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Would Turkey’s Erdogan accept an election loss after recent comments?

Already divisive language has become more threatening as the May 14 polls loom, leading to fears for Turkey's democratic transition.
Turkish President and People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Ankara, on April 30, 2023.

ISTANBUL — With just 11 days to go until presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey, politicians' rhetoric is growing more ferocious and physical violence is rising. 

Hopes of a smooth transition should the opposition succeed in the May 14 presidential and parliamentary votes or a potential runoff for the presidency two weeks later are being dimmed by ominous comments from senior government figures that indicate a refusal to hand over power. 

“My nation will not surrender this country to the one who becomes president with the support of Qandil,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters in Ankara on Monday. 

The Qandil mountains on the Iraq-Iran border are the main base of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 39-year insurgency against the Turkish state. 

However, the president somewhat walked back from that comment on Wednesday, saying that his nation wouldn’t let someone with the support of Qandil emerge as president from the ballot box.

Erdogan and his supporters frequently accuse the opposition of having ties to the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. They especially target the People's Democratic Party (HDP), which has its roots in the Kurdish movement. 

The HDP, which is participating in the election under the banner of the Green Left Party (YSP) due to an ongoing legal case seeking to close the party, was among several opposition parties to announce their support for Erdogan’s main opponent last week. 

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose Republican People’s Party (CHP) heads the main six-party opposition alliance, is pulling ahead of Erdogan in the polls. 

Erdogan’s comments follow remarks by Interior Minister Suleyman Solyu last week in which he described the elections as a “political coup attempt by the West.” 

Soylu, who is standing for parliament for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), compared the elections to a 2016 attempt to overthrow Erdogan and suggested the polls were part of a plan to “eliminate Turkey.” 

HDP lawmaker Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu lodged a legal complaint against Soylu over his comments. He said it was “obvious that [Soylu] assesses that the elections on May 14 will constitute a political coup attempt if the current president … loses against another presidential candidate.” 

Gergerlioglu added that Soylu “publicly and clearly declared that he will not recognize the results of the elections.” 

Journalist Murat Yetkin asked whether Soylu’s “outburst” was meant as a warning that the AKP will not surrender power even if it loses the vote.

The AKP’s political discourse, which has long been criticized for polarizing Turkish society, has also taken on violent overtones as election day approaches, raising concerns that such language will fuel physical attacks. 

In a speech at Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul on the Friday of Eid al-Fitr last month, Erdogan told a baying crowd that voters would make Kilicdaroglu a “political corpse.” 

During a rally in the Mediterranean city of Antalya on Tuesday, the president declared that Turkey would “bury” Kilicdaroglu at the ballots. 

Fears of political violence are very real in a country where many remember the late 1970s, when thousands were killed by political gangs. The bloodletting stopped after a military coup in 1980 but reemerged when the PKK launched its armed campaign in 1984. 

Ahead of elections in June 2015, a bomb attack on a HDP gathering in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, caused at least four deaths and hundreds of injuries. 

While attending the funeral of a soldier in Ankara province's Cubuk in April 2019, Kilicdaroglu was attacked by a mob and punched. His entourage was forced to seek cover in a nearby house as the crowd shouted “Burn them, kill them.”

The CHP leader was compelled to abandon a campaign visit last month to Adiyaman, a southeastern province hit by February’s earthquakes, after his party was attacked. 

There have been dozens of attacks on the offices, vehicles and officials of many political parties so far during the current campaign, fortunately without loss of life or serious injury. 

Over the 24 hours leading to Wednesday afternoon, an AKP council member for Corlu, northwest Turkey, was reportedly shot in both legs while visiting a park with his wife and child. A CHP election van was set fire in Istanbul's Silivri neighborhood and two people were wounded in an attack on a YSP election stand in northwestern Edirne province. 

Voting among the Turkish diaspora has also been marred by violence. Some 3.4 million voters living overseas began casting their ballots on Thursday. 

In France, which has the second largest Turkish expat population after Germany, clashes between rival voters broke out at a polling station in Marseille on Monday, resulting in police firing tear gas and four people being hospitalized, according to Agence France-Presse.

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