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CMES Regional Outlook: The Turkish Elections

A photo of a string of Turkish flags waving in the air. In the background you can see a mosque. The text "CMES Regional Outlook"
Photo: Kubra Kısa/Pexels

What were the results of the Turkish elections?

On May 14, over 50 million people went to polls to cast their vote for the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey. There were four presidential candidates on the ballot papers, but due to the withdrawal of one candidate, the race took place between the current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (leader of the social democratic Republican People’s Party) and Sinan Oğan (representing the far-right Ata Alliance). No presidential candidate was able to get over 50% of the votes in the first round, resulting in run-up presidential elections on May 28 between the two candidates who got the majority of the votes: Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu.

Results from First Round of Elections (May 14, 2023)

  • Erdoğan: 49.52%
  • İnce: 0.43%
  • Kılıçdaroğlu: 44.88%
  • Oğan: 5.17%

In the run-up elections, Oğan declared his support for Erdoğan, while Oğan’s former ally Ümit Özdağ declared support for Kılıçdaroğlu. This meant that the votes Oğan and İnce had received in the first round (5.6% in total) were distributed between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round. It was a close contest, won by Erdoğan with a margin of about 4%.

Results from Second Round of Elections (May 28, 2023)

  • Erdoğan: 52.18%
  • Kılıçdaroğlu: 47.82%

Erdoğan and the People’s Alliance continues to hold the majority in the parliament.

Were the elections open and fair?

Unfortunately, it is not possible to say the elections were either open or fair. The parliamentary candidates, who were ministers in the previous term, continued their candidacies without resigning and extensively benefited from state resources. Likewise, the media is dutifully pro-Erdogan, which applies to both state-owned public broadcaster TRT and the mainstream media that dominate Turkey’s media landscape. The same can be argued for law enforcement and jurisdiction in the country, that continued to suppress, detain, and punish opposition throughout the election campaigns. Having said that, although there were indicators that showed fraud in the counting of ballots, I do not think it was at a level to change the outcome of the elections. Erdoğan won the “unfair” competition by receiving more that 2 million votes from the electorate.

What does Erdoğan’s win mean for Turkey?

Turkey is already a highly polarized country. As the election outcome shows, almost half of the country is not happy with the current president. This reminds me of the Brexit referendum in 2016, where 51.89% wanted to leave the EU whereas 48.11% wanted to remain. The outcome of the referendum for those who wanted to remain was utterly upsetting, where they had to suffer the consequences of a change they did not want.

So now we have a country that is struggling, if not sinking, economically with very high inflation rates and a collapsing Turkish Lira. The country was hit by a devastating earthquake that left around 1.5 million people homeless. There is an extremely difficult period for Turkey ahead.

Turkey’s society is also deeply divided. The stigmatization and criminalization of the Kurdish movement continued throughout the election campaigns, sadly both by Erdoğan and the opposition. Erdoğan did not refrain from using fake videos, which pushed Kılıçdaroğlu to respond in the same tone that kept reproducing the “terrorist” and “terrorism” discourse against the Kurds.

Other victims of the electoral campaigns were the Syrians (and Afghans, etc.) in Turkey under temporary protection. These people were narrated as “the others” who came to Turkey, got “first class” services when the citizens of Turkey were struggling under the economic burdens.

One of the frequently repeated discourses of the election process was anti-LGBTI+. While Erdoğan and his government continuously labelled LGBTI+ as perverts, the opposition parties failed to respond to these claims with strong condemnation, signaling their lack of bravery to overcome the hate speech and campaigns directed at this community.

Resistance will continue, but we can say that much is at stake for women, LGBTI+ communities, defenders of human rights and freedom of speech.

What does this mean for the relationship between Sweden and Turkey in terms of the NATO membership and protection of Turkish citizens in Sweden?

Seeing that he could win the election even without the votes of the Kurds, Erdogan is likely to intensify attacks on the Kurds. In fact, Erdoğan already signaled this in his victory speech. I expect him to continue his hostile policies towards the Kurds with the support of other nationalist and right-wing parties in his alliance, and potentially even from some members of the Nation Alliance. I am worried that Erdoğan’s new partnership with Hüda Par, the political extension of Hezbollah, will be an important threat in Turkey’s Kurdish dominated areas. There might be increases of attacks on the organizations of the Kurdish political movement, as well as democratic institutions including civil society and media. Thus, a political change will be attempted in the region, led by Hüda-Par with the support of Erdoğan and his government.

Needless to say, Erdoğan’s target will not only be the Kurds in Turkey but also in North and East Syria (Rojava) and the north of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This means that Erdoğan will request military and political support from Sweden, as well as NATO allies. He will continue to frame the Kurdish issue as a national security issue that has to be solved with whatever means necessary. Sweden waited for the election outcomes, but now Kristersson is also aware that Erdoğan is his counterpart. I am afraid that current and future Kurdish asylum seekers in Sweden will be impacted by the negotiations.

Finally, I can say that the European Countries and EU actors can be criticized for the bargaining power they gave to Erdoğan to contain the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War. It is likely that Erdogan will continue to keep refugees as a bargaining token, and the European leaders will continue to turn a blind eye to the democratic backsliding in Turkey. One line of action Europe seems to be taking is rejecting Schengen Visa applications from citizens of Turkey, reportedly almost five times higher than that of embargoed Russia, which is telling.

This article is part of CMES Regional Outlook on Current Affairs series. The author is responsible for the analysis and views expressed in this publication.