In the balance

May 21, 2023

Turkey heads for runoff elections after Erdogan fails to get 50 percent of the votes in the first round

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n May 14, elections were held in Turkey. Leading the People’s Alliance, President Recep Tayyip Erdo an, won a majority of seats in the parliament. However, he failed to get 50 percent of the votes, triggering a runoff election that will be held on May 28. His main rival Kemal K l çdaro lu received 44.8 percent of the vote.

Turkey’s Ottoman empire was one of the longest-lasting. Osman I, a leader of the Turkish tribes concentrated in Anatolia, laid the foundation of the empire in 1299. At its peak, the empire included today’s Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa. It survived for more than six centuries. The Ottoman Turks established a formal government structure where the sultan exercised absolute political authority over his subjects. The empire expanded territorially under Osman I, Orhan, Murad I and Bayezid I. In 1453, under the leadership of Mehmed II, the Ottoman Turks seizes Constantinople, then the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the empire reached its zenith in the Sixteenth Century. The era was marked with political stability, territorial consolidation, socioeconomic prosperity and knowledge production.

Post-Suleiman, however, internal power struggles coupled with military conservatism affected domestic and defence policy of the empire. Contextually, Europe incrementally started witnessing political stability, courtesy the Westphalian peace (1648), economic development owing largely to industrialisation and intellectual and scientific dynamism grounded in Renaissance. The Ottoman Turks were defeated at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 and the empire lost some key regions over the following century. In the 19th Century, Greece revolted against the empire and became independent in 1830. After almost half a century, the Congress of Berlin declared the independence of Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria in 1878. In the early 20th Century, the Ottoman empire lost nearly all of its territories in Europe during the Balkan wars (1912-13). Moreover, it bore the brunt of World War I after siding with the Axis Powers, which were defeated by the Allied Powers. Following the Armistice made at Mudros, most Ottoman territories were divided among Britain, France, Greece and Russia. The empire officially ended in 1922 when the title of Ottoman sultan was eliminated. 36 sultans had ruled the Ottoman Empire between 1299 and 1922.

After the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, the Republic of Turkey was established in October 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a military man, played a pivotal role in the making of modern Turkish state and society based on the principles of secularism, humanism and representative democracy. He served as Turkey’s first president from 1923 until his death in 1938. Being a bi-continental country, Turkey pursued cordial relations with key European countries. It tried to maintain ‘neutrality’ in World War II, its tilt towards the allied powers was reflected in its action such as attending the inaugural session of the Unites Nations. Later, it opted to side with the US-led Western/ capitalist bloc against the USSR-led soviet/ communist bloc. In 1952, it joined the NATO.

Externally, Tukey has projected itself as a modern country, allied with the West. Internally, however, various ideas and ideologies have shaped popular perceptions on politics, economy and religion. A growing middle class in the 1950s started pressing for religious freedoms such as prayer calls in Arabic. Adnan Menderes, who won elections in the 1950s and was prime minster for 10 years, appeased sections of the populace in socio-religious terms. The Turkish military, claiming to defend the Kemalist ideology, staged its first coup in 1960, toppling Menderes who was later executed on an island. The civil-military tussle, the clash of ideologies (Kemalism versus Islamic conservatism) and disagreement on the implementation of capitalism were the hallmark of Turkish politics, state and society during remainder of the Cold War period in which the Turkish military staged two more coups (1971 and 1980) ostensibly in defence of Kemalist values.

Like other interventionist militaries such as Egypt over the same period, Turkish military had developed political and economic stakes. In 1997, the Turkish military staged its fourth coup. Anti-military politicians and political parties were banned. This included the deposed prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and his Welfare party.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was an important member of the Welfare party. On parting ways with Erbakan, he founded his Justice and Development party on August 14, 2001. The following year, the party, won a parliamentary majority in general elections although Erdogan was barred from running owing to his conviction for reading a poem allegedly critical of Kemalism.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been an important member of the Welfare party. After parting ways with Erbakan, he founded his Justice and Development party on August 14, 2001. The following year, the party, won a parliamentary majority in general elections although Erdogan was barred from running owing to his conviction over a poem allegedly critical of Kemalism. When the ban was lifted in 2003, he won a ‘special’ election and became the prime minister. In 2007, Erdogan won 46.6 percent of the votes in general elections and another term as premier. In 2010, he won “a referendum on constitutional changes that allowed the government to appoint high court judges, curb the powers of the military and provide for presidents to be elected by a national vote rather than by parliament.” Retaining his popularity, he again won general elections in 2011, securing 49.8 percent of the vote. In 2014, Erdogan won Turkey’s first direct presidential election. In the preceding years, he emerged as a strong leader with significant electoral clout especially in the conservative sections of the population that had felt alienated during the Kemalist years and the military-dominated political and constitutional setup.

The military tried to oust Erdogan through a coup in 2016 but failed. Due to his personal appeal in certain sections of the military (I gathered this from my conversations with Turkish scholars in a conference held at Istanbul Zaim University in 2019) and his general popularity, he not only survived the attempted coup but also could took stringent measures against the coup plotters. In 2017, following a referendum, the political system of the country was changed from parliamentary to presidential. The following year, Erdogan’s coalition, consisting of AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), secured 53 percent of the vote against Muharrem Ince’s 31 percent. Resultantly, Erdogan became Turkey’s first president with executive powers.

After the end of his five-year presidential tenure this year, Turkey went to presidential and parliamentary (elections for members of Turkish parliament) polls on May 14. Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led People’s alliance of AKP, MHP, YRP, BBP ran against Kemal Kilicdaroglu-led Nation alliance comprising main opposition CHP and the right-wing Iyi Party, liberal-right Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party and the centre-right Gelecek Party. The alliance also included the smaller ultra-conservative Saadet Party and the right-wing Democrat Party. A third group called the ATA alliance comprising Zafer Party, Adalet Party, Ulkem Party and Türkiye ttifak Party also took part in the elections. The ATA, a nationalist coalition, is led by Sinan Ogan, an academic with Azerbaijani Turkish roots.

More than 64 million people were eligible to vote in the elections; nearly five million of those were first-time voters. The number of overseas voters stood at 3.4 million by May 9. Turkey’s electoral system is a hybrid one: to be elected president, a candidate must get 50 percent of the vote; otherwise, a runoff (second round) vote is called. Proportional representation is followed in the parliamentary election.

Each alliance leader had made multiple appeals to electorate through (social) media. Erdogan cited his 20-year service to the nation. However, his record was seen as mixed as his government had failed to control inflation in recent years. Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat-tuned politician, offered progressive values, public welfare and cultural diversity. Sinan invoked nationalist rhetoric. Some surveys and media reports had projected Kilicdaroglu marginally ahead of Erdogan. On May 14, more than 56 million voters registered their electoral agency. The voter turnout, thus, stood at 86.98 percent. Erdogan received 49.52 percent, Kilicdaroglu 44.88 percent and Sinan 5.17 percent of the vote. A withdrawn candidate polled 0.43 percent.

The result may have been a disappointment for both Erdogan, who fell short by 0.48 percent and Kilicdaroglu who had hoped to win. The results showed that there were serious issues with the survey design. The media hype had apparently focused too much on ‘identity’ as a dominant variable. It seems that pre-poll bargaining with Sinan-led ATA alliance might hae served Erdogan well. Nonetheless, the Erdogan-led People’s Alliance has won more seats in the parliament.

Turkey is now headed for the runoff on May 28. Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are both appealing to the nation to vote for their respective alliance. A major voter shift does not appear likely. This allows Sinan to be the kingmaker.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at

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