(27 May) Last Sunday saw tens of millions of Turkish voters head to the ballet box in the presidential and parliamentary elections. The election is viewed as the most crucial in Turkiye’s recent history and the most serious challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is seeking to extend his leadership after being in power for 20 years. First round results gave Erdoğan more than 49% of the vote and his rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu received around 45% with officials confirming a very high turnout of votes at 88.8%.
The election was held in a backdrop of economic turmoil, resulting in soaring inflation and the aftermath of the disastrous earthquakes which caused devastation across a vast portion of Turkiye, leaving more than 50,000 people dead.
Erdoğan and his rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who leads Turkiye’s center-left, pro-secular main opposition party, will go head-to-head in a run-off this Sunday after Erdoğan exceeded expectations but was unable to reach the 50% threshold to win the presidential race outright.
For many months Kılıçdaroğlu has spearheaded efforts to forge a disparate alliance of opposition parties in order to end Erdoğan’s presidency and promised to scrap many of the powers Erdoğan acquired subsequent to surviving a failed coup attempt in 2016.
The election is being observed very closely in the West as Kılıçdaroğlu has vowed to revive Turkiye’s strained relationship with its NATO allies with a pro-Western stance. Conversely, President Erdoğan’s Islamically-rooted party has made accusations towards the West of conspiring against him.
In recent weeks the focus of the election shifted from the Turkish economy and the handling of the February earthquakes to topics such as “terrorism” and the refugee crisis in the country.
Shifting political alliances and the Kurdish factor
A third presidential candidate, Sinan Oğan, took 5.2 percent with the support of an ultranationalist alliance. However, in an unforeseen political disagreement, Oğan opted to support Erdoğan in the presidential run-off. Additionally, the ATA Alliance that backed Oğan threw its weight behind Kilicdaroglu after reaching an agreement. Oğan’s stance against Kurdish parties, made it impossible to forge an accommodation with Kılıçdaroğlu, who is relying on support from the pro-Kurdish HDP party (contesting the election as Green Left to avoid possible election ban), which is very strong in Turkiye’s southeast and gained 63 seats. The HDP have long been accused by the government of having ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who since the 1980s have fought a war against the Turkish state which has killed 40,000 people. The HDP former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag have been jailed since 2016 for alleged PKK ties. Their backing of Kilicdaroglu was subsequent to the detention of over 100 Kurdish activists, journalists and lawyers in a government “anti-terror” operation. Before the elections, Kilicdaroglu vowed to end the government’s removal of elected mayors and release political prisoners. These declarations attracted the pro-Kurdish party’s attention.
Erdoğan has often claimed that his rival Kilicdaroglu is in cahoots with “terror” groups such as the PKK. In a speech early this week Erdoğan said “Our fight against all evil networks, including the separatist terrorist organisation PKK and its extensions will continue with determination,”.
Economic turmoil and anti-refugee and immigrant sentiment
On the issue of refugees, mainly from the Syrian conflict, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s hardline stance has proven to be one of the key factors in his popularity. Kılıçdaroğlu warned that under Erdoğan the number of migrants would increase to 30 million.
Syrian refugees fled to Turkiye following a failed uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011 which resulted into a prolonged civil war in that country. Turkiye has taken in about 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees, more than any other country.
Although initially they were largely welcomed in Turkiye, recent events such as the devastating earthquakes, the economic crisis, the plunge of value of the lira and soaring inflation have caused growing hostility towards Syrians and other migrant populations. As many as 85% of Turks want refugees from Syria’s civil war to go home, polls suggest. Also, disturbing videos of verbal and physical attacks on refugees and immigrants have surfaced on social media. Nationalists have capitalised on the economic crisis and Turkiye’s welcoming policy regarding refugees to launch attacks on the government. In a speech Kilicdaroglu attacked Erdogan, saying he “did not protect [Turkiye’s] borders and honour”. You knowingly brought more than 10 million refugees to this country,” Kilicdaroglu said. “… I am announcing it here – as soon as I come to power, I will send all refugees home. Period.”
Moreover, this sentiment was reflected on Kilicdaroglu’s election billboards declaring “Suriyeliler gidecek! Kerrar Ver” (Syrians will go, Decide). The slogan was widely condemned as xenophobic. The journalist Sami Hamdi, tweeted that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader had returned to his party’s “natural” xenophobia, alluding to the party’s Kemalist origin.
Erdogan has promised that he would begin voluntary repatriation of some one million Syrian refugees back to their homeland, mentioning how improving relations between Syria and Turkiye through Russian mediation efforts will help facilitate the “voluntary” return of refugees. Erdogan also condemned his rivals rhetoric regarding the refugees in a recent interview, saying Kilicdaroglu “is trying to save the day with hate speech”.
Whatever the result, there is no doubt that this is the most important election in the history of modern Turkiye and the result will be anticipated with great interest internationally.