Turkey’s Presidential Election: A Pivotal Moment for Democracy and Security

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the toughest test of his two-decade rule, as millions of Turkish voters cast their ballots in the most pivotal elections in modern Turkish history.[0] Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has maintained a narrow lead in the polls, and is campaigning on a pledge to reverse Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism and bring back the rule of law.[1] Erdogan, who came to power in 2003 as a popular and charismatic leader promising to liberalise Turkey, has morphed into an autocratic religious nationalist, alienating secular Turks, minorities, and young people.[2] To compensate, he has gripped harder, changing the constitution to create an executive presidency in which he rules by decree, installing loyalists in the courts and the military, and using legislative loopholes to cement his dominance over this country of 85 million people.[2] Thousands of journalists, academics, leftists, Kurds, and other opponents have been imprisoned by him.[2] Dozens of opposition news outlets have been closed or taken over forcefully by his allies.[2] Erdogan and his circle now rarely speak with Western reporters.[2]

Anadolu News Agency’s semi-official results show Erdogan’s lead at 49.52% and Kilicdaroglu at 44.76%, with 95% of the vote counted.[0] If neither wins a majority, they will go to a second vote, which would be a first for Erdogan.[0] The stakes for Erdogan are now much higher, as it is his name on a nationwide ballot.[3] In the event that Erdogan shows hesitation, it is probable that his party lost the re-run Istanbul mayor's race by a significantly larger margin, which would deal a significant blow to Erdogan's reputation for political invincibility, from which he has not yet fully recovered.[3]

The Turkish presidential election has turned into one of the world’s most closely watched political contests this year because of the massive implications both for the future of democracy in Turkey and for security in Europe and the Middle East.[4] If Kilicdaroglu wins the presidency by a razor-thin margin, Erdogan might simply reject the result.[5] He has done it previously.[3] In 2019, Erdogan compelled Turkey's electoral court to cancel the outcome and conduct a re-run of the mayoral election after his party's nominee lost.[3] This strategy would work only if the vote is close.[3]

In a tight race, Erdogan’s penchant for political survival above all else has raised questions about the fairness of the election and whether the president will accept the results.[6] Although elections are highly respected in Turkey, it is unlikely that anyone believes he would attempt to annul a vote, even if it led to his loss.[6]

Adding to Erdogan’s woes, he has also found himself pitted against a united six-party opposition under Kilicdaroglu, whose presidential candidacy was also supported by the pro-Kurdish HDP party. Erdoğan’s political fate may be determined by Turkey’s Kurds, who make up to 20% of the population.[7] Erdogan has increasingly used his rallies to castigate his political opponents as enemies of the state, saying each member of the six-party opposition coalition is LGBT, and broadcast an alleged deepfake video of banned Kurdish militants declaring their support for Kilicdaroglu at a rally just one week before the vote.[7]

The world is closely observing the race.[6] Kilicdaroglu has promised to usher Turkey, a NATO member, into a new era by revitalising democracy after years of government repression and refreshing ties with Turkey’s allies in the West. For his part, Erdogan has tried to highlight the strides Turkey took under his rule, as a country modernised by megaprojects like bridges and airports and as a global power that produced military weapons sought by foreign governments.[6]

If Kilicdaroglu wins, he says he would bring Turkey closer to the West politically, economically, and culturally, and restart attempts to join the European Union that lost steam under Erdogan years ago. He'd be expected to reassure world leaders concerned that Turkey is sliding from democracy to authoritarianism.[8] A win for Kilicdaroglu would be well-received in Europe and Washington, primarily due to this reason.[3] His foreign policy would focus on restoring trust in Turkey’s reliability as an ally for both NATO and the EU, even as he continues to approach Vladimir Putin with pragmatic caution.[3] It is anticipated that Kilicdaroglu will infuse fresh energy into Turkey's ongoing aspiration to become a member of the European Union.[4]

0. “Live updates: Turkey's crucial election heading to runoff” CNN International, 14 May. 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/turkey-election-05-14-23

1. “Turkey's Crucial Election Is Coming. Here's What to Know” TIME, 11 May. 2023, https://time.com/6279098/turkey-election-2023

2. “Turkey's Election Is Its Last Best Chance to Avoid Dictatorship” The Atlantic, 13 May. 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/05/turkey-erdogan-presidential-election-earthquake/674042/

3. “Erdogan Is Facing His Biggest Test—Even If He Loses Turkey's Election” TIME, 12 May. 2023, https://time.com/6279427/erdogan-turkeys-election/

4. “Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu square up for likely 2nd-round clash in Turkey” POLITICO Europe, 14 May. 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/turkish-election-turkey-istanbul-ankara-erdogan-vote-count-high/

5. “Turkey’s upcoming elections could unseat Erdogan. Here’s everything you need to know” CNN, 12 May. 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/12/middleeast/turkey-general-election-explainer-mime-intl/index.html

6. “In Turkey's election, voters choose between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu” The Washington Post, 14 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/05/14/turkey-erdogan-election-opposition-kilicdaroglu/

7. “Erdoğan’s grip on power tested as Turkey votes in pivotal election” The Guardian, 14 May. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/14/erdogans-grip-on-power-tested-as-turkey-goes-to-the-polls

8. “Turkey's president has built vast power over 20 years. But he may lose on Sunday” NPR, 12 May. 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/05/12/1175250666/turkey-elections-erdogan-kilicdaroglu

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