Voters are headed to the polls this Sunday in Turkey for the country’s general election, which has been described as the most consequential global election contest of the year.
The stakes are incredibly high for the country and the world, and for incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is narrowly trailing in the polls as he seeks a third term. The head of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been in power for over 20 years and is the country’s longest-serving leader.
But the stakes are also high for the opposition, which at last appears to have a real shot at victory.
Opponents have never been “this close in terms of public sentiment to winning an election, to unseating Erdogan,” said Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey program director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, was picked to face off with Erdogan by the Table of Six, a coalition made up of six opposition parties.
“In some ways, he is the Biden formula for Turkey, a unifier that can also get middle-class support,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a visiting fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, told “The Current” podcast.
The election is tight, but Erdogan is currently behind in the polls, given the state of the Turkish economy as well as his government’s handling of the devastating earthquake in February.
Sinan Ogan, who was put forward as a candidate by the far-right ATA Alliance party, is also still in the presidential race.
If no candidate secures 50% of the vote in the first round, there will be a runoff contest on May 28.
Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, told The New York Times voters are essentially facing a choice between “going down the road to authoritarianism or switching track and going back to democracy.”
Why Is Erdogan Behind In The Polls?
Voters are increasingly turning on Erdogan due to the failed response to the deadly earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria and killed over 50,000 people earlier this year — the majority in Turkey — as well as soaring inflation and high cost of living.
The government has been criticized for taking too long to deploy the military and rescue teams to some of the most affected areas after the earthquake. The several buildings that collapsed also exposed the cozy relationship the government had with many construction companies and the lack of enforcement of building regulations despite its pledge to deliver safe housing.
Many voters are also unhappy with Erdogan’s handling of the economy.
He made the unorthodox decision to cut interest rates at a time when most governments and central banks around the world are raising them in response to inflation. That caused the value of the country’s currency, the Turkish lira, to tumble, meaning many Turks can barely afford everyday goods.
Still, political analysts said not to rule out another Erdogan term just yet.
Many voters, including religious conservatives, may not be ready to turn their backs on the current president, and others may think he is more tested than the alternative.
Sabit Celik, a store owner in Istanbul, told The Associated Press that while it is undeniable that Turkey is undergoing a financial crisis under Erdogan’s leadership, the president is the best equipped to address it.
“Still, I don’t think anyone else (but Erdogan) can come and fix this,” Celik said.
Will The Election Be Free And Fair?
Tahiroğlu told HuffPost that the election is not being fought on a level playing field given Erdogan’s grip on the media and his control of the judiciary.
Turkey has seen a steady erosion of media freedom and political expression under Erdogan, a strongman who former President Donald Trump praised as a “hell of a leader.”
In the aftermath of the earthquake, the country’s media regulator sought to fine three broadcasters who were critical of Erdogan for their coverage of the natural disaster response.
Independent journalists have also been slapped with fines and criminal investigations.
Meanwhile, outlets are spending the majority of their time highlighting Erdogan’s campaign and not his opponent’s.
Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT reportedly aired 32 hours of Erdogan’s speeches at rallies from April 1 to May 1, as opposed to just 32 minutes of Kilicdaroglu’s remarks during that time.
Erdogan has also tried to jail his political opponents and those critical of his government.
For example, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu last year was sentenced to nearly three years in prison and also faced a political ban over his 2019 victory speech. Imamoglu, a member of the CHP, was seen as the frontrunner to challenge Erdogan on behalf of the Table of Six in this year’s presidential election.
Imamoglu, who is in the process of appealing his sentencing, has now instead been tapped to become vice president if Kilicdaroglu’s coalition wins.
He is still being subject to attacks. Just this last weekend, protesters threw stones during Imamoglu’s campaign stop in Erzurum. Imamoglu later blasted the police officers on site, who he said did nothing to intervene. Kilicdaroglu described the attack as an effort to “scare people away from the ballot box.”
Another example of Erdogan’s government crackdown on the opposition is that the third biggest party in parliament, the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, is facing a potential ban over alleged links to terrorists and did not put forward a presidential candidate in this year’s election. HDP has denied the allegations.
“The opposition is facing so many challenges to even run a campaign that it’s impossible to call this a fair election at the point,” Tahiroğlu told HuffPost.
Tahiroğlu said she will be watching to see if this election is free of interference. In the past, international watchers had recognized that while Turkish elections were not run fairly, there were no efforts to tamper with the voting process, she explained.
“I’m really worried about that potentially changing this Sunday, because the stakes are so high that Erdogan and his government feel pretty vulnerable and paranoid,” Tahiroğlu said. “I’m worried that they might resort to tactics that they haven’t before.”
