Crunch time in Turkey’s run-off vote
Unlike the opposition alliance’s failure to make substantial gains in parliament, the People’s Alliance – which Erdogan’s party leads in the parliamentary majority – has much more to offer.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emerged increasingly confident in the first round of elections on May 14. His performance afforded a 49.51% share in votes, preparing the ground for a decisive advantage against chief rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a highly anticipated second round on May 28. The case for Erdogan’s likely victory is evidenced by the fact that his vote accumulation remains in touching distance to the 50% threshold that determines the majority. “The 14 May elections, one of the elections with the highest participation in our history, took place in a festive atmosphere befitting our democracy,” hailed Erdogan earlier this week.
Unlike the opposition alliance’s failure to make substantial gains in parliament, the People’s Alliance – which Erdogan’s party leads in the parliamentary majority – has much more to offer. For instance, it appears largely resistant to opposition attacks calling for a sweeping overhaul of the Turkish governance system. Loyalists within the alliance are also unfazed by Kilicdaroglu’s personal resistance to Erdogan, and his time-tested popularity in a tight race. Kilicdaroglu’s 44.88% vote accumulation is now increasingly informed by a desperate push to tap populist sentiment, such as violent opposition to migrant rights, in the hope that such ballistic rhetoric would change fortunes on May 28. However, in the process of such a gamble, Kilicdaroglu’s dire lack of policy proposals on actual concerns – such as dampening inflation, overcoming disunity, and democratic continuity – play to Erdogan’s advantage.
The first round confirmed Erdogan’s ability to drive forward policy interests that appeal more to the common voter as opposed to incentives from the rival alliance. For instance, despite a soaring inflation rate of 45%, Erdogan’s election strategy remains consistent with the original promise of prioritizing the economy. It is evidenced by key speeches as well as hard-hitting attacks that cast a shadow over Kilicdaroglu’s own public messaging. Erdogan’s past success in addressing Turkey’s core challenges, including economic exigencies, could invite more confidence in his re-election bid, and warrant optimism for partnering closely with a new lot of elected ministers in parliament.
Early reporting has shown that over half of the Turkish parliament could comprise of newly elected MPs. That is a reality that favors Erdogan’s ability to coordinate expectations among distinct segments in parliament, given that his party’s alliance itself is in the majority. Moreover, Erdogan’s 49.51% vote is widely expected to emerge advantageous in the lead-up to the run-offs, and has been accumulated on the back of appealing to voters from diverse segments. It remains increasingly unlikely that Kemal Kilicdaroglu will be able to accumulate those strengths in the run-off purely on the back of his personal opposition to Erdogan.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is also firmly united in its support for the president’s re-election bid, though Kilicdaroglu faces an uphill battle trying to change his runner-up status and make voters sway his way. For instance, Kilicdaroglu reportedly lost a moderate chunk of the politically advantageous conservative Kurdish vote, tipping the second round momentum further in Erdogan’s favor. Both sides are inclined to place their bets on a potential kingmaker in the second-round: nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan. With 5.2% of the vote under his belt, Ogan’s motivations to back candidates will prove decisive for Erdogan, while further complicating Kilicdaroglu’s prospects of courting Ogan’s loyalties in a divided alliance. In a sign that Erdogan has sensed the temperature and is likely to step-up expectations for victory, there are reports that he held discussions with Ogan on Turkey’s runoff vote and both sides “agree on same principles” ahead of the contest.
Kilicdaroglu’s pro-Western pandering, his perceived resistance to Turkey’s non-Western political allies, and robust anti-immigration pivot have all the makings of a less focused reform agenda to court the likes of Ogan. The latter is yet to endorse a single candidate and thus would be a decisive factor in potentially strengthening the advantage of Erdogan in the second round.
If Erdogan manages to seal a likely victory in the second round, his re-election will have favorable implications for Turkey – both domestic and international. First, continuity of rule could send a powerful signal overseas about the resolve and battle-hardened mindset of Erdogan after weathering one of his tightest election races. In his own telling, he plans to maintain the same foreign policy trajectory that has enabled Turkey to maintain “the policy of 'embracing' with all countries – with Russia, the US, China, with all Western countries.” Turkey under Erdogan has exerted a positive influence in the Middle East by maintaining proximity to powerbrokers while advancing a multidirectional foreign policy that interacts with NATO but never operates in lockstep on national interests. Kilicdaroglu’s alliance has expressed potential to the contrary.
Domestically, Erdogan’s leadership promise pales the prospect of Kilicdaroglu’s six-party alliance when it comes to investing in the pillars and institutes of Turkey’s governance system. For voters that have witnessed the highs and lows of Erdogan’s rule, there is a greater degree of certainty that Erdogan won’t risk sweeping reforms to Turkey’s law and order practices. To obtain Western favor, Kilicdaroglu represents a controversial push to court the European Union (EU) and provide massive concessions at the expense of deep-seated Turkish skepticism. Erdogan’s success in balancing those considerations, and his current push to whether Turkey’s economic crisis, demonstrate his weight in the second round.
Unless there is a massive surprise out of thin air, even a fraction of more votes for Erdogan could drive Kilicdaroglu’s election ambitions to the ground.