Turkey to vote in key election, Erdogan faces toughest test yet

Opposition led by ex-civil servant is looking to unseat the long-time leader; Turks are also voting for parliament.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey May 12, 2023 [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – As his country stands on the verge of its centenary, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has framed the next 100 years as the “Century of Turkey”.

The May 14 elections could be portrayed in similarly striking terms – either an extension of Erdogan’s two-decade rule or a government pledging a return to a parliamentary system from the current executive presidency.

The presidential and parliamentary elections are billed by many as the most important since Turkey held its first fair multi-party vote in 1950, also on May 14.

They are taking place against a background of a cost-of-living crisis that saw inflation peak at 85 percent in October and earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 in the country.

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Erdogan, who came to power in 2003, is offering a vision of further development, promising to extend the improvements made by his Adalet ve Kalkınma Party (Justice and Development, AK Party) government.

It is the second national election under the presidential system that concentrated power in Erdogan’s hands.

Erdogan’s challenger

The main opposition challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has pledged further democratisation and to roll back Erdogan’s “one-man rule” while addressing what he calls economic mismanagement.

“Perhaps this will be the most critical election in the history of the republic,” said Bulent Kusoglu, a deputy chairman with Kilicdaroglu’s Cumhuriyet Halk Party (Republican People’s Party, CHP).

“There is also an awakening in society. With this awakening, if we are successful in the elections, society will come to a much better point.”

AK Party parliamentarian Ravza Kavakci Kan also highlighted the importance of the vote. “This election is extra important because currently, we are at a pace where a lot of very good projects are being brought to the public.”

“For the continuation of those projects and to offer new projects, especially to the youth, we are working day and night to find solutions to the newer challenges that may come up. So this is a very important election from that perspective.”

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance, gestures during a rally ahead of
Opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu at a rally in Bursa, Turkey May 11, 2023 [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Erdogan behind in the polls

The most recent polls show Kilicdaroglu leading Erdogan in the presidential race, which will be rerun in two weeks if none of the three candidates passed the 50-percent threshold. In the parliamentary election, however, the AK Party is predicted to be the largest party in the Grand National Assembly.

The withdrawal of a fourth presidential candidate – the Homeland Party’s Muharrem Ince – on Thursday is expected to translate into more votes for Kilicdaroglu.

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Some 192,000 ballot boxes across 87 electoral districts are open between 8am and 5pm (05:00 and 14:00 GMT). Each of Turkey’s 81 provinces counts as an electoral constituency apart from Izmir, Bursa, Istanbul and Ankara, which are split into two or three voting regions.

Across the country, 60.7 million people are eligible to vote. Some 1.8 million Turkish citizens living abroad have already cast their ballots in 73 countries or at border gates.

The votes will see both the president and 600 members of parliament appointed for five years. Parliamentary deputies are selected by proportional representation from party lists.

Political alliances

Political parties – 24 are contesting the elections – have generally formed alliances to stand. This allows smaller parties that fall under the 7 percent national vote threshold to enter parliament.

The AK Party has aligned with Milliyetçi Hareket Party (Nationalist Movement, MHP) and the Great Unity Party from the far-right, plus the conservative New Welfare Party, to form the Cumhur İttifakı (People’s Alliance).

Kilicdaroglu’s CHP is the largest party in the six-strong Millet İttifakı (Nation Alliance), which includes the nationalist İyi Party (Good Party), the conservative Saadet Party (Felicity Party), the centre-right Demokrat Party (Democrat Party) and two parties founded by former Erdogan ministers, the Demokrasi ve Atılım Party (Democracy and Progress, Deva Party) and the Gelecek Party (Future Party).

The pro-Kurdish Halkların Demokratik Party (People’s Democratic Party, HDP), which is fielding candidates under the banner of the Yeşil Sol Party (Green Left Party, YSP) due to a court case that threatens its closure, is the main party in the Labour and Freedom Alliance with the Türkiye İşçi Party (Turkey Workers’ Party, TIP) and several smaller left-wing groups. It has endorsed Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.

Two other alliances – the right-wing Ata Alliance and the Socialist Union of Forces – are also fielding candidates.

Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance, cheer during a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Tekirdag, Turkey April 27, 2023
Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition alliance, cheer during a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Tekirdag, Turkey, April 27, 2023 [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

The voting process

Voters entering the polling booths will have two ballot papers and select either Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu or Sinan Ogan, who represents the Ata Alliance, for the presidency; they pick a political party on a separate ballot for parliament.

Both ballots are placed in the same envelope before being deposited in a ballot box. Votes are counted at polling stations at the end of the day, and a report is sent to the local office of the High Election Board (YSK). Presidential votes are tallied first, and there should be a clear indication of the leadership outcome by late Sunday.

The election process is closely monitored by volunteers, such as those from volunteer group Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond), as well as party representatives, and turnout is usually high – 87 percent was reported in 2018.

Official observers keep a copy of the ballot report from their polling station, and party workers forward these, allowing political parties to maintain their own tally of the nationwide vote. The CHP says it has recruited nearly 564,000 volunteers to monitor the polls.

In the 11 provinces affected by February’s deadly earthquakes, the election council has set up polling stations around temporary shelters for survivors. However, it remains unclear how many of the hundreds of thousands of voters who left the earthquake zone will return for the elections.

The United Nations estimated some three million left the disaster area in the weeks after the quakes struck, mostly for other parts of Turkey. The election council says just 133,000 voters from the earthquake region have transferred their votes to new addresses.

“There are many unknowns that will only become apparent on election day,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor in political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

“We don’t have hard data on how many left the earthquake zone. If they didn’t register in their new residences, they need to physically come back to the earthquake zone on election day and that’s not really a realistic possibility.”

Amid concerns that the AK Party could challenge an opposition victory, Erdogan on Thursday pledged to do “as democracy requires”.

“I believe in my nation and those who do not respect the result of the ballot box have no respect for the nation either,” he said during a TV interview. He also suggested changing the current threshold for the presidential race from over 50 percent.

Source: Al Jazeera