How Erdoğan beat the odds: Turkey’s election in charts

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defied expectations in Sunday’s presidential election, confounding pollsters by holding together a coalition of Turkish voters that first brought him to power two decades ago.

His 49.5 per cent vote share in the presidential race puts Erdoğan in pole position for a run-off on May 28 against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the candidate for a six-party alliance who secured 45 per cent.

Erdoğan, who has dominated 21st-century Turkish politics, has seen his support ebb in recent years, hurt by an acute cost of living crisis and a plummeting lira. He took home less of the vote in 2023 than he did, for example, in the 2018 presidential contest.

But Kılıçdaroğlu, who has led Turkey’s main opposition party for 13 years, failed to capitalise on that shift in opinion. Instead, Sinan Oğan, a third-party nationalist, secured a vote of about 5 per cent that helped deny Erdoğan the majority he needed for outright victory.

Erdoğan was able to count on conservative, nationalist and pious voters across the vast Anatolian heartland to back him in the first round.

In Rize, a conservative Black Sea province where Erdoğan spent parts of his youth, the president notched up nearly three-quarters of the vote. He also grabbed almost 70 per cent in Konya, one of the country’s biggest provinces, which is home to a large religious community.

To the surprise of some analysts, Erdoğan also won in Kahramanmaraş with ease, a province that was badly hit by February’s earthquake.

The president had faced severe criticism for the government’s sometimes stuttering response to the disaster. But his vows to quickly rebuild shored up local support. Even in Hatay, which had the most buildings destroyed by the quake, Erdoğan took nearly half the vote share.

Kılıçdaroğlu performed much better in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two biggest cities, with Erdoğan failing to reach the 50 per cent mark in their regions. Some analysts said Kılıçdaroğlu’s focus on reform, the economy and freedom of expression resonated more in these urban areas.

Konya, which is home to a large population of devout, conservative Muslims, reflected the cross-currents of the 2023 presidential election for all candidates. Erdoğan easily garnered the highest vote count in this province of 2.3mn people. But Konya is also one of the provinces where his vote share fell most sharply.

The Financial Times reported in April that many people in Konya felt frustrated by economic issues and had wanted change. Yet many also said they did not trust Kılıçdaroğlu, a longtime secular politician and a member of a minority Muslim sect, to make their lives better.

This was evident on Sunday. Kılıçdaroğlu performed better than the main opposition candidate in 2018, who secured just 14 per cent of the vote. But Oğan, the third party candidate, unexpectedly took a 6 per cent share in 2023, attracting disaffected voters Kılıçdaroğlu had courted.

Kılıçdaroğlu swept up much of the predominantly Kurdish south-east, thanks to an endorsement from jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş and a decision by the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), whose base is Kurdish, not to run its own candidate in order to support Kılıçdaroğlu.

The run-off vote will be uncharted territory for Turkey, which moved in 2017 to an executive presidency from a parliamentary democracy.

The contest, analysts say, will turn on what happens to Oğan’s share of the votes. Erdoğan is seen as having an edge here because, like Oğan, he has outspoken nationalist views. Oğan was previously a member of the far-right Nationalist Movement party (MHP) that forms part of the president’s parliamentary alliance.

Oğan has set a high bar for either candidate to gain his backing. He has insisted, for example, that Erdoğan abandon his long-held objection to raising interest rates to battle inflation.

He also said that he would back Kılıçdaroğlu only if he renounced the HDP, the pro-Kurdish group whose backing was crucial for the opposition leader in the presidential election.

One risk for Erdoğan is Turkey’s economy. Runaway inflation failed to deter voters in the way pollsters expected, but the country has embarked on a wide range of policies to defend the lira, which is trading near record lows. If these backfire or fail to prevent further losses, it would bring the economy back to the forefront.

Another significant trend in Turkey’s elections was the strength of the nationalist vote. The MHP, which has backed Erdoğan’s AKP since 2015, drew around 10