Five key takeaways from Turkey’s pivotal election

Erdogan a political survivor, Kurds put off by nationalist rhetoric and other reflections.

Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate and wave a Turkish flag.
Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate outside the AK Party office in Istanbul, Turkey, after Sunday's run-off win [Khalil Hamra/AP Photo]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has extended his leadership of Turkey into a third decade after he won re-election in a tense run-off.

Erdogan received 52.2 percent of votes in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, beating his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who won 47.8 percent, according to preliminary results.

Here are five key takeaways from the results of Turkey’s vote:

Erdogan is a great political survivor

Erdogan was already Turkey’s longest-serving leader, but his election win extends his 20-year rule – he was prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and then president – for a further five years.

His influence on Turkey can now be rivalled only by the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was president for 15 years, between 1923 and his death in 1938.

Erdogan has been able to shape Turkish politics. In 2014, he became the first president elected by popular vote, going on to win a referendum that changed governance in Turkey to a presidential system.

But ahead of the May 14 first round, the polls were widely billed as the toughest Erdogan had ever faced – in the wake of an ongoing economic crisis, a seemingly united opposition, and polls largely predicting his loss.

And yet, while he was forced into a second round for the first time, Erdogan dumfounded expectations, coming out on top by roughly 5 percentage points in the first round and putting the writing on the wall even before the run-off results were announced.

The political savvy that has contributed to his survival can perhaps be traced back to Erdogan’s younger days, and a career that began in the 1970s in Beyoglu, the Istanbul district that includes his childhood home in the working-class neighbourhood of Kasimpasa.

He rose through the ranks, and in 1994, became mayor of Istanbul, where he addressed many of the problems facing the city’s rapidly growing population, such as air pollution, rubbish collection and a lack of clean water.

But his rise led to a confrontation with the Turkish state, and even a period in prison and a political ban for publicly reading a politically-charged poem.

Erdogan moved on to found the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which won the 2002 elections against the background of a financial crisis. Since then, the AK Party has won every national election it has contested, and survived numerous challenges, most notably a failed coup in 2016.

Erdogan has been able to reinvent himself, finding new alliances and changing policy when deemed necessary – and despite an increasingly emboldened opposition, has held on to power.

For many supporters, particularly in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland and Black Sea region, he is the man who represents them – no matter what his critics say.

Erdogan addresses his supporters following his victory in the second round of the presidential election at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

This may be the end for Kilicdaroglu

In his first comments after it became clear that Erdogan would continue as president, Kilicdaroglu said he would continue what he termed a “struggle for democracy”.

“All the means of the state were mobilised for one political party and laid at the feet of one man,” the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader said.

Despite the loss, Kilicdaroglu is yet to resign as the CHP leader. Calls for him to do so will now likely increase.

It is not Kilicdaroglu’s first loss since he was elected head of the party leader in 2010, with the CHP losing parliamentary elections in 2011, 2015, 2018 and 2023 and backing the losing candidate in the 2014 and 2018 presidential elections.

There were already questions about Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy before the vote after a key ally, Meral Aksenser, briefly withdrew her support. And now many opposition politicians are looking to Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively, as future leaders.

CHP’s Kilicdaroglu addresses the media after casting his ballot in the run-off vote in Ankara [Adem Altan/AFP]

Were Kurds put off by nationalist rhetoric?

Looking at the electoral map in Turkey, it is clear that support for Kilicdaroglu came in Istanbul, Ankara and Turkey’s western Aegean coast, as well as the Kurdish-majority southeast.

Voters in the southeast did not vote for the CHP in parliamentary elections (the pro-Kurdish Yesil Sol came out on top), a sign that the presidential vote came less out of support for the party and more out of opposition to Erdogan.

The president has lost support in recent years for a crackdown on the biggest pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, and military and security operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates in Turkey and beyond.

Yet looking at the second-round election results, it is clear that there was a significant drop off in turnout, between 5 and 8 percent, in the southeast.

That may potentially have been a response to the increasingly nationalist rhetoric adopted by Kilicdaroglu and the opposition in a bid to win the support of voters who supported ultranationalist Sinan Ogan in the first round.

Kilicdaroglu embraced the endorsement of the far-right Umit Ozdag, which may further have alienated Kurdish voters.

The Syrian refugee issue remains a concern

The campaign took on an increasingly anti-refugee tone, with the opposition in particular promising to force Syrians and other refugee populations to leave.

During the first round of the election, Ogan took 5.2 percent of the votes with the backing of the newly established ultranationalist ATA Alliance, led by Ozdag’s Victory Party.

Ogan and Ozdag’s election campaign platform was strongly opposed to Erdogan and his AK Party, although Ogan eventually gave his support to the president.

Their agenda revolved around a promise to send millions of refugees in the country back to their homelands and used harsh language towards “terror” groups.

Kilicdaroglu accused the government of allowing 10 million “irregular migrants” to enter the country, an incorrect figure. “We will not abandon our homeland to this mentality that allowed 10 million irregular migrants to come among us,” he said in a video posted on Twitter days before the run-off.

Kilicdaroglu’s campaign further inflamed its anti-refugee tone by warning that the number of refugees and migrants could increase to 30 million.

The rhetoric has led to a rise in xenophobic comments, both online and in public, and an increasingly unwelcoming atmosphere for Syrians and other refugee populations.

Democracy decides in Turkey

The joint parliamentary and presidential vote decided not only who leads Turkey, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost-of-living crisis, and the shape of its foreign policy.

Although the exact turnout for the run-off on Sunday is yet to be announced, observers said voter participation was high. Turnout was 89 percent in the first round.

Erdogan has been accused of taking an increasingly authoritarian turn in Turkey, but both government and opposition supporters can point to the high election turnout as evidence that Turkey as a nation is invested in its democracy and that Turks are eager to participate.

Source: Al Jazeera