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Crucial runoff vote: Erdogan vs. Kilicdaroglu

Elmas Topcu
May 27, 2023

On Sunday the incumbent President Erdogan faces his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the second round of the presidential election. Both candidates are still fighting for every vote.

Türkei Wahlplakat Präsidentschaftswahl Erdogan Kilicdaroglu
Image: Tunahan Turhan/Sopa/Zuma/picture alliance

Who will win on Sunday — Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has ruled Turkey for the past 20 years, or his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu? Neither managed to achieve an absolute majority in the first round of voting, though Erdogan held what could be a vital lead.

The two politicians have given it all they've got in the last few days before the runoff vote, changing their strategies, bringing new supporters on board and doing all they can to present a confident front.

Before the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, most opinion polls predicted a victory for the opposition. But it didn't work out that way: Erdogan received 49.5% of the vote, and the People's Alliance, the parliamentary group dominated by his party, successfully defended its majority.

Now the 69-year-old is heading into the runoff with the wind in his sails. Erdogan seems confident; he is emphasizing his previous successes, and his election campaign is focused on stability and continuity.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks on TRT
Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a lead in the first round of the electionImage: ANKA

Career in Istanbul

Erdogan has governed the country for the past 20 years, first as prime minister, starting in 2003, then as president from 2014 onwards. He has shaped modern Turkey more than any other politician.

The strongly religious president's career stretches back to the 1970s, when he was a member of the youth organization of the then party of Necmettin Erbakan, the founding father of the Islamist-inspired Milli Görüs movement.

From 1994 to 1998, Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul. In 1999, he served a four-month prison sentence after being found guilty of inciting religious hatred.

In 2001, as Turkey was in the throes of a major economic and political crisis, Erdogan founded the Islamic-conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party). Just one year later, the AKP came from nowhere to achieve an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections, winning 363 of the 550 seats. Erdogan has not lost an election since, and after each victory he has found new ways strengthen his grip on power.

Turkey election campaigns enter final stretch

The prime minister goes, the president stays

Following a change to the constitution, a presidential system was introduced in Turkey in April 2017. The office of prime minister was abolished, as was the principle of neutrality, which meant that Erdogan could hold the post of chair of the AKP and that of president, as head of the government.

To consolidate his power further, Erdogan forged a new alliance before the last elections in 2018. Alongside the Islamic-conservative AKP, the People's Alliance includes the ultranationalist MHP and BBP, both of whom are grounded in the ideology of the far-right nationalist Grey Wolves.

In late March, Erdogan brought the New Welfare Party into the alliance too, another party rooted in the Milli Görus tradition.

Erdogan is also supported by the pro-Kurdish Islamist party HÜDA PAR, which the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's says is close to Turkish Hizbullah (TH). The TH is known to have murdered a number of human rights activists, business people and politicians in Anatolia in the 1990s. Thanks in part to Erdogan's alliance, HÜDA PAR gained three seats in parliament in this election.

Erdogan's election campaign has focused on religious themes. Violence against women and the LGBTI+ community has also been a big topic, with Erdogan's allies calling for laws protecting these groups to be abolished.

Furthermore, Erdogan has repeatedly inferred that almost all the opposition parties are close to terrorist groups. He attacked his challenger, Kilicdaroglu, with disinformation and manipulated videos, claiming that he was a security risk.

Umit Ozdag and Kemal Kilicdaroglu
Kemal Kilicdaroglu (right) has made agreements with rivals like the leader of Victory Party Umit Ozdag in a bid to forge a new allianceImage: Aytac Una/AA/picture alliance

Who are Kilicdaroglu's allies?

Kilicdaroglu, by contrast, ran a more moderate campaign up until a few days ago. He presented himself as a reconciler who wanted to unite Turkey's deeply divided society. He took as his symbol a heart, and his slogan was "I promise I'll bring the spring back to you."

However, after the disappointing first round, the opposition opted for a radical change of course. Kilicdaroglu's appearances are now loud and aggressive; he strikes a much harsher tone, and rails against refugees.

Just a few days before the run-off, he also entered into a cooperation with the right-wing populist anti-refugee Victory Party, which received 2.2% of the vote in the parliamentary election.

The Labor and Freedom Alliance, whose driving force is the pro-Kurdish HDP, criticized this cooperation, but it is gritting its teeth and supporting Kilicdaroglu. On Thursday, the party announced that it would go to the polls and "put an end to this one-man regime." The majority of its supporters already voted for Kilicdaroglu in the first round.

Kilicdaroglu's Alliance is made up of six different parties. Along with his national-secular CHP, it also includes the "Good Party" (IYI Parti), which has its roots in the Grey Wolves' ideology, but is trying to position itself more as center-right. The other, smaller splinter parties tend to be on the Islamic conservative spectrum.

Kilicdaroglu in BURSA
Kilicdaroglu made the heart the symbol of his campaignImage: Murad Sezer/REUTERS

Alevi origins

Before the presidential and parliamentary elections, Kilicdaroglu declared that he only wanted to be a "temporary head of state" who would "pave the way from Erdogan's one-man regime to a parliamentary democracy" before passing the baton to younger politicians.

This plan has failed, as the opposition did not get the majority necessary to make changes to the constitution, and with it a return to parliamentary democracy has receded into the distance.

In the presidential elections on May 14, Kilicdaroglu gained around 45% of the vote, placing him almost five percent behind Erdogan; and his Alliance did not do as well as expected in the parliamentary vote, winning only 213 seats.

Nonetheless, many people do give Kilicdaroglu a lot of credit for succeeding in bringing six very diverse parties together and forging an alliance — a first in the history of Turkey.

The 74-year-old leader also broken a taboo by speaking openly for the first time about his Alevi origins. In a video, recorded in his kitchen, Kilicdaroglu said: "I am an Alevi, and I am a devout Muslim who was brought up believing in the Prophets Mohammed and Ali."

People who belong to the Alevi ethnic-religious minority usually keep their affiliation secret, to protect themselves against discrimination. Opposition leader Kilicdaroglu has also been repeatedly attacked on account of his origins, and even his allies had reservations about his candidacy.

Kilicdaroglu made a name for himself as an official who stood against corruption, and could not be bribed. He has been a member of the Turkish parliament as long as Erdogan, and has headed the biggest opposition party, the CHP, since 2007.

No party has ever won an election against Erdogan before. If Kilicdaroglu does beat him on Sunday, he will earn himself a place in Turkish history.

This article was originally written in German.

Turkey elections: DW's Dorian Jones in Istanbul

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