Troubled by the falling economy and the steep rise in prices of essential commodities, Tugrul Oktay (55), a small-time footwear shop owner in the Turkish capital of Ankara, was waiting for election day to brandish his weapon—the ballot paper—to punish the incumbent government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But, on May 14, the day of polling, he told Frontline that the West’s brazen support to the joint Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu led him to change his mind.
“I voted for Erdogan, not out of love but because the West and particularly the US media went overboard in supporting Kilicdaroglu,” said Oktay, many of whose family members live in Italy and France.
Defying the expectations of the pollsters, Erdogan managed to win 49.5 per cent of the votes, while his main opponent Kilicdaroglu, who secured 44.9 per cent votes in the first round of the election.
Since none of the candidates managed to get 50 per cent +1 votes, a mandatory constitutional requirement to sail through, a runoff will be conducted between the two main candidates on May 28. In the next round, Erdogan will need to acquire a mere 0.5 per cent of the votes to declare victory.
There is a gap of nearly 2.5 million votes between Erdogan and his nearest opponent. Sinan Ogan, a right-wing nationalist contender, who trailed in a distant third with 5.2 per cent, now stands to be the key figure in the second round of voting. Another candidate, Muharrem Ince, had walked out of the race just days before the election.
Freebies and welfare schemes
Analysts said that a combination of rhetoric against the West, the distribution of freebies, and the unleashing of welfare schemes just before election day helped Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, officially abbreviated as AK Party, to turn the tables against the opposition.
Just six days ahead of the polling, everyone in the country woke up with a cheering SMS in their phones that the cumhurbaskan (president) has paid their fuel bills for the month of May to celebrate the extraction of gas from the Black Sea.
It was said that the country will meet approximately 30 per cent of its annual natural gas needs from the Black Sea reserves. The same SMS also announced that households using less than 25 cubic meters of gas per month would not get any bills for one year. Like in other parts of Europe, fuel bills had become a source of concern in Turkiye as well over the past year following the Russia-Ukraine war.
It was another matter that soon after this announcement, many middle-class households in Ankara got inflated electricity bills, leading them to believe that money saved on gas had been recovered from them through electricity bills.
Two days before the election, while boarding the train in Istanbul to return to Ankara, AK Party volunteers were handing over food packets to all passengers entering the railway station. These tactics definitely helped Erdogan to continue his hold on his bastions in the less-developed regions including the Black Sea, Central Anatolia, and Eastern Anatolia.
The ruling alliance, however, lost heavily in the elite Mediterranean region, including in the bigger cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Eskisehir, and Izmir, and in the southeastern Kurd regions. Interestingly, except in Hatay province, Erdogan won handsomely in the earthquake-affected regions, where 50,000 people were killed in February and where millions are living in shelters, possibly due to promises of building some 600,000 houses free of cost.
Overdrive by West
“The priority of the Turkish voters was not foreign policy, but the ruling conservative alliance was rewarded for making nationalist rhetoric during the election campaign,” Mehmet Ozturk, a senior analyst, told Frontline. He said that Erdogan’s decision to bring a warship to Istanbul and his criticism of the US before the election were effective during the campaign, as the public had become sceptical of the West’s interest in supporting Kilicdaroglu.
Nationalism associated with the country’s deep insecurity runs supreme and is often a deciding factor, as historically both Russia and the West have militarily attacked the country.
“Turkish people showed that they do not like external interference in their electoral system. The inflation and the cost of living took a back seat, as stability and preserving the country’s security became the driving force,” Ozturk added.
Quoting a senior Turkish official, the Middle East Eye news web site, said that the electorate, including nationalists, largely embraced Erdogan’s foreign policy and believed that it has turned the country into a regional powerhouse. “People may consider [Erdogan’s] policies as nationalist but they are also patriotic, and this resonated with the public. That is why you can see all that interest in the Turkish defence industry products such as planes and tanks,” he said.
For the 600-member parliament, the AK Party won 268 seats (35.6 per cent votes). Together with allies, the ruling AK Party-led People’s Alliance won 323 seats (49.4 per cent votes).
