Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the runoff election on Sunday, gaining a new five-year term. His victory, which after the first round was rather expected, was obtained thanks to a series of rather surprising factors: in recent months, for most of the electoral campaign, the polls had given his opponent, the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. It is an electoral result that could bring about important changes in Turkey: let’s try to answer some questions about how it arrived and what could happen.
Why did Erdogan win again?
In the eyes of many analysts, the May elections had seemed the perfect opportunity for the opposition to beat Erdogan after twenty uninterrupted years in power. The Turkish president was weakened by the mismanagement of the economy and the earthquake in February and the opposition had created a large electoral coalition to try to play on the feelings of tiredness and malaise that were quite perceptible in Turkish society. All this was not enough and Erdogan won again, albeit by a rather narrow margin.
The main reason for this victory is probably that the opposition has failed to overcome the great social and religious divisions that Erdogan has always been very good at exploiting in his long rise to power. From the beginning of his career, he has proposed himself as the defender and spokesman for those large segments of the Turkish population who live in the central areas of the country and in economically backward regions closely linked to the Islamic religion, far from big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The voters of these large regions, such as Anatolia, have been loyal to Erdogan for twenty years and are generally convinced that only he can defend their requests, despite the major problems of recent years.
This also largely concerns religion: the fact that the CHP, Kilicdaroglu’s party, was the party that for decades before Erdogan had repressed the practice of the Islamic region means that in the eyes of the most conservative Muslims it is impossible to vote for someone other than Erdogan.
Furthermore, during his electoral campaign, Erdogan mobilized the media and the entire state apparatus in his favor, thus obtaining an enormous advantage in terms of visibility and attention that the opposition tried to fill using social media average, but with mixed success.
Another possible reason for Erdogan’s success is the weakness of the opposition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu was the only candidate capable of holding together the six very different parties that made up the opposition coalition, but at the same time he was judged almost unanimously as not a particularly charismatic candidate.
The opposition was also unclear in its electoral message: before the first round Kilicdaroglu had set his campaign on solidarity and respect for rights, and his symbol had become a heart made by joining two hands together. After the bad result in the first round, Kilicdaroglu has moved far to the right, promising to expel refugees from Turkey and supporting rather marked nationalist positions.
Have there been frauds?
The quick answer is no, but it’s complicated. Both during the first round and during the ballot, the opposition denounced some electoral fraud. There have been cases of intimidation at polling stations by Erdogan supporters, people voting twice, and so on. However, most analysts believe that these are isolated cases, and not systematic fraud, and that overall the fraud reported is not extensive enough to have determined the result of the vote.
Even the opposition seems to agree: neither after the first round nor, in all likelihood, after the run-off has it filed formal complaints before the Electoral Council.
If the vote was free, it is nevertheless true that it took place in a system that was anything but impartial, where Erdogan was favored in every circumstance (by the media, by the state apparatus) and where the opposition had to campaign in a sometimes intimidating atmosphere. For example, legal proceedings are underway against two of the main opposition figures – the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, and the leader of the CHP of Istanbul, Canan Kaftancioglu – which most analysts consider specious. Imamoglu is quite a charismatic politician and perhaps a better candidate than Kilicdaroglu for the presidency, but his name was dropped because there were fears that if he ran, the trial against him would be used by Erdogan as a political weapon.
And now what happens in Türkiye?
With the electoral victory, Erdogan has guaranteed himself another five-year mandate, and will be able to remain in power until 2028. According to the Turkish Constitution, this should be his last mandate, but the Constitution itself grants him a window to remain in office. power: if Parliament (controlled by parties close to Erdogan) were to interrupt the legislature before its natural end, the president could run once again, and obtain a new full mandate. Some analysts are skeptical that he will actually do it, because a part of his electorate may resent this expedient. In any case, in his first speech after Sunday’s victory, Erdogan said: “I’ll be here until I’m in my grave.”
Erdogan’s re-election is causing great concern among the opposition, ethnic minorities and the Turkish LGBT+ community: everyone fears that a president newly legitimized by the vote could amplify and escalate his campaign to make the Turkish political system increasingly authoritarian, and the increasingly intolerant society adhering to Islamic principles. It is not yet clear whether this will happen, but it is very likely that the political confrontation will remain strong in the coming months, because in March 2024 in Turkey there are local elections, which will be closely fought.
A more immediate concern is that of the economy. Turkey is in a very problematic economic situation mainly due to Erdogan’s reckless monetary policies, which have caused very high inflation (currently it is around 50%, but it was also 80%) and a serious devaluation of the lira Turkish, the local currency. In recent months, due to the electoral campaign, the Turkish central bank managed by Erdogan has exhausted all its reserves to try to support the value of the lira. Turkey has also accepted billion-dollar loans from a few friendly countries, mostly in the Persian Gulf, all of which have once again been spent to shore up the lira.
This effort was only partially successful: the value of the Turkish lira still fell, albeit not drastically. A few days ago the exchange rate between the lira and the US dollar reached twenty lire to a dollar, a very important psychological threshold.
The problem, moreover, is that now the Turkish Central Bank has practically run out of resources. Not only does it no longer have reserves, but due to international loans, the Economist estimated, it is about 70 billion dollars in debt. The risk is that, after having resisted until the time of the vote thanks to the extraordinary interventions of the Central Bank, now the currency and the economy of Turkey suffer a heavy collapse.
What will happen to the opposition?
In his first speech after the defeat, Kemal Kilicdaroglu did not say he would resign as head of the CHP, the party he has led continuously since 2010. However, many expect him to do so in the coming days or weeks, although it is not clear at the moment who could replace him.
It is also very likely that the heterogeneous coalition that was created with the single goal of defeating Erdogan will now dissolve. The six parties that make it up are very different from each other and range from the secular center-left of the CHP to right-wing nationalist parties to Islamist parties. The greatest risk is that, divided and without a strong leader, the opposition to Erdogan risks falling into irrelevance.
However, Bilge Yabanci, a political science researcher at Northwestern University in the United States and at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, argues that the weakening of the political opposition will not be matched by a weakening of civil society, which instead remains very combative against the government by Erdogan.