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Turkey Elections: Runoff election called as Erdogan faces biggest challenge from Kilicdaroglu

Turkish President Erdogan has finished ahead of main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as both frontrunners are preparing to face each other in the runoff.
A couple walks past billboards with the portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and with the portrait of Republican People's Party (CHP) leader and presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R) in Sanliurfa, south-eastern Turkey on April 28, 2023. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
Last Updated: 2 weeks 5 days ago

ANKARA — Turkey’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face his top rival, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in a runoff election on May 28, Turkish officials announced on Monday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will finish the presidential race ahead of his top rival, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, with both candidates bracing for a runoff poll, according to a statement on Monday by Turkey’s top electoral body.

Ahmet Yener, chair of Turkey’s High Election Council, said that Erdogan received 44.95% of the votes, short of a win in the first round. Yener put the votes that nationalist Sinan Ogan secured at 5.2%, with 99.4% of the ballot boxes having reported their final counts. A runoff on May 28 is highly likely, as neither of the two candidates has secured more than 50% of the vote. Many of the boxes from votes abroad still need to be opened and counted, Yener said.

The announcement Monday morning follows a long night that witnessed rival campaigns of Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu claiming the lead in Sunday’s high-stakes presidential elections.

According to the government’s Anadolu news agency, Erdogan is leading Kilicdaroglu by nearly 5% but slipped below the 50% mark, making a runoff very likely. Nearly 97% of ballot boxes have been counted, according to Anadolu, with Erdogan at 49.42% and Kilicdaroglu at 44.88%.

Addressing his supporters at his party’s headquarters in Ankara early Monday, Erdogan appeared confident that he is leading his rival by a large margin, but the Turkish incumbent did not claim victory.

“We don’t know yet if the [presidential] election is over in the first round. … We believe that it’s over," he said. Erdogan has never faced a runoff before, and if one is confirmed in two weeks, it would mark the biggest challenge yet to his two-decade tenure in Turkey.

“It is our understanding that the conclusion of the count of both domestic and absentee votes will take a little more time,” he said, as the counting continued on Monday.

He also said that the high turnout was one of Turkey’s highest ever, exceeding 88%, according to Anadolu.

But the delay in the count drew criticism from the country's opposition. Speaking at a televised press conference at his party’s headquarters in Ankara shortly after midnight on Monday, Kilicdaroglu accused the Erdogan government of vote manipulation and ballot suppression. “They are preventing our votes from being logged by repeated objections in the ballot boxes where our votes are high,” he said.

“You’re blocking the people’s will. … We won’t allow a fait accompli,” the opposition leader said.

Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, also a member of the main opposition, said on Sunday a runoff on May 28 is “likely” but added that Kilicdaroglu would finish the race ahead in the first round.

Ali Ihsan Yavuz, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in turn claimed on Sunday night that the Turkish president is leading Kilicdaroglu by a large margin.

The race marks one of the most contested polls in Turkey’s history. Both ruling alliance and main opposition-led six-party bloc officials are calling on election volunteers and activists to stay in polling stations where counting is continuing.

High turnout

Election day witnessed a turnout of more than 88% as long lines were recorded outside polling stations in Turkey's main cities. Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu cast their ballots by mid-day in Istanbul and Ankara, respectively.

Absentee voting has already made records with a turnout of 51% in 73 countries. Inflation, economic decline and refugees are top issues in this election, according to polls.

Nearly 61 million Turkish citizens, including more than 3.4 million expatriates, are eligible to vote in the elections.

The latest numbers released on the eve of the elections showed Kilicdaroglu ahead and slightly short of securing the more than 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.  Preliminary results will become available in the late evening local time when the polls close at 5 p.m.

The voting started amid a Twitter controversy after the platform announced on Friday night that it is blocking some content in Turkey ahead of Sunday’s vote. Twitter did not provide details on which accounts it has blocked, but justified the move as an effort to prevent the whole platform from being blocked in Turkey. The Erdogan government has previously blocked Twitter.

