Campaign posters of the 13th presidential candidate and chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kiliçdaroglu (L) and the President of the Republic of Turkey and the chairman of the Justice Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R), are shown.
Tunahan Turhan | Sopa Pictures | Light flare | Getty Images
The result of the first round of Turkey’s presidential election was a blow to the opposition, which had high hopes of toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after 20 years in power.
Competitor Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old soft-spoken and bookish man, casts himself as the candidate for change, vowing economic reform, a reversal of Erdogan’s policies that many describe as autocratic and closer ties with the NATO and the West.
Turkish opinion polls – released ahead of Sunday’s vote – showed a clear lead for Kilicdaroglu. But on Monday, after almost all the votes were counted, Erdogan, 69, finished solidly in the lead with 49.5% of the vote; Kilicdaroglu had 44.9%. Since none of the candidates won more than 50% of the vote, the election will end with a second round on May 28.
Turkey is a country of approximately 85 million inhabitants, located at the geographical crossroads of East and West. It has the second largest army in NATO, is home to 4 million refugees and plays a central role in geopolitics with its mediation in the russian-ukrainian war.
The election results show that it is more divided than ever.
They also reveal that despite Turkey’s current economic turmoil, tens of millions of Turks still see Erdogan as their only viable leader.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in the garden of the AK party headquarters on May 15, 2023 in Ankara, Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced his greatest electoral test as the country voted in the general election.
Burak Kara | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Turkey is facing a cost of living crisis, with inflation around 50% and its national currency, read itdown more than 75% against the dollar in the past five years – largely thanks to Erdogan’s steady lowering of interest rates despite soaring inflation and dwindling foreign exchange reserves .
Erdogan served as Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and president from 2014, after rising to prominence as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. He was celebrated in the first decade of the new millennium for having transformed Turkey into an emerging market economic power.
Presiding over many national achievements for the country, he championed nationalist pride, security, respect for the Islamic faith, and frequently pushed back against the West, winning the loyal support of many Turks – as well as non-Turks – around the Muslim community. world.
Opposition ‘should have been able to win this thing’
Face to face with Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu vowed to return to basic democratic values and economic orthodoxy after his rival’s strong influence over Turkey’s central bank caused foreign investors to flee.
He and his supporters accuse Erdogan of dragging the country towards authoritarianism, as Erdogan’s reforms over the years have concentrated his presidential power, and his government has overseen heavy crackdowns on protest movements and the forced shutdown many independent media.
Despite all this, Kilicdaroglu and the six-party alliance he represents have not succeeded. People point to a variety of reasons: his shortcomings as a candidate, the inaccuracy of pollsters, Erdogan’s government blocking a more viable opposition, and the enduring popularity of Erdogan himself.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, gives a press conference in Ankara on May 15, 2023.
Bulent Kilic | AFP | Getty Images
Kilicdaroglu is a “poor candidate,” Mike Harris, founder of consulting firm Cribstone Strategic Macro, told CNBC on Monday, “but he should have been able to win this thing anyway, given the magnitude of the negatives. of Erdogan and the disaster for the economy.”
Harris said that once Kilicdaroglu has been selected as a candidate, and “that mistake has been made, those are the cards we have to deal with. And it looks like the outcome is – it will be close”.
Kilicdaroglu’s party, the CHP, aspires to the fiercely secular model of leadership established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state. It is known to be historically more hostile to devout Muslims, who form a huge part of the Turkish electorate, although the CHP under Kilicdaroglu has softened its stance and has even been joined by former members of the Islamist party.
Critics of the opposition’s choice of candidate point to the fact that the CHP has repeatedly lost elections to Erdogan’s powerful conservative and religious AK party since Kilicdaroglu became its leader in 2010. The CHP’s six-party form is also a hugely diverse party alliance, raising concerns that it risks fracturing once in power.
A representative for Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s campaign was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
Confronting Erdogan: a futile effort?
In recent years, there have been hopes that popular Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a CHP member and outspoken critic of Erdogan, could be Turkey’s next president. But at the end of 2022, Imamoglu was unexpectedly sentenced to almost three years in prison and barred from politics for what a court described as an insult to the judges of the country’s Supreme Electoral Council.
Imamoglu and his supporters claim the accusations are political, directed by Erdogan and his party to sabotage Imamoglu’s political ambitions, which the AK party denies.
For many observers, the story is emblematic of Erdogan’s seemingly unshakable hold on power.
In 2018, Selim Sazak, an adviser to one of Turkey’s smaller opposition parties, writing: “Tackling Erdogan has always been an honorable but doomed effort. Opposition groups have come up against insurmountable obstacles. Erdogan used all the advantages of his tenure; he had all the resources of the State at his disposal and the media was almost entirely under his control.”
Many observers now see the opposition’s chances as bleak.
“I don’t think the opposition will gain ground on May 28,” Arda Tunca, a columnist at Turkish news site PolitikYol, told CNBC.
Erdogan’s AK party also won a majority in Sunday’s Turkish parliamentary elections, meaning “Erdogan has the advantage of convincing the electorate that if the opposition leader is the winner, he will be a lame president because that the parliament is formed by the government in place,” Tunca said. “So the power is on the side of the government in parliament.”
Still, Kilicdaroglu’s 44.9% of the vote is notable as the highest level ever for an opposition candidate, Orcun Selcuk, assistant professor of political science at Luther College in Iowa, said on Twitter. “The opposition have clearly failed to live up to expectations but it would be an error of judgment to say that opposition coordination has failed. There are significant gains but they are not enough.”
49% of Turks “voted for… an economic crisis”
Kilicdaroglu promised an overhaul of economic policies, which many investors had hoped for.
That hope, however, turned into concern after Sunday’s result, with Borsa Istanbul’s benchmark BIST index down 6%, bank stocks down nearly 10% and the biggest percentage drop of the lira against the dollar in six months.
“Unfortunately, it seems [what] up to 49% of Turks voted for an economic crisis. … The next two weeks we could see the currency crash,” Harris said.
The monetary tools the Erdogan administration has used to give the economy a semblance of stability are unsustainable, economists have warned, and after the election they will have to come to a halt, likely leading to high volatility .
“Erdogan’s significant outperformance in the first round represents one of the worst-case scenarios for Turkish assets and the lira,” said Brendan McKenna, emerging markets economist at Wells Fargo.
He expects the lira, which is currently trading at 19.75 to the dollar, to see a “sell off” in the near future and predicts that it will fall to 23 to the greenback by the end of June. .
Beata Javorcik, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, told CNBC that Erdogan had “prioritized growth over macroeconomic stability.”
“There’s a limit to how long you can pretend the basic laws of economics don’t apply,” she said. “So there will be tough choices that the government in Turkey will have to make, no matter who leads that government.”
An unexpected kingmaker also emerged in the form of Sinan Ogan, an ultra-nationalist third-party candidate who exceeded expectations with more than 5% of the vote. Who his voters back in the run-off could determine the final outcome – and they are unlikely to back Kilicdaroglu.
Kilicdaroglu, meanwhile, shuffled his campaign team, firing some staff and stressing that the fate of the election is not yet sealed. “I’m here until the end,” he said in a video, slamming his hand on a table. But critics point out he still hasn’t spoken publicly to his supporters and say he has no clear second-round strategy.
“Kilicdaroglu’s non-appearance on Monday and the gloomy mood in his camp dealt a severe blow to his base,” Ragip Soylu, Middle East Eye’s Turkey bureau chief, wrote on Tuesday.