Turkey Elections 2023: Erdogan defies polls as runoff looms

Neither Erdogan's botched response to the February quakes nor the ailing economy seem to have hurt his popularity with supporters

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)


After almost 20 years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party-controlled government, it seemed the chances of the opposition taking power in Turkey were higher than ever.

But things turned out differently than many imagined and predicted: A runoff will decide who will be the next president of the Turkish republic.

Erdogan is still the autocratic ruler of Turkey. But his image has taken some blows, largely because of the desolate economic situation, which is understandably causing widespread dissatisfaction.

Despite this, the opposition has still not managed to attain the majority needed in the first round of elections for its presidential candidate to win outright. As a result, there will be a showdown between Erdogan and his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in 14 days' time.

'Kilicdaroglu is the election loser'

It is long past midnight. Erdogan supporters have been assembled in front of the headquarters of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, since early evening, getting in the mood for a victory of their "reis," their "captain."

But it's a long time coming. There is still no valid result. Who is in the lead? Who will be the new president?

The monstrous loudspeakers continue to bellow out one song over and over: "Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — our president!"

If the preelection surveys had been right, Kilicdaroglu should have beaten Erdogan on Sunday. But as our driver Sedat says as he brings us from the AKP headquarters to our hotel in the wee hours, "don't believe the pollsters!"

"No one from those institutes tells the truth. Erdogan will probably win again in the second round. Kilicdaroglu is the election loser," he exclaims. "Our people are scared, to be honest, about who they will vote for — the police could be at their door the next day."

An unexpected result

Of course, people are now asking themselves how this could have happened.

The low proportion of the vote received by the nationalist Good Party (IYI) was of little help to Kilicdaroglu. And the Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) got under 10%. That could be because it didn't put up its own presidential candidate, as in previous elections.

This meant that not all its supporters went to vote, a failure to mobilize its base. Many Kurds were also unimpressed by the HDP's support for Kilicdaroglu.

Nationalists and ultranationalists to the fore

The election campaign, which was partly waged on the backs of refugees in Turkey [with many populists blaming the country's problems on them], pushed many to vote for the nationalists. Everyone, without exception, had predicted that this group would get a minuscule percentage of the vote, possibly under 1%. But Sinan Ogan, the nationalist presidential candidate, gleaned more than 5%. The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which hovered around 7% in preelection polls, got more than 10% of the vote.

The message about returning as many refugees as possible to their native countries went down well with voters in Turkey. During the election campaign, language marked by violence, threats and aggression was very frequently heard, particularly from Erdogan's camp.

And if there is one thing that Erdogan is a master of, it is demonizing his political opponents. According to him, Kilicdaroglu is under orders from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whereas he himself is different.

"We take orders only from the Lord and our people!" Erdogan yelled into the microphone from the balcony of his party headquarters after the election, in the early hours of the morning. During campaign events, he was heard saying: "Believe a God-fearing man rather than a drunkard!"

Earthquake and economy?

Shortly after the catastrophic earthquakes in February this year, in which more than 51,000 people died in Turkey alone, everyone thought that Erdogan's disastrous crisis management meant he would be punished by the voters, even in AKP strongholds, many of which are located near the earthquakes' epicenter.

But even here, things turned out differently than expected. The AKP and Erdogan suffered small losses of some two percentage points. And those losses did not benefit Kilicdaroglu, but rather the nationalist Ogan.

Not even the disastrous economic situation, marked by extremely high inflation, even higher unemployment and a massive brain drain among university graduates, harmed Erdogan. Apparently many people think the incumbent can turn things around and put Turkey back on a successful economic course.

Nationalist kingmaker

Over the next 14 days, all eyes will be on Sinan Ogan. The former parliamentarian for the right-wing nationalist MHP has an ideology that better suits Erdogan's "People's Alliance."

Ogan now holds all the aces. With his more than 5%, he can simply wait for offers made to him by the government and opposition, as both alliances know that there is no way around him.

Even though Ogan has often inveighed against Erdogan in the past, this does not mean that Kilicdaroglu can be sure of Ogan's support. As I say: In Turkey, things don't always turn out as one might imagine.

This article was adapted from German.

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