“We have informed the account holders of this action in line with our policy. This content will remain available in the rest of the world,” Twitter said.

International observers have been deployed across Turkey. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deployed a full monitoring mission of 350 members. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers and party activists have mobilized against potential election fraud.

Calls by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, on the Turkish government to secure a more fair environment for the campaign process have remained unaddressed.

Erdogan and his government officials have been widely accused of enjoying the benefits of public resources under their control as well as their grip over the mainstream media ahead of the elections.

In its interim report released during the campaigning, the ODIHR also raised concerns over the frequent blocking of websites, requests for content removal and the use of legal restrictions on freedom of expression. In a joint statement last week, watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Article 19 echoed similar sentiments, warning that the government would exert considerable control over the digital ecosystem to undermine the outcome of the election.

The six-party alliance and government critics believe the election is Turkey's last chance to reverse the democratic backsliding under Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

The six-party bloc led by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) pledges to undo Erdogan’s executive presidency, which its critics slam as one-man rule. It also promises to reinvigorate Turkey’s commitment to becoming a member of the European Union by carrying out necessary democratic reforms. Earlier this week, Kilicdaroglu pledged to restore Ankara’s frayed ties with NATO and Western capitals.

Erdogan, who has comfortably fought off almost every electoral challenge during his more than two decades in power, is facing his toughest reelection bid yet amid a cost-of-living crisis and breakneck inflation. The Feb. 6 earthquakes that killed more than 50,500 people in the country’s southeast have further exacerbated the country’s deepening woes.

Erdogan's troubled tenure

Over the course of his more than 20-year tenure, Turkey has drifted from being a country that was rapidly progressing toward becoming a full EU member into one in economic decline and with strained relations with the West. Following the collapse of the peace talks between Erdogan's government and armed Kurdish militants in 2015, Turkey has drifted steadily toward authoritarianism. The talks offered a chance to end nearly 40 years of bloody conflict with Kurdish groups that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

That drift sped up following the 2016 coup that saw more than 250 people killed in an attempt to oust Erdogan.

The failed coup, which Ankara blamed on Erdogan's former ally, US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, paved the way for the executive presidency system, which the country narrowly approved in 2017. The massive crackdown against the Gulenists was later extended to government critics, and hundreds of Kurdish activists, civic group members and journalists remain behind bars.

Turkey’s ties with its Western allies, including NATO members, took a nosedive after the coup, worsening the country’s international isolation. Erdogan’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance also derailed Turkey's ties with regional countries. Yet a fence-mending push driven by a worsening economy in late 2021 saw Turkey restore its ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Ankara is also engaged in high-level talks with the Syrian government after more than a decade of hostilities.

At home, Erdogan’s time in power has also seen deep polarization along the country’s religious and ethnic fault lines. Ramping up his belligerent rhetoric over the past weeks, he has portrayed his rivals as collaborators of outlawed groups and dark and mysterious international power centers.

Kilicdaroglu's reconciliatory approach

Soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat in the country’s Finance Ministry, positioned himself as the antipode of Erdogan with a unifying message that embraces all identities. Kilicdaroglu is Turkey's first Alevi presidential candidate, representing a distinct and often ostracized branch of Islam.

Kilicdaroglu's bloc includes tiny Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party leader Temel Karamollaoglu. The leaders of the other five opposition parties within the bloc are set to serve as vice presidents along with the main opposition’s Istanbul and Ankara mayors under Kilicdaroglu. Former ruling party offshoots Deva and Gelecek (Future) parties as well as Saadet are running under the list of the CHP. The nationalist Iyi (Good) Party, meanwhile, is running under its own name within the alliance.

The election for Turkey’s 600-seat parliament was also held on Sunday. Erdogan claimed victory in the legislative, declaring that his ruling AKP emerged as the leading party with securing more than 35% as of this writing. The AKP-led alliance won the majority of the parliament by securing more than 300 seats, according to Anadolu. The CHP-led people’s alliance, in turn, won nearly 210 and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party-led leftist alliance won more than 60 seats.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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