On Sunday, May 14, 2023, Turkey held a presidential election, which will decide the future of the country’s leadership. A tight race was raging between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main rival, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has ruled the country for 20 years with an increasing grip. The results of the election will determine if a NATO ally that straddles Europe and Asia but borders Syria and Iran remains under Erdogan’s control or resumes the more democratic path promised by his main rival, Kilicdaroglu.
The unofficial vote count has dipped below the majority that the incumbent needs to win reelection. Erdogan had 49.6% of the vote, while Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of a six-party alliance, had 44.7%, according to the state-run news agency Anadolu. The majority of ballots from the 3.4 million eligible overseas voters still need to be tallied, and a May 28 runoff election was not assured.
The first decade of Erdogan’s leadership was marked by applause for transforming Turkey into a success story in terms of economics and politics, but his quashing of dissent and adoption of autocratic rules and laws has caused him mounting criticism in the last decade. Despite being once a poster child for developing nations, Turkey faces high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, both of which are often attributed to Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, which are regularly criticized by opponents.
Erdogan’s chief rival, Kilicdaroglu, is a secular social democrat politician who has emphasized messages of freedom and democracy on the campaign trail. It has promised to roll back constitutional changes introduced after a 2017 referendum that significantly expanded the powers of the presidency.
The 600-seat Turkish parliament, which lost much of its legislative power after Erdogan’s presidency, was also filled by voters. In the event that it wins both the presidential and parliamentary elections, the opposition has promised to restore parliamentary democracy to Turkey’s governance system. Anadolu news agency said Erdogan’s ruling party alliance was hovering around 49.3%, while Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance had around 35.2% and support for a pro-Kurdish party stood above 10%.
It was the first year Turkey was a republic after the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. There were 64 million eligible voters, including 3.4 million overseas voters. In Turkey, voter turnout is traditionally high, but since the coup attempt of 2016 the government has suppressed freedom of speech and assembly. Ankara blamed the failed coup on followers of Fethullah Gulen, a former ally, and began a large-scale crackdown on pro-Kurdish politicians and civil servants.
Globally, the elections were viewed as a trial for an opposition coalition to remove a leader who has amassed almost complete control over state powers and aimed to exert greater influence on the global platform. Erdogan was involved in brokering an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, with the backing of the United Nations, which enabled Ukrainian grain to be exported from Black Sea ports despite ongoing conflict with Russia. This arrangement is due to end soon, and Turkey recently facilitated discussions in an attempt to extend it.