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Erdogan has the advantage as Turkey election heads to runoff

The election between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu moved to a runoff on May 15 after a close race. (Video: Reuters)
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ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, by a healthy margin after a first round of voting in a critical Turkish election, according to preliminary results announced Monday by the national election board, but he fell just short of an outright majority — setting up a runoff election on May 28.

Ahmet Yener, chairman of the Supreme Election Council, said that as of Monday morning, Erdogan had received 49.5 percent of the vote to Kilicdaroglu’s 44.9 percent.

On the eve of the vote, the contest was seen as Erdogan’s toughest electoral challenge during his two decades dominating Turkish politics, and a referendum on his increasingly autocratic rule. Voters said they were concerned with the poor state of an economy marked by high inflation, and the government’s halting response to devastating earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria.

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The opposition appeared more united than ever. Its chosen candidate, Kilicdaroglu, promised to bolster the country’s democracy, reduce tensions with foreign allies and return to consensus leadership after years of Erdogan’s centralized control. The election outcome promises sweeping consequences for the economy and political freedoms at home, as well as the balance of global power, given Turkey’s prominent role as a mediator or participant in conflicts from the Middle East to Ukraine.

But the preliminary first-round results — which also showed that Erdogan’s ruling party alliance had retained control of parliament — shifted the narrative of the election toward discussions of Erdogan’s political dexterity and his powerful advantages as the incumbent. A shaken opposition tried to regroup as it reckoned with its missteps and inflated expectations, stirred by pre-election opinion polls that suggested Kilicdaroglu could win.

Returns indicated that Erdogan retained support even across large swaths of the earthquake zone in southern Turkey — a region that just a few months ago was a cauldron of anger over the government’s slow rescue response, which residents said had cost lives.

Both campaigns promised victory in the second round. “I’m here, I’m here,” Kilicdaroglu said in video posted Monday afternoon, apparently aimed at rallying his crestfallen supporters. “I swear to God that I am going to fight until the end. I am here,” he repeated, banging his desk for emphasis.

“We will emerge victorious from the 28 May election,” Erdogan said in a Twitter message late Monday. “Hopefully we will achieve a historic success.”

Analysts said it would be hard for the opposition to prevail in the runoff, given the first-round results and Erdogan’s control of state institutions and much of Turkey’s news media. Already, there were signs that Erdogan’s tactics, including running a relentlessly negative campaign that tarred the opposition as supporters of “terrorist” groups, had paid dividends.

In the weeks before the vote, Erdogan also raised salaries for public workers and provided free gas to households. Campaign videos and events leaned heavily on appeals to national pride and featured Turkey’s burgeoning defense industry.

As the president’s speeches were given blanket coverage on Turkish news outlets, Kilicdaroglu spread his messages to the public largely through his Twitter account, in monologues recorded at a kitchen table on topics such as the economy.

From his kitchen table, Erdogan’s challenger gets his message out

The early results showed that the “populist-nationalist narrative is effective in every country,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Liberalism is structurally disadvantaged against populist autocrats.”

In that context, the opposition would struggle in “getting to 50 percent” in the second round of voting, she said. The preliminary parliamentary results suggested that even if Kilicdaroglu did somehow prevail, he would struggle to get his policies past the legislature.

During a chaotic election night, the opposition accused the ruling party of trying to stall the process of vote counting, saying the results for hundreds of ballot boxes in Ankara and Istanbul were being challenged. “There are ballot boxes where the vote has been contested six times, 11 times,” Kilicdaroglu said. The election council insisted that was not the case.

A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which sent observers to monitor the election, found that “voters had a choice between genuine political alternatives and voter participation was high, but the incumbent president and the ruling parties enjoyed an unjustified advantage, including through biased media coverage.”

“Election day was generally well-organized and assessed positively,” it said, “however, instances of deficient implementation of certain procedures, particularly during voting and counting were noted.”

In the early hours of Monday, Erdogan was triumphant as he addressed supporters from the balcony of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) headquarters in Ankara, telling them he thought that his campaign had won in the first round but that he was willing to accept a runoff — the first in the country’s modern history.

Erdogan, 69, who first gained national prominence as the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s most populous city, has dominated Turkey’s politics for two decades. A deeply polarizing figure, he has been accused by critics of diluting democracy by using repressive tactics against civil society and the media, while concentrating power as president. Supporters say he has modernized the country through massive infrastructure projects and brought Islam back into public life.

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Kilicdaroglu, in contrast, presented himself as an everyman during the campaign, promising to tackle financial woes — Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies have contributed to soaring inflation — and strengthen democratic norms. But he was outshined by others in his party, including Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who became the star of the opposition’s presidential campaign.

The election has the potential to remake geopolitical alliances as the war in Ukraine drags into a second year and Arab states normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government after a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, most of them by his forces.

Under Erdogan, Turkey, a NATO member, has balanced relations between the West and Russia, sometimes acting as diplomatic intermediary over a Black Sea grain deal and the freezing of conflict lines in Syria, straining relations with the United States and the European Union.

On the final day of campaigning, Erdogan accused the United States of trying to interfere in the election. The ballot boxes, he predicted, would “give [President] Biden an answer.”

The preliminary results appeared to show that Kilicdaroglu’s religious background — as a member of Turkey’s long-persecuted Alevi minority, a group with beliefs that are distinct from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority — had cut into his support.

“It seems that in big cities there was a desire for change, but across the country, in parts of the Sunni heartlands, there was an unmistakable rejection of an Alevi candidate,” Aydintasbas said. Erdogan, she said, had “consolidated” conservative Sunni Muslims.

The surprising success of a third, ultranationalist candidate in the presidential race showed that Turkish voters did “want change” from Erdogan, she said. “They just didn’t think Kilicdaroglu was the guy to do it.”

And Erdogan’s blistering and unsubstantiated attacks on the opposition, accusing it of association with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, also “seem to have resonated,” she said. The attacks — based on support for the opposition from a major Kurdish-led party — included a fabricated video of PKK commanders clapping to Kilicdaroglu’s campaign song.

Beyond Erdogan’s attacks, though, “there is no overlooking the fact that the opposition picked the risky candidate,” Aydintasbas said.

Loveluck reported from Cambridge, England, and Masih from Seoul.