IZMIR, Turkey — With less than 72 hours to go until Turkey's high-stakes elections this Sunday, several polls have placed opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the brink of a win in the first round — with less than a point short of a majority.
A last-minute withdrawal on Thursday by Muharrem Ince, a presidential contender whom pundits criticized for dividing the opposition’s vote, may have boosted Kilicdaroglu's chances of defeating incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the first round on May 14.
A poll from KONDA, which made accurate predictions in the 2014 and 2018 elections, placed Kilicdaroglu — whom many considered the least likely candidate among the opposition to defeat Erdogan — at 49.6% and Erdogan at 43.7%, while the two other candidates, nationalist Sinan Ogan and Ince, got 4.8% and 2.2%, respectively. Ozer Sencar of MetroPOLL also reported similar findings, with Kilicdaroglu at 49.1% and Erdogan at around 47%. All these calculations on Turkey’s dual polls for a president and parliament were made before Ince’s withdrawal.
“Ince’s withdrawal may be the critical factor that would lead to the opposition’s win in the first round,” Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of Istanbul-based think tank IstanPol Institute, said on Halk TV minutes after Ince’s withdrawal. Ince, a 55-year-old physics teacher, was endorsed as Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate against Erdogan in 2018. However, after his disappearing act following defeat in the first round, he left the CHP to establish his own party.
Korkmaz said that Ince’s votes — about 40% of which were first-time and young voters — have melted away according to the last polls. “Ince has openly admitted that he has taken a path that was not going in the right direction. He had a more critical role [for votes of the opposition] compared to Ogan, whose support came from the voters that would otherwise vote for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), part of Erdogan’s People’s Alliance.”
📌24 hours is a very long time for Turkish politics. Muharrem İnce is withdrawing his candidacy which will increase the chance of Kılıçdaroğlu’s electability in the first round. KK needs appx. % 1 vote to win depends on recent poll announced by KONDA today. pic.twitter.com/9HQNZDs4lo
— Seren Selvin Korkmaz (@selvinkorkmaz) May 11, 2023
But Ince carefully refrained from asking his electorate to endorse Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy as he bowed out. On the contrary, he sounded almost sure that Kilicdaroglu, with whom he has had bad blood for years, would lose. “When they lose the election, they will blame us. [If I resign,] they have no excuse,” he said in a press conference in Ankara.
Ince said he has been the target of a series of character assassination efforts, including corruption charges against himself and his family and a sex video that he said was a deepfake based on images from an “Israeli porn site.”
But many pundits maintain that Ince bowed out because he saw his vote shrink and his local party groups resign to join the CHP as Turkey entered the last stretch before the dual parliamentary and presidential polls.
Kilicdaroglu extended an olive branch to Ince on Twitter. “It is time to leave behind wounds,” he tweeted. “I am inviting Ince to Turkey’s table.”
Sencar of MetroPOLL said that about half of the people who voted for Ince in the first round would vote for Kilicdaroglu in the second round and 22% would vote for Erdogan. Other pollsters such as Can Selcuki maintain that Ince had already lost a good part of his vote — particularly that of the youth — to either Kilicdaroglu or Ogan.
Kilicdaroglu, aware of the neck-and-neck race, has been courting women and young people in the last two days. “I will win in the first round with the support of women because they will know that their children will not go to bed hungry,” he said Thursday in an interview with Halk TV’s popular morning presenter Ismail Kucukkaya, in reference to the cost of living, a top concern for conservative homemakers who have customarily voted for Erdogan.
Erdogan said he was sorry Ince had withdrawn. “I am sorry to say one of the candidates has withdrawn. However, we continue the process, and the people will have their say,” he said at a meeting in Mamak, a pro-AKP district of the capital, Ankara. Later in the afternoon, however, he said Kilicdaroglu had caused Ince to drop out of the race. "All this will come out tomorrow or sooner or later," he said.
AKP still ahead in the polls
The polls maintain that Erdogan’s AKP will be the top party in the parliamentary vote. According to the KONDA survey, Erdogan's ruling alliance will have 44.0% in the parliamentary vote, ahead of the main opposition alliance at 39.9%. Metropoll and Turkiye Raporu have similar findings, with around 30% to the CHP as the second largest party group in parliament. Polls give Meral Aksener’s center-right Good Party, the electoral ally of CHP, between 8% and 10%, making it the third or fourth largest party in parliament, depending on different polls. The Green Left Party — the name under which the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party entered the elections to avoid the risk of closure — is expected to get 9% to 10%. The party and its leftist allies back Kilicdaroglu for the presidential race but are fielding their own candidates for parliament. If the Green Left and its allies win around 12%, they may unite against the AKP and its allies on critical issues once the parliament is formed.
Kilicdaroglu would like to see a win in the first round, whereas Erdogan may prefer a delay to let him campaign on his AKP’s majority, trying to persuade Turkish voters that a CHP president and AKP-dominated parliament would paralyze the country just as many coalitions did in the 1980s and 1990s.