Ankara, Türkiye — Turkey’s presidential election appeared to be headed for a runoff on Monday. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while prevailing over his greatest challenger, failed to secure a clear victory that would extend his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade.
The vote was closely monitored to determine whether the strategically located NATO country – bordered by a Black Sea coast to the north and Iran, Iraq and Syria to the south – remained firmly in the president’s grip or headed for greater development Democratic course envisioned by his main rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
While Erdogan has been in power for 20 years, opinion polls suggest his tenure may be coming to an end amid economic turmoil, a cost of living crisis and criticism of the government’s response to an earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people . Western nations and foreign investors were particularly interested in the outcome, given Erdogan’s unorthodox leadership on business and an often erratic but successful effort to put Turkey at the center of international negotiations, including in Ukraine.
With 99.4% of domestic votes and 84% of foreign votes counted, Erdogan got 49.4% of the vote while Kilicdaroglu got 45%, Ahmet Yener, chairman of the Supreme Electoral Committee, told reporters. A third candidate, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, received 5.2%.
Erdogan, 69, told his supporters in the early hours of Monday that he could still win. However, he said he would respect the nation’s decision if there were a runoff on May 28 – a vote that could benefit him as his alliance is expected to retain its majority in Parliament.
Opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s vote had given Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of a six-party opposition coalition, a slight lead over Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey as either prime minister or president since 2003.
Kilicdaroglu was hoping for a second-round win.
“We will definitely win the second round… and bring democracy,” said 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu, claiming Erdogan has lost the confidence of a nation now demanding change.
Ogan has not said who he would support if the election goes into a second round. He is believed to have garnered the support of voters who wanted change after two decades under Erdogan but were unconvinced of the ability of Kilicdaroglu’s six-party coalition to govern.
Election results showed that the alliance led by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party would appear to retain its majority in the 600-seat parliament, although the assembly lost much of its legislative power after a referendum to change the country’s system of government became an executive presidency in 2017 shortly said goodbye.
Anadolu News Agency said that Erdogan’s government alliance is around 49.3%, while Kilicdaroglu’s national alliance is around 35.2% and support for a pro-Kurdish party is over 10%.
The fact that Erdogan appears to have held on to his majority increases his chances of winning the second round, as more voters are likely to back Erdogan to avoid a divided government.
As in previous years, Erdogan conducted an extremely divisive election campaign. He portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who had garnered the support of the country’s pro-Kurdish party for collaborating with “terrorists” and supporting what he described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights. To woo voters hard-hit by inflation, he raised wages and pensions, subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s domestic defense industries and infrastructure projects.
For his part, Kilicdaroglu campaigned on promises to reverse the repression of free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding and to repair an economy battered by high inflation and currency devaluation.
“The fact that the election results are not yet known does not change the fact that the nation has chosen us,” said Erdogan.
The results, reported by the state-run Anadolu Agency, showed that Erdogan’s party dominated in the quake-hit region, winning ten out of 11 provinces, although Erdogan’s government criticized a slow and feeble response to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Lax implementation of building codes is believed to have exacerbated casualties and devastation in the 11 southern provinces.
Turkey’s conservative heartland voted overwhelmingly for the ruling party, with Kilicdaroglu’s main opposition winning most of the western and southern coastal provinces. The pro-Kurdish Green Left YSP won the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast.
More than 64 million people, including foreign voters, were eligible to vote and almost 89% voted. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Turkey’s founding as a republic – a modern, secular state that emerged from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire.
Voter turnout in Turkey has traditionally been high, although the government has been suppressing freedom of expression and assembly for years, especially since an attempted coup in 2016. Erdogan blamed the failed coup on supporters of former ally cleric Fethullah Gülen and launched a full-scale crackdown on officials with alleged links to Gülen and pro-Kurdish politicians.
Erdogan, along with the United Nations, helped broker an agreement with Ukraine and Russia that allowed Ukrainian grain to reach the rest of the world from Black Sea ports, despite Russia’s war in Ukraine. The deal, which is being implemented by an Istanbul-based centre, expires in a few days and Turkey held talks last week to uphold it.
But Erdogan has also stalled Sweden’s bid to join NATO, claiming the country has been too lenient towards supporters of the US-based cleric and members of pro-Kurdish groups that Turkey sees as a threat to national security.
Critics claim the president’s intransigent style is responsible for a painful cost-of-living crisis. The latest official statistics put inflation at around 44%, down from a peak of around 86%. The price of vegetables became a campaign issue for the opposition, which used an onion as a symbol.
Contrary to mainstream economic thinking, Erdogan claims that high interest rates fuel inflation and he pressured the Republic of Turkey’s central bank to cut its interest rate several times.