President Erdoğan Leads Turkey’s Election, Headed Into Runoff

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Turkey’s presidential elections are heading for a runoff. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled his country with a firm grip for 20 years, holds a momentary lead over his challenger but has fallen short of outright securing a third decade.

Turkey’s presidential election will be decided in a runoff, election officials said Monday, after incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled ahead of his chief challenger, but fell short of an outright victory that would extend his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade.

The second-round vote scheduled for May 28 will determine whether the strategically located NATO country remains under the president’s firm grip or can embark on a more democratic course promised by his main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

While Mr. Erdoğan has governed for 20 years, opinion polls had suggested that his run could be coming to an end and that a cost-of-living crisis and criticism over the government’s response to a devastating February earthquake might redraw the electoral map.

Instead, Mr. Erdoğan’s retreat was still less marked than predicted – and with his alliance retaining its hold on the parliament, he is now in a good position to win in the second round.

The uncertainty drove the main Turkish stock exchange BIST-100 more than 6% lower at the open Monday, prompting a temporary halt in trading. But shares recovered after trading resumed, and the index was 2.5% lower in the afternoon compared to the market close Friday.

Western nations and foreign investors were particularly interested in the outcome because of Mr. Erdoğan’s unorthodox leadership of the economy and often mercurial but successful efforts to put Turkey at the center of many major diplomatic negotiations. At a crossroads between East and West, with a coast along the Black Sea and borders with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Turkey has been a key player on issues including the war in Syria, migration flows to Europe, exports of Ukraine’s grain, and NATO’s expansion.

Preliminary results showed Mr. Erdoğan won 49.5% of the vote, while Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu grabbed 44.9%, and the third candidate, Sinan Ogan, received 5.2%, according to Ahmet Yener, the head of the Supreme Electoral Board.

The remaining uncounted votes were not enough to tip Mr. Erdoğan into outright victory, even if they all broke for him, Mr. Yener said. In the last presidential election in 2018, Mr. Erdoğan won in the first round, with more than 52% of the vote.

Even as it became clear a runoff was likely, Mr. Erdoğan, who has governed Turkey as either prime minister or president since 2003, painted Sunday’s vote as a victory both for himself and the country.

“That the election results have not been finalized doesn’t change the fact that the nation has chosen us,” Mr. Erdoğan told supporters in the early hours of Monday.

He said he would respect the nation’s decision.

Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu sounded hopeful, tweeting around the time the runoff was announced: “Don’t lose hope. … We will get up and win this election together.”

Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu and his party have lost all previous presidential and parliamentary elections since he took leadership in 2010 but increased their votes this time.

Right-wing candidate Mr. Ogan has not said whom he would endorse if the elections go to a second round. He is believed to have received support from nationalist electors wanting change after two decades under Mr. Erdoğan but unconvinced by the Kılıçdaroğlu-led six-party alliance’s ability to govern.

The election results showed that the alliance led by Mr. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party looked like it would keep its majority in the 600-seat parliament, although the assembly has lost much of its power after a referendum that gave the presidency additional legislative powers narrowly passed in 2017.

According to preliminary results, Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP and its allies secured 321 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition won 213, and the 66 remaining went to a pro-Kurdish alliance.

Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history and politics at St. Lawrence University in New York, said those results would likely give Mr. Erdoğan an advantage in an eventual runoff because voters would not want a “divided government.”

As in previous years, Mr. Erdoğan led a highly divisive campaign. He portrayed Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu, who had received the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, for colluding with “terrorists” and supporting what he called “deviant” LGBTQ+ rights. In a bid to woo voters hit hard by inflation, he increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s homegrown defense industry and infrastructure projects.

Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu, for his part, campaigned on promises to reverse crackdowns on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding, as well as to repair an economy battered by high inflation and currency devaluation.

But as the results came in, it appeared those elements didn’t shake up the electorate as expected: Turkey’s conservative heartland overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party, with Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s main opposition winning most of the coastal provinces in the west and south. The pro-Kurdish Green Left Party, YSP, won the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast.

Results reported by the state-run Anadolu Agency showed Mr. Erdoğan’s party dominating in the earthquake-hit region, winning 10 out of 11 provinces in an area that has traditionally supported the president. That was despite criticism of a slow response by his government to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.

Nearly 89% of eligible voters in Turkey cast a ballot, and over half of overseas voters went to the ballot box. Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, despite the government suppressing freedom of expression and assembly over the years and especially since a 2016 coup attempt.

Mr. Erdoğan blamed the failed coup on followers of a former ally, cleric Fethullah Gulen, and initiated a large-scale crackdown on civil servants with alleged links to Gulen and on pro-Kurdish politicians.

Critics maintain the president’s heavy-handed style is responsible for a painful cost-of-living crisis. The latest official statistics put inflation at about 44%, down from a high of around 86%. The price of vegetables became a campaign issue for the opposition, which used an onion as a symbol.

Source: CS Monitor