The Republican People’s Party or CHP-led six-party alliance, which had ballooned to 17 parties days before the election, won 268 seats (35.5 per cent votes). These include 10 seats won by Islamist Saadat or Repah Party. The only solace for the CHP is that it increased its seats from 146 seats in 2018 to 169, with a 3 per cent increase in votes, with its individual vote share standing at 25.4 per cent.
Some in Ankara are already saying the Kilicdaroglu camp shot itself in the foot when it indirectly allied with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a move which turned away many Turkish nationalists living in Central Anatolia.
That is why more than five per cent of Turkish nationalists voted for the ultranationalist candidate Sinan Ogan. Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former co-chair of the HDP, repeatedly released messages on Twitter, lending support to Kilicdaroglu.
Erdogan used this to campaign that a vote for Kilicdaroglu would mean indirect support to people who have ties with the terrorists, referring to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has ideological ties to HDP. Also, he got an Islamist Kurd Free Cause Party to his side, thus fracturing the Kurd vote, largely concentrated in the southeastern region bordering Iraq.
Analysing the results, Ozturk believed that while Erdogan himself got 49.5 per cent of the votes, his party won a mere 35 per cent of the votes, a decline of some 6-7 per cent from 2018. He said in the next tenure now, which also appears to be the last term for Erdogan, he will need to project a successor and attend to the party, failing which it will be wiped out once he leaves office.
Support from expats
Erdogan also received the maximum number of votes from expatriate Turks living in Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, but less from those in the US, Australia, Portugal, Estonia, Ireland, and Poland.
Another factor that hurt the opposition was their overdrive against Syrian refugees and foreigners. The pattern of voting shows that the opposition parties lost quite heavily in the areas inhabited by foreigners who have acquired Turkish citizenship, particularly Syrians and Russians.
Syrians like Lobna Helli, who has been a success story as a refugee in the earthquake-affected Gaziantep province for the past two decades by opening apopular restaurant called Lazord, feared another blow to her fortunes.
“My two daughters go to Turkish school and speak the language fluently, better than Arabic,” she told Frontline, adding that her family had integrated into Turkish society after being forced to leave Syria in 2015. Her husband was arrested and tortured by the Assad regime. “It will be another displacement for me and the family,” she added.
Although there has been occasional tension between Turks and Syrians in the city, her restaurant is a destination and meeting place for both communities.
Although Kilicdaroglu had assured that his repatriation strategy would not be driven by racist impulses but would include a long-term, coordinated effort that would not displease Syrians, it left most immigrants fearing that life in Turkiye would be difficult in the post-Erdogan era.
According to Amberin Zaman, a senior writer at Al-Monitor, fears of wide-scale fraud have proved baseless so far, although there are multiple complaints pending, and there was little if any violence during the election that saw a a record turnout of 89 per cent.
While visiting polling booths in Ankara, there were hardly any policemen or security personnel in sight. The process looked smooth, with people queuing up in large numbers along with their families and even pets outside the booths. One could walk to the table of the presiding officer without anyone asking any questions.
But is the high turnout really a symbol of a successful democracy? Frank Schwabe, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said that while Turkish democracy is proving to be amazingly resilient as reflected in the high turnout, the detention of key political and social figures and restrictions and self-censorship do not make it an ideal democracy but an electoral autocracy.
While analysts said that Erdogan’s identity politics under the guise of nationalism resonated well with voters, Kilicdaroglu and the opposition leaders asserted that they will turn the tables in the second round.
“We have over 64 million voters. Of those, 55 million cast their ballots and 1.37 million were declared invalid. Add to that 8.2 million voters who did not go to the ballot box. That makes 9.3 million votes that we will address for the second round of voting to close the gap,” said an opposition official at CHP headquarters in Ankara.
The official, who declined to comment officially, recalled that in recent times in Brazil, Italy, France, and Montenegro, candidates who lost in the first round of elections won in the second round. “The race is still open and we are not writing an obituary yet. We are still here,” he added.