Those tactics could also include last-minute changes in the rules around the election, she said.
But Tahiroğlu expressed some optimism over the fact that hundreds of thousands of citizens have signed up with NGOs to do federal election monitoring.
“I have a high degree of confidence that whatever attempts at rigging the vote, there will be people there watching it, seeing it and raising awareness of it,” Tahiroğlu added.
What If Erdogan Loses?
Kilicdaroglu’s coalition has pledged to put Turkey back on a democratic path, restore the country’s parliamentary system and allow the court system to operate independently.
But Erdogan is not expected to go quietly in the event of a defeat.
In that scenario, a lot hinges on the margin by which Erdogan loses, Tahiroğlu said.
For instance, if Kilicdaroglu managed to narrowly win by securing a theoretical 51% of the vote, Erdogan could claim electoral fraud in certain places, assert that the result isn’t clear and try to force a runoff election, she explained.
“But I think if he loses by more than 2%, then I don’t really think he has much of a choice,” Tahiroğlu said. “He will have to accept defeat.”
A last-minute decision by Muharrem Ince, the leader of the center-left Homeland Party, to withdraw from the presidential contest Thursday could also impact Sunday’s election. According to the BBC, Ince said that he has been subject to a slander campaign, with allegedly fake sex tapes and pictures involving him circulating on social media. The Ankara public prosecutor’s office is investigating for possible blackmail, according to CNN.
Tahiroğlu called Ince’s decision to pull out a “game changer,” given that a majority of his supporters are expected to now back Kilicdaroglu, who is now polling just under 50%.
“These voters could give Kilicdaroglu that final push he needs to win in the first round,” Tahiroğlu said.
Ince appears to agree.
“They will have no excuses if they lose the election,” he said of Kilicdaroglu’s coalition, according to AP.
Why Does The Outcome Of The Turkish Election Matter To The World And The U.S.?
Turkey, a country of 85 million people and a member of NATO, carries significant weight when it comes to geopolitics.
It has played a mediator role between Russia and Ukraine during the ongoing war by hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy for peace talks during the early stages of the conflict.
But Erdogan, a Putin ally, reportedly helped the Kremlin get past some sanctions last year. Turkish companies exported goods to at least 10 Russian companies that were sanctioned by the U.S. for their role in the war, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The two countries maintain an important relationship as it relates to energy supplies and Russia is also building Turkey’s first nuclear plant, which is set to be ready next year.
An Erdogan defeat could mean the country would reassess its ties to the Kremlin, but not necessarily fully sever them.
When asked about what relationship he intends to have with Putin, Kilicdaroglu told The Guardian that policy will be reconfigured based on what is in Turkey’s best interest as he believes Erdogan’s foreign policy is not beneficial to Turkey.
He added that he believes Ukraine has been “unfairly invaded.”
“We support them in that regard,” he told the British newspaper of Ukrainians in a piece published Monday. “We would provide all kinds of political support that is needed.”
On Thursday, Kilicdaroglu accused Russia of trying to interfere in Sunday’s race by spreading deepfake content on social media, without explicitly spelling out what he was referring to. Russia has not addressed the allegations.
“If you want to continue our friendship after May 15, withdraw your hand from the Turkish state,” Kilicdaroglu wrote on Twitter. “We are still in favour of cooperation and friendship.”
Erdogan has stalled NATO expansion efforts and is currently blocking Sweden’s entry. He originally also opposed Finland’s entry to NATO but eventually granted his country’s approval for the nation to join.
The outcome of the election could also have repercussions for the European Union.
While Turkey at one point gained candidate status and was engaged in talks to join the bloc, those negotiations were put on hold for a number of reasons, including Turkey’s backpedaling on human rights.
According to Politico Europe, some officials worry that a Kilicdaroglu win would reignite ascension talks at a time when some member countries appear weary of what the potential entry of a huge country would mean.
“For some in the EU it may be favorable to have an authoritarian leader next door, and a more transactional relationship with Turkey, than to seriously deal with the issue of accession,” Galip Dalay, an associate fellow at the policy institute Chatham House, told the outlet.
The U.S. and Turkey have also had a tense relationship in recent years, triggered by Ankara’s decision to buy missile defense systems from Russia. That angered the U.S., which responded by pulling Turkey from its F-35 program.
In an interview with The Washington Post published Wednesday, Kilicdaroglu said, if elected, his government would pursue a more “balanced” approach to the U.S., but didn’t clarify how the relationship between the two NATO countries would be repaired.