thumb on the scales, and the extent to which he simply won the electoral race.
Regardless, the optimism of the opposition, and the favorable numbers for them in pre-election polling, did not result in a favorable outcome for those hoping that Erdoğan’s rule might be coming to an end. Despite the mismanagement and corruption that led to tens of thousands of lost lives in the February earthquakes and despite mismanagement that has led to soaring inflation, President Erdoğan came out the clear leader on election night, with 49.5% of the vote, just shy of what he needed to avoid a run-off. Clearly, pocketbook issues do not trump factors like party affiliation and identity politics in Turkey anymore.
While results for the parliamentary election are still preliminary, they indicate that, here too, voters handed the ruling coalition a narrow victory. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) trailed his own performance, losing some seats; his main coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), gained only one seat. His hardline Islamist partners, New Welfare Party (YRP), gained five seats and will be represented in parliament for the first time. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) improved its showing considerably, though some of its gains will go to smaller coalition partners (who mostly delivered little on election day). Meral Akşener’s İyi (Good) Party gained only one seat. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)/Green Left Party (YSP) progressive coalition, which would presumably support the opposition, did well among its Kurdish base, but seems to have lost one seat overall. Some of these ballots are still being contested, so the numbers may change a little at the margins.
The race to the right
Now the presidential race moves to a second round, to be held on May 28. In the run-off election there will only be two candidates, President Erdoğan and main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. After a few days of recriminations and finger pointing over the loss on May 14, the opposition is trying to find its legs and develop a strategy to beat Erdoğan in the run-off. Nobody believes it will be easy, especially given the fact that Erdoğan beat Kılıçdaroğlu by nearly four percentage points in the first round.
Erdoğan goes into the run-off with new advantages. First, he has secured control of parliament, meaning that he can reasonably argue that a vote for Kılıçdaroğlu is a vote for divided government and political stalemate. This might not actually be true in practice, but it is a reasonable argument to make. Secondly, Erdoğan probably has an easier claim to the nationalist (read: anti-Kurdish and anti-migrant) vote than Kılıçdaroğlu. Third, he has the wind at his back. In the first round, the opposition was hopeful and confident (and now we know, apparently over-confident), while the Erdoğan team seemed a little desperate. Now, the opposition is combatting a demoralized voter base as it gears up to both compete in the election and improve on its mixed record of ballot box monitoring. The Erdoğan team, by contrast, is exuding confidence.
The main mystery this week has been what will happen to the votes of the dark horse nationalist candidate, Sinan Oğan, some 5% of the electorate. In theory, at least, his support could determine the election, and both sides have courted him assiduously. Erdoğan met with him, but, at least publicly, made him no promises; nonetheless, Oğan indicated that he and the Turkish president agree on basic principles. For his part, Kılıçdaroğlu couldn't do much to allay Oğan’s concerns about the Kurds, who remain a very large component of Kılıçdaroğlu’s coalition, so the CHP leader doubled down on anti-migrant sentiment.
On May 22, Oğan formally endorsed Erdoğan. It is not entirely clear that his voters will necessarily follow him though. Their support for Oğan was largely a matter of his message, not the man; what his voters will do in the second round is anybody’s guess. They might stay home, they might follow Oğan’s lead, or they might not remain a consistent block. Regardless, it is clear that, precisely because these voters are up for grabs, the prominence of nativism and nationalism will loom large in the campaign, and, likely, in the governance of the country in the years that follow May 28.
The nature of the election
Turkish citizens take pride in their vote and clearly thought this election mattered; 87.4% of eligible voters cast ballots, improving slightly on the already high numbers from the 2018 elections.
That said, the election was neither fair, nor fully free. The preliminary Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report, typically marked by diplomatic language and the mildest of criticism, outlined the many, many ways that the Erdoğan government used its power to ensure a favorable outcome. Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of voters in areas hit by the earthquake faced insurmountable difficulties in reregistering, effectively resulting in voter suppression. In some rural districts, we saw the perennial Turkish election issues of attempted voter suppression or intimidation. Still, these irregularities, while they may have affected some parliamentary races, probably did not change the overall outcome of the elections.
Would Erdoğan have accepted the results if he had lost? Did he have more tricks up his sleeve if the election results started to turn against him on May 14? There is a heated — and mostly unresolvable — debate among Turkey observers about this question. In the event, Erdoğan did not have to; his control of the media, of state levers, and his own remarkable talents at reading the mood of his public all helped him survive. It is true that the May 28 election is the first run-off that he has ever faced, but given the state of the economy and the expectations of the opposition and pollsters before Sunday’s elections, he has reasons to be pleased, and hopeful.
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 Fazil Abd Erahim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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