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Erdogan vs. Kilicdaroglu: What to expect in Turkey's first ever election runoff

Though polls give a lead to the incumbent president, a victory by the main opposition leader in Sunday’s presidential runoff seems still possible depending on a combination of challenging factors.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - MAY 25: People walk past an election campaign poster for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 25, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey. The country is holding its first presidential runoff election after neither candidate earned more than 50% of the vote in the May 14 election. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

ANKARA — As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rival, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, prepare to face each other in a presidential runoff on Sunday, the incumbent president is streaking ahead, polls show.

Several surveys released this week gave Erdogan a single-digit lead, including Al-Monitor/Premise poll that showed Erdogan leading 40% to 39% for Kilicdaroglu. A survey by prominent Istanbul-based pollster Konda put support for Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu at 53.4% and 46.6%, respectively. Another Istanbul-based pollster, Saros Research, also gave Erdogan more than a 4% lead. The public’s confidence in pollsters has plummeted following the majority of research companies’ failure to predict the results of the first round of the presidential race. Several polls released before May 14 elections had given the lead to the main opposition leader.

Given a nearly five-point lead Erdogan secured in the first round of the presidential race, however, the country’s strongman is widely expected to extend his authoritarian rule over to another consecutive term.

A Kilicdaroglu victory seems still possible but depends on a combination of challenging factors. Chief among them is securing the support of undecided voters. The Al-Monitor/Premise poll put the undecideds as high as 15%. Others showed the undecided at around 8%. 

Kurdish vote critical

Another critical factor for Kilicdaroglu is to retain the Kurdish votes he received in the first round. The main opposition leader received nearly 80% of the votes in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Kilicdaroglu’s alliance with a far-right politician this week prompted speculation that some of the Kurds who previously voted for the main opposition leader in the first round might shy away from the ballot box in the runoff. Defying such speculation on Thursday, Turkey’s largest Kurdish political bloc, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), announced that they would continue to endorse Erdogan’s rival, calling on their voters to head to the polls unabridged. 

In a tweet on Friday, influential jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas also called on the Kurds to support Kilicdaroglu. 

The far right's unexpected success in the May 14 poll forced Kilicdaroglu to depart from his usual unifying messages and adopt a hawkish tone. He also struck an electoral alliance with leading far-right politician Umit Ozdag in a bid to sway nationalist voters who supported a far-right presidential candidate in the first round.

Three candidates ran against each other in the May 14 race. Far-right, third-place candidate Sinan Ogan, who received more than 5% of the vote, endorsed Erdogan earlier this week. But it remains unclear to what extent his endorsement will boost the chances of Erdogan, as the real powerhouse behind Ogan’s far-right alliance has been Ozdag. Ozdag’s Zafer (Victory) Party received more than 2% of the votes in the parliamentary vote. 

In addition to his nearly five-point lead in the first round of the presidential race, Erdogan’s electoral alliance also won the majority of the seats in parliament. The Erdogan camp centered its runoff campaign around messages of “stability,” arguing a win by the rival camp would complicate the decision-making process at a time when the country faces one of its worst cost-of-living crises.  

The opposition, in turn, blames the country’s financial woes on Erdogan’s management of the economy as well as institutional and judicial erosion under the president’s executive presidency.

The main opposition-led six-party alliance’s main election promise was to undo Erdogan's executive presidency. After they failed to secure the parliamentary majority to overhaul the system, the Kilicdaroglu camp shifted its rhetoric, saying that the control of parliament and the presidency should be owned by the rival camps to institute a checks and balance mechanism.

Regardless of who wins, the victor of the race will face great challenges in power. Turkey Central Bank's net foreign reserves fell below zero for the first time since 2002, official data released on Thursday showed.  The opposition charges that under Erdogan’s influence, the central bank burned its forex reserves in a bid to rein in the Turkish lira’s dramatic slump, funneling hard currency to the market through back-door channels.

Turkey, which will hold its first presidential runoff in its history, has one of the highest election turnout rates globally, with the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections seeing over 88% turnout. Presidential runoffs usually see a lower election turnout, worldwide statistics show, but absentee voting held in more than 100 countries between May 20-24 saw an even higher turnout than the absentee voting saw on May 14. 

Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu will continue their campaign on Saturday. Erdogan is set to hold face-to-face canvassing in various Istanbul neighborhoods, while Kilicdaroglu plans to address low-income families in Ankara. Both candidates began winding down their campaign activities after the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections. 

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