A Turkish cliffhanger

And so the result of Turkey’s presidential election (previewed here) is that the country will get to do it all again in two weeks, on 28 May. No candidate has a majority, so a runoff between the top two is required. But incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is very close, with 49.4%, and he will be a strong favorite to win. (See official results here.)

Opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu polled 45.0%, a little below what the opinion polls were predicting. Far-right independent Sinan Oğan exceeded expectations somewhat with 5.2%, and 0.4% voted for former opposition candidate Muharrem İnce, who withdrew at the last minute – allegedly due to the circulation of a sex tape – but was still on the ballot paper.*

Oğan’s voters are more likely to be anti-Erdoğan, but even so Kılıçdaroğlu will realistically need a swing in his favor if he is to pull off a second-round victory. There will be limited opportunity to do so by motivating additional voters: turnout yesterday was 87.3%, up on the already very high 86.2% recorded in 2018. But it’s possible that some of Erdoğan’s rural voters may be a bit less inclined to make the trek to the polls a second time.

As against that is the risk that Erdoğan will use the extra fortnight for a campaign of dirty tricks, or devise some other way of securing his hold on office. But the remarkable thing about the result is how little the president’s authoritarianism has succeeded in changing voting behavior. Turkish elections are just consistently close: Erdoğan won with 51.8% in 2014, 49.5% in the (second) parliamentary election of 2015, 51.4% in the referendum of 2017 and 52.6% in the last presidential election.

There’s also been a tendency in that time for the opposition to underperform its opinion polls – the opposite of what one might expect in a country with limited press freedom. It’s a bit reminiscent of Viktor Orbán’s landslide victory in Hungary last year, but the difference there was much larger. Turkey’s pollsters were only out by a couple of points, but they’re the couple of points that really matter.

Erdoğan also has another card up his sleeve in the next two weeks: he can argue that he will be able to work with the new parliament, whereas the election of Kılıçdaroğlu would be a recipe for gridlock. In the parliamentary election, Erdoğan’s alliance won 49.3% of the vote (down 4.3%) and 316 of the 600 seats – 266 for his own AKP (down 29) and 50 for his far-right ally, the MHP (up one).

The main opposition party, Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP, has 25.4% (up 2.7%) and 169 seats (up 23); its ally the Good Party has 9.8% (down 0.2%) and 44 seats (up one), while the pro-Kurdish HDP, running under the banner of Greens & Left Future, managed 8.8% (down 2.9%) and 62 seats (down five). Two smaller parties shared the remaining nine seats. No anti-Erdoğan majority can be constructed unless the MHP were to switch sides, and while that’s not impossible (it started out with the opposition), its hardline nationalism rules out any co-operation with the HDP.

Will Turkey’s voters care about that? If they are worried about undivided power, they might be attracted to the idea of Kılıçdaroğlu as president with an unfriendly legislature. More likely though, it seems, is that Erdoğan will be able to use the fear of chaos to good advantage as he did in 2015, when a temporary opposition majority was thwarted and voters returned to the devil they knew.

Authoritarian leadership didn’t have nearly as good a time in yesterday’s other big election, in Thailand. We’ll have a look at that tomorrow.


* Note: These figures are still, as of 9.30am Monday Turkish time, not quite final. All polling places in Turkey have reported (although even that took until about an hour ago), but about one-sixth of the ballot boxes in other countries are still outstanding, representing something like 300,000 votes, more than half of which will be in Germany. That’s not enough to change anything important, but it’s possible Erdoğan’s vote might tick up to 49.5%.


UPDATE, 12.30am Tuesday, Turkish time: With 97.2% of the international vote now counted, Erdoğan’s total has indeed come up to 49.5%, as against 44.9% for Kılıçdaroğlu – a gap of about 2.52 million votes. Paul Kirby’s report for the BBC is quite comprehensive.


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