Main Image Credit Turkey's choice: voting for the country's president is set to proceed to a second round. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
After a close first-round result, what are the prospects for the forthcoming run-off vote and for Turkish democracy as a whole?
On 14 May, 85% of Turkish voters turned out to vote for the president and national parliament of the country. Thankfully, no major incident occurred, and the electoral system held together and produced what is seen as a reliable outcome. Both Erdogan’s party and opposition parties have challenged vote counts, as well as discrepancies between the announced results from ballot boxes and how they were entered into the electoral board’s systems. But opposition parties themselves have noted that these do not alter the presidential election results, and any correction would likely only lead to a small number of seats for MPs changing hands between parties.
Including myself, most experts believed a second round of votes was likely, with the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu marginally ahead of the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in pre-election polls. A recent earthquake and dire economic conditions as well as long-term questions on democratic conditions in the country understandably created a basis to think so.
However, the first round of elections revealed a complex outcome that will take some time to decode, but definitely one that has been full of surprises. Erdogan achieved some 49.5% of votes, almost above the 50% threshold he needs to win a third term in power, whereas Kilicdaroglu received 44.8%. This definitely makes Erdogan’s job easier, as he needs only to focus on convincing his voters to show up again while adding 1% with an appeal to conservative, religious and nationalist voters in the opposition alliance. Kilicdaroglu, meanwhile, faces a difficult campaign over the next two weeks to add some 6% to his vote share. He needs to keep his coalition together, not let his voters give in to despair, and appeal to some 1 million people whose votes were not counted due to errors they committed in voting, as well as around 8 million registered voters who did not turn out in the first round for one reason or another.
However, all is not well for Erdogan, who not only received his lowest percentage of votes compared to the last two elections, but also saw the vote share of his own party, the AKP, drop to 35% – equivalent to the level of support it had in 2002, rather than the close to 50% it enjoyed in the 2011 and 2015 elections. This shows that while the Erdogan-led coalition will dominate parliament and he might very well win again, he will only do so with the backing of other parties, given the dwindling number of votes for both Erdogan and the AKP.
The most telling outcome of the election – or the most surprising – did not relate to the two leading candidates, but to ultranationalist independent candidate Sinan Ogan, who achieved some 5.1% of votes. He is now negotiating his future with both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu; thus, if not a kingmaker, he definitely benefited from the outcome. His votes clearly reflect a reactionary stance among nationalist voters and demonstrate how fundamental the question of more than 6 million refugees and irregular migrants has become, considering Ogan’s harsh polemics.
We are still failing to understand Erdogan's voters, and the Turkish opposition is struggling to win over enough of them – even if it is also able to appeal to nationalists and conservatives
The importance of nationalist votes is also probably why the opposition coalition has struggled to bring a wider cross-section of voters together, as it has had to appeal to both Kurdish nationalists and Turkish ones, and to left-leaning voters as well as centrist and right-leaning voters.
All of the above shows how complex Turkish society is, and how Erdogan is still able to count on a substantial number of votes from religious conservatives, nationalists and Islamists – even from areas affected by the earthquake, and despite the daily costs of his unorthodox economic policies. This is because of the complex web of affiliations, identities, beliefs and fears that cement political views, and a sense among voters that even with all of Erdogan’s failures, his party is still the only one that can deliver for them. We are still failing to understand his voters, and clearly, the Turkish opposition is struggling to win over enough of them – even if it is also able to appeal to nationalists and conservatives.
The second round of votes will be held on 28 May. Both coalitions will compete to maintain their current strength and attract new voters. The stakes are high, and whichever ‘side’ of Turkish society wins, the other side is bound to feel fear and despair. Much depends on whether the two candidates will be cautious in the event of a potential victory or loss.
But there is a promising point here: not just the high turnout for the elections, but how tens of thousands of volunteers observe and engage with voting and counting processes, and how the Turkish public deeply owns its duty and responsibility to decide the direction of the country. No matter who wins, they will have no option but to face the pressure and demands from such an involved public. Turkey's democracy is alive and kicking, against all the odds.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Ziya Meral
Senior Associate Fellow; Director of Research and Programmes at CHACR