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"Better is the devil we know," Turkey's elections

Opinion

18 May 2023, 20:15

Turkey is going to continue the presidential marathon "in extra time." In Sunday's first round of voting, neither Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his primary challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu managed to get 50 percent of the vote, although Erdogan came close to 49.5. They now have to compete in the second round on May 28. An influential leader who has ruled a key NATO ally for nearly 20 years faces a challenger proposing change at a time of economic and geopolitical turmoil. Radar Armenia presents the commentary of Atlantic Council experts, from Ankara to Washington, on the election results and their answer to the question of what lies ahead for Turkey.

1. What are the results of the Turkish electorate? What factors determine people's votes?

Rich Outzen.

For many Turks, the result was a simple choice between pain tolerance (Erdogan's poor economic performance and a strong domestic hand) and risk tolerance (an ideologically diverse coalition of inexperienced personalities, unknowns, and principles united only in opposition to Erdogan). However, compared to the results of 2018, the opposition has progressed. The number of votes and parliamentary mandates of the ruling "Justice and Development" party decreased, while the share of the "People's Republic" party increased. Erdogan's votes decreased by more than 3 percent, however. The opposition, in its turn, did not live up to expectations. Polls conducted before the elections generally showed that Kılıçdaroğlu was ahead by several percentage points. If we counted the total number of opposition candidates in 2018, the 46.33 percent they received exceeds the current 44.45 percent of the unified candidate Kılıçdaroğlu.

Defne Arslan.

With almost 90 percent participation, the Turkish people proved their loyalty to the democratic process. On May 14, two elections were held: one for the Turkish parliament and the other for electing the next president of Turkey. The results showed that the electorate was still deeply divided and that the nationalist vote had increased. Compared to the previous elections, the voices of Erdogan's party decreased from 43 percent to 35.4 percent. Its alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, surprisingly defended its vote share in contrast to pre-election polls. The result is an alliance of the above two forces as a majority in parliament, securing 321 seats. This number would be sufficient for a legislative majority but, at the same time, less than the 360 mandates needed for constitutional amendments. On the other hand, the main opposition, "National Alliance," secured only 213 orders.

Despite general expectations, it was surprising that the government's recent economic policies, which led to high inflation, low reserves, and a dwindling foreign exchange, needed to be more decisive in voting for the ruling party. This suggests that Erdogan's recent economic incentives and nationalist motivations, coupled with Erdogan's leadership style, have played a more significant role in how people vote. The increase in the votes of the nationalists was also reflected in the surprisingly strong position of Sinan Oghan, who took third place and collected 5.3 percent when pre-election polls predicted him only 1-2 percent.

Except for the recent earthquake in Turkey's Hatay Province, which was hit by an earthquake, according to current results, it did not have the expected impact on the voters' decision. Half Turkey again believes stability would be better for the country than change.

Grady Wilson.

Across Turkey, Erdogan's vote total 2023 fell by 1-5 percent in most provinces compared to the last presidential election in 2018, in which he won 52.6 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff. That modest decline does not match the opposition's high hopes. Despite years of economic hardship and unrelenting inflation, Erdogan has retained the loyalty of much of his base. The results remind us that the Turkish electorate is leaning heavily to the right. Right-wing parties received more than 60 percent of the parliamentary votes. It also suggests that the electorate needs to be convinced of the opposition's vision or ability to solve the country's challenges. In his election campaign, Erdogan's party played heavily on achievements over 21 years, from his signature infrastructure projects to health reforms and defense industry development, which could resonate more broadly with voters than the opposition's intangible promises and changes.

2. How do you assess the composition of the new parliament, and what effect will it have on the final winner of the presidential race?

Defne Arslan.

Adding up the current numbers, the AKP would have 266 seats and the CHP 169 seats, of which 37 belong to four other coalition partners. Among them are the parties led by Ahmet Davutoglu, Ali Babacan, and Temel Karamollaoglu. In addition, the Left Green Party (YSP) will have 62 seats, MHP - 50, Iyi - 44, and two other parties with nine chairs. With these figures, the People's Alliance (AKP plus MHP) has 312 seats, and the Nation's Alliance (a group of six parties led by the CHP) has 213 seats. These numbers give the majority to the alliance led by AKP.

