Why Erdoğan Is Now the Clear Favorite in Turkey's Election


Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan hold a flag of his portrait outside the AK Party headquarters after polls closed in Turkey's presidental and parliamentary elections in Ankara, Turkey, on May 15, 2023. Credit - Adem Altan—AFP via Getty Images

In an election widely regarded as a referendum on Turkey’s democratic future, the outcome of the first round of voting in the country’s presidential contest over the weekend saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defy polls and secure the most votes. But with 99% of the ballots counted, neither Erdoğan nor his opposition challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu were able to clear the 50% threshold to claim outright victory. Both men will now face a runoff on May 28.

This will be the country’s first-ever presidential runoff. But Erdoğan has reasons to be hopeful. According to the country’s central election committee, the longtime Turkish leader received 49.54% of the votes, largely beating expectations. Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, received just 44.88% despite enjoying a narrow lead in the polls. Overall turnout was a staggering 88.8%.

In a triumphant address at the headquarters of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on Monday, the incumbent appeared to fancy his odds in a runoff, telling supporters that “we are leading by far.” Kılıçdaroğlu, who accused the government of interfering with the ballot count in a bid to “block the will of the people,” also appeared defiant, telling supporters on Monday, “We will stand up and take this election together.”

Below, what we know about what comes next.

Understanding Turkey’s election result

Sunday’s election was always going to be a nail-biter. The contest pitted Erdoğan, who has held power in Turkey for two decades, against the opposition alliance candidate Kılıçdaroğlu, who has campaigned on a pledge to reverse the country’s long slide toward authoritarianism. “We will end an oppressive government by democratic means,” Kılıçdaroğlu told TIME in an exclusive interview in April.

That aim has proven more challenging than most observers and polls had perhaps hoped. Although the opposition won almost every major city and much of the southeast, they failed to make inroads in the conservative interior where the AKP commands considerable support. Preliminary results of the country’s parliamentary elections, which took place concurrently with the presidential contest, suggest that the AKP and its allies will keep their majority in the country’s 600-seat Parliament.

While Erdoğan saw a major drop in support relative to previous elections, some have wondered why it wasn’t a landslide for the opposition given the languishing economy and the continued fallout from the devastating earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people earlier this year. “We assumed that the economic conditions and the earthquake should have, at least in theory, resulted in a bigger vote change,” says Ziya Meral, a Turkey specialist and senior associate fellow at the European Leadership Network. In the end, however, Erdoğan was able to reframe the contest around identity and security and garner considerable support.

As the vote count went underway on Sunday, Kılıçdaroğlu and his allies expressed concerns over the ballot data, claiming state-run outlets were inflating Erdoğan’s level of support and that government electoral observers were holding up the tallying of ballots by purposely contesting the count in opposition strongholds. The Turkish journalist Nevşin Mengü reported that in one Ankara neighborhood, a ballot box had been counted 11 times.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an observer member at the U.N. that sent a delegation of hundreds of monitors for the election, determined in their preliminary findings on Monday that while the election was “competitive and largely free,” it was fought on an “unlevel playing field” in which the incumbent and the ruling parties, by virtue of biased media coverage and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, had an “unjustified advantage.”

What to know about the runoff vote

The second round of voting is slated for May 28. Turkey must now brace for two intense weeks of further campaigning between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. Having secured both a higher share of votes and control of Parliament, Erdoğan is the clear favorite.

But both parties could face a challenge in getting voters to turnout a second time. Kılıçdaroğlu and his allies are expected to try to refocus the election around the economy, in a country where inflation is currently hovering at 43%. The opposition “are going to have to convince the voters that [defeating Erdoğan] is doable,” says Louis Fishman, an associate professor of Middle East history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. “That’s going to be hard, I think.” For Erdoğan, he says, the challenge will be to galvanize his supporters who may regard the election as “done and over with.”

Sinan Oğan, the ultranationalist kingmaker?

The outcome of the runoff could ultimately be decided by another candidate. Sinan Oğan, a fringe ultranationalist figure, came in third place with 5.2% of the vote. Now that he has been knocked out of the contest, his supporters could potentially tip the balance in arguably the most important elections in Turkey’s history—and even the world’s most important election this year.

Although Oğan has yet to throw his weight behind any one candidate, he has already begun to set out red lines for his support, including refusing to back any candidate who he perceives as soft on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group, or the question of the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees in the country. These positions would make an alliance with Kılıçdaroğlu less likely, given that the opposition coalition that backs him includes the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Regardless of who Oğan endorses, Meral says that his exit from the race is more likely to benefit Erdoğan than Kılıçdaroğlu, noting that “if he wasn’t there, most of those votes were likely to go [in] Erdoğan’s direction.”

“No one really knows right now,” says Fishman, noting that Oğan may have also benefited from a protest vote. “His vote is made up of different people with different complaints.”