The inconclusive outcome of Turkey’s presidential election held last Sunday sends the country back to polling booths next Sunday. While incumbent Recep Tayyap Erdogan secured more votes than his challenger, Kemal Kiridaroglu, neither candidate secured 50 per cent of the vote, necessary to be declared elected under the country’s laws.
While Mr Erdogan will draw succour from getting a higher vote tally ~ about five percentage points ~ than Mr Kiridaroglu, the realisation that less than half of his countrymen support him must be galling for the Turkish strongman who has often pitched himself as the leader of the Islamic world. In the event, Mr Kiridaroglu will need a transfer of all the votes that a third candidate, Sinan Onan, received to beat Mr Erdogan. Next Sunday, Turkey’s voters will have to make a difficult choice. Was the shock they administered to a President seen as increasingly arrogant by denying him outright victory sufficient punishment, and should they now put him back in office? Or is the promise of democracy, with which Mr Kiridaroglu has wooed them, a potent enough inducement?
There is broad consensus that Mr Kiridaroglu, while well respected, lacked a track record in public office, something which voters tend to view favourably. Whichever way voters decide one thing is clear. There is a sharp divide in Turkey between conservative Muslims, who largely endorse Mr Erdogan’s brutal rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community, and the more liberal elements, mainly in urban areas, who support his rival. This was reflected in the voting patterns last Sunday, with Mr Erdogan securing the support of the country’s conservative heartland. Several factors will weigh on voters’ minds as they participate in the run-off. Mr Erdogan, for his many faults, is the devil they know and while Mr Kiridaroglu may sound sincere and well-intentioned, his ability to govern the country is debatable to many.
This is important because Turkey faces economic headwinds, even as it battles record inflation, a weakening currency and the consequences of a devastating earthquake. Secondly, the results of parliamentary elections held simultaneously saw Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party secure a majority of the seats. While constitutional amendments brought in by Mr Erdogan have largely emasculated Parliament’s powers ~ his rival, incidentally, has promised a return to parliamentary democracy ~ voters will assess the potential conflicts between a Kiridaroglu presidency and a legislature controlled by his rivals. Third, while Mr Erdogan at 69 is no spring chicken, his rival is older at 74. Fourth, a swing in votes sufficient to push Mr Kiridaroglu ahead would require a degree of media support in the intervening fortnight, which is unlikely to be forthcoming given the tight controls Mr Erdogan has put in place.
But despite these odds, which might seem overwhelming, secularists in Turkey and around the world will be rooting for Mr Kiridaroglu, who carries the torch of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Regardless of who wins, one thing is certain. Turkey is a deeply polarised nation.