Turkey election: A guide to Erdogan’s biggest test at the polls
Will the May 14 elections end President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year stranglehold on Turkey?
Millions will head to the polls next week to vote in Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which observers expect will provide the toughest test of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year period as the country’s leader.
The country’s struggling economy has dealt a blow to Erdogan, while his rivals, capitalising on the panic, have promised to improve conditions. But Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) still have strong support among large swaths of nationalists, and religious conservatives, particularly in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, who see an opposition victory as a return to an era where they felt downtrodden.
Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know:
When is Turkey’s election?
- Presidential and parliamentary elections are held on the same day every five years. This year, the elections had initially been scheduled for June 18 but were brought forward to May 14.
How does Turkey’s electoral system work?
- In July 2018, Turkey transitioned from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. In the new system, voters elect the president directly and the role of prime minister has been abolished.
- A candidate needs more than half of the presidential vote to win. However, if no one reaches the 50 percent mark, the top two candidates will go head to head in a run-off vote two weeks later.
- Voters will also elect 600 members of the Grand National Assembly, as the Turkish parliament is known, through a system of proportional representation, choosing a party list in their district.
Who are the candidates, and what are they promising?
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69
- The incumbent is running for the People’s Alliance, a coalition of his AK Party and several right-wing parties.
- During his 20-year rule, Erdogan was prime minister for 11 years, before becoming president in 2014.
- Led Turkey’s economic and institutional transformation in the 2000s and early 2010s. This has left Erdogan with a lot of goodwill from supporters, who say their lives have improved. He is also viewed as strengthening Turkey on the international stage, and growing the country’s influence.
- But the country’s struggling economy over the past 18 months has eroded his popularity.
- He has been accused of cracking down on opposition groups, although government supporters said the moves were necessary following a 2016 coup attempt and the threat from “terrorist” groups.
- Promises: Continuation of the presidential system, lower interest rates, and a strong, independent Turkey with influence across the wider region.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74
- Erdogan’s main challenger and the candidate for the six opposition parties of the Nation Alliance.
- Defines himself as a “democrat” and is known for anti-corruption rhetoric, but is accused by detractors of being too close to the West.
- Kilicdaroglu has led the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) for more than a decade of election defeats.
- Critics say those election defeats show that he is not strong enough to defeat Erdogan and lead Turkey. A leading member of his own alliance, the head of the nationalist Iyi Party Meral Aksener, initially rejected Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy in March, before reversing her position.
- Before politics, he was a finance ministry specialist and then chaired Turkey’s Social Insurance Institution for most of the 1990s.
- Promises: return to a “strong parliamentary system”, solving the Kurdish issue, sending Syrian refugees back home, and moving closer to the European Union and the United States.
Muharrem Ince, 59
- The Homeland Party candidate – the only contender without an alliance backing him – branded his movement as the “third way”; however, on Thursday, he said he was withdrawing from the race in a potential boost to the main rival of Erdogan.
Sinan Ogan, 55
- Candidate of the nationalist Ancestral Alliance (ATA) of three parties.
- Ogan has an academic and international finance development background.
- Former member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of the Erdogan-led AK Party.
- As an MHP candidate, he was elected as the deputy for Igdır, a city in eastern Turkey, in 2011 and expelled from the party in 2015 for internal opposition.
- He has been accused of having xenophobic and far-right policies, particularly when it comes to Syrian refugees.
- Promises: sending refugees back to their home countries and supporting the unity of Turkic states.
What are the key election issues?
- Interest rate cuts sparked a currency crisis in late 2021, sending inflation to a 24-year peak of 85.51 percent last year.
- But Erdogan’s supporters say he has revolutionised Turkey’s economy, built infrastructure, and developed regions traditionally ignored by the central Turkish government.
- Two massive earthquakes that hit southeast Turkey on February 6 left more than 50,000 people dead and widespread destruction – reconstruction is expected to cost billions of dollars.
- An estimated 14 million people – 16 percent of the population – were affected by the earthquakes.
- An increasing number of the country’s educated and highly skilled people are leaving the country for political and economic concerns.
- According to the Turkish Statistical Institution, 286,000 people aged between 20 and 29 left Turkey between 2019 and 2021.
Values and identity
- Erdogan, as prime minister, lifted the ban on women who wear the hijab working in the public sector in 2013, a move hailed by many as a validation of their place in society and their religious observance.
- The CHP had previously backed the hijab ban and Erdogan says it may be reinstated – along with all the erasure of identity that represents – if he were to lose, as part of other measures that would threaten the values of the AK Party supporter base.
- Erdogan’s detractors accuse him of reversing democratic gains in Turkey, particularly following the 2016 failed coup attempt, which saw thousands arrested.
- Critics also say that freedom of the press has deteriorated, with 90 percent of all Turkish media outlets under the control of Erdogan’s government and businessmen close to him.
- Anti-refugee sentiment is rising, with rising reports of violence, abuse and crime between Syrian and Turkish communities.
- According to the government, some 3.7 million of the total 5.5 million foreigners in Turkey are Syrian refugees. The government has been praised internationally for its refugee policy, but opposition candidates have been playing on rising hostility towards refugees.