Turkey votes again, with Erdoğan poised to extend his rule

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Turkey goes to the polls Sunday in one of the most significant elections in the world this year, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan well placed to extend his hold on power.

He faces Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of an opposition coalition, who underperformed opinion poll projections in the first round on May 14.

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Erdoğan, who since 2003 has served first as prime minister and then as head of state, has the clear upper hand in what has been a highly polarizing contest, taking place against the backdrop of the devastation caused by the huge earthquake Turkey suffered in February. 

“Erdoğan’s incumbency advantages allowed him to get ahead in the first round and the same advantages will help him get to the finishing line,” said Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The main theme of the tight race has been the country’s economic troubles due to Erdoğan’s unorthodox policies that led to high inflation and a plunging currency. 

Erdoğan’s critics also say he has undermined his country’s democracy and depict Sunday’s vote as a way-station to more authoritarian rule.

The president won the first round vote with 49.5 percent and 27 million votes — 2.5 million more than his rival. The coalition headed by his AK party also secured control of Turkey’s parliament.

In the aftermath of the first round, in which Kılıçdaroğlu scored 45 percent, the opposition leader took a turn toward more nationalist politics, concluding a deal with far-right politician Victory Party Chairman Ümit Özdağ and promising to deport millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees from Turkey. 

But Kılıçdaroğlu proved unable to win the support of the main nationalist candidate Sinan Oğan, who came third with 5 percent of the vote and who instead endorsed Erdoğan. 

Despite the opposition’s nationalistic streak, Selahattin Demirtaş, a jailed Kurdish politician, called on voters to support Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round. 

“If there is no change from the ballot box, it will be a disaster in the economy and democracy. There is no third round of this business anymore. Let’s make Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu the President, let Türkiye breathe,” he said in a tweet.

Some analysts said the first round results reflected the enduring appeal of Erdoğan’s populist and Islamist-rooted politics, particularly for Turkey’s rural heartlands, which remained much more loyal to the AK party than the country’s biggest cities, which have increasingly turned against the long-term president.

The leader of the Turkish opposition coalition Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu underperformed opinion poll projections in the first round of the elections on May 14 | Can Erok/AFP via Getty Images

Critics worry that under Erdoğan’s rule Turkey’s ties to the West might weaken further and the independence of the country’s media, judiciary and other institutions will be pushed into sharper decline.

Çağaptay of the Washington Institute said Erdoğan has been helped by “his complete control of the information flow” in Turkey. Much of the media is controlled by business groups close to the president and some 80 percent of Turks read news only in their own language. 

“He can ‘curate’ reality for them,” Çağaptay said. “He can frame some of the opposition as being ‘backed’ by terrorists, and I think that is where part of the electorate got stuck — they never got to the point of who is going to run Turkey better.”