Turkey Elections

A person walks past billboards of Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan a day after the presidential election day, in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday. Emrah Gurel/Associated Press

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, by a healthy margin after a first round of voting in Turkey’s pivotal election, the election board said Monday, following a chaotic night of vote counting that included accusations by the opposition that the ruling party was interfering with the tallying of ballots.

Ahmet Yener, the chairman of the Supreme Election Board, said that as of Monday morning, Erdogan had received 49.4 percent of the vote, to Kilicdaroglu’s 44.96 percent, Turkish media outlets reported. Since neither candidate had passed the 50 percent threshold needed to prevail outright, the election appeared headed to a runoff that will take place on May 28.

The vote was seen as Erdogan’s toughest electoral challenge during his two decades dominating Turkish politics, and a referendum on his increasingly autocratic style of governance. 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 that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria.

Kilicdaroglu, the challenger, promised to bolster the country’s democracy, reduce tensions with foreign allies and return to consensus leadership after years of Erdogan’s centralized management. The results of the election promised 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.

The preliminary first-round results – which also showed that Erdogan’s ruling party alliance had retained control of parliament – defied opinion polls before the vote that had the opposition leading in the election, after uniting for the first time in years. In the early hours of Monday, Erdogan addressed supporters from the balcony of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, telling them he thought that his campaign had triumphed, but that he was willing to accept a runoff.

“We certainly believe that we will win the election in the first round,” he said.


Kilicdaroglu, addressing supporters after Erdogan’s speech, asserted that the president “did not get the result he expected,” and that results were continuing to come in. He said the opposition would accept a runoff vote, “with pleasure.”

“We will definitely win this election in the second round,” he said. “Everyone will see it.”

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

Erdogan used other tactics in the weeks before the vote, including raising salaries for public workers and providing free gas to households. 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 speeches recorded at a kitchen table on topics like the economy.

“It would be hard to see them getting to 50 percent,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the opposition and the second round of voting. 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.


Erdogan, 69, who first gained national prominence as the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s most-populous city, is modern Turkey’s most successful politician. A deeply polarizing figure who has ruled for some two decades, 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 in Turkey.

The devastating earthquakes in southern Turkey in February have cast a shadow over the election. Erdogan’s government was accused of lax enforcement of building codes and a slow disaster response, worsening the effects of the quakes.

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 had accused the United States of trying to interfere in the election. The ballot boxes, he predicted, would “give Biden an answer.”


The preliminary results appeared to show that Kilicdaroglu’s religious background – as a member of Turkey’s long persecuted Alevi minority, which has beliefs that are distinct from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority – had cut into his support and sparked a sectarian backlash. “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 of the Brookings Institution 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 them of association with the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, also “seems 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,” said Aydintasbas.


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

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