Two options are possible for the second stage.

- The Turkish electorate can unite around nationalist votes. They may prefer the continuation of the current status quo, a president supported by the majority of parliament.

- The Turks may decide it is risky to hand over too much power to the AKP and instead consolidate around Kilicdaroglu.

Rich Outzen.

The Turkish electorate remains center-right. Kilicdaroglu did not get enough center-right votes to win, which was the key to the result. More than 20 percent of parliament will be made up of overtly nationalist parties (MHP, Iyi, BBP). Oğan's surprising 5 percent in the presidential race shows the persistence of anti-Erdogan nationalist voters who rejected the primary opposition candidate. Support for Kılıçdaroğlu may be mainly from the Kurdish HDP, and Erdogan's instrumentalization of this by accusing his opponent of having ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist group worked to divert some potential nationalist votes from the opposition to Öğan or the MHP.

Grady Wilson.

One of the most surprising results of the election is the resilience of the People's Alliance's second-largest party, the MHP. Once again (as in 2018), the MHP exceeded all pre-election forecasts, receiving around 10 percent of the vote and ensuring that the People's Alliance would continue its control of parliament. Meanwhile, CHP and Iyi underperformed.

3. How do you feel about allegations of Russian influence in the election?

Evgenia Gaber.

Even though the foreign policy was almost absent from the agenda of Turkey's current elections, the Russian factor became a major domestic political issue just days before the vote when opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu announced that he had evidence of Russian interference in the upcoming elections. Erdogan denied the accusations and added that cooperation with the Russian Federation is no less important for Turkey than with the USA. While no evidence of Russian meddling has so far emerged, Moscow's influence on Turkish domestic politics may go far beyond deep-seated fraud and cyberattacks after the vote when Turkey's president-elect will have to fulfill election promises to pay for Russian gas, negotiate with the Assad regime. To sit at the table and stabilize the economic situation. Whatever the president's name, Russia will likely remain a significant factor in Turkey's foreign and domestic policy.

4. What are your expectations from the second round, considering that Erdogan had a significant advantage in the first round?

Defne Arslan.

This morning, the economic market reacted negatively to the results. Turkish credit default swaps, an indicator of the country's financial risk, rose 70 basis points to 576. The Turkish lira depreciated despite controlled foreign exchange markets. The market reaction could have been stronger if more foreign investors existed in the Turkish markets, but now there are very few. The result shows that if the current economic policy continues, Turkey will continue to suffer from reserve losses and high inflation, which is no longer sustainable. For this reason, we can now expect to see a shift in Erdogan's rhetoric towards new economic policies, increasing his tone to appeal to nationalist voices.

Grady Wilson.

In the absence of unforeseen serious developments, it is tough to expect that Kılıçdaroğlu will be able to make up the difference in the second round. He will need 90 percent of the votes that Ogan received.

Evgenia Gaber.

Many people were surprised by the number of votes received by the 3rd place candidate Ogan, who built his re-election campaign on nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric. With over 5 percent of the vote, he went from marginal to being in the spotlight with a trump card for the second round. As both Erdogan and Kılıçdaroğlu try to mobilize constituencies for the May 28 vote, Oğan, who is mainly anti-Western but supportive of Turkey's parliamentary system, could play a decisive role. 

Turkish nationalist voters. The unexpectedly high level of support for the Nationalist Party, which coincides with the ruling party, adds to the sense that observers may have underestimated the anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkish society; the latter is forced to host more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees amid a deep economic crisis.

Rich Outzen.

The election was an impressive, if disappointing for the West, experience in democracy for Turkey. The "judgment" that awaits the end of the second phase seems to be "better the devil we know." Erdogan's attempts to cast doubt on Kılıçdaroğlu's connection to the Kurds of the PKK, his lack of international experience (the CHP leader does not speak English or foreign policy experience), and his respect for Atlanticism appear to have paid off. Erdogan's distribution of pre-election money and promises also seems to have yielded results. Kilicdaroglu was not an impressive preacher, although he was a decent man. His coalition was too small; he was vulnerable in terms of security.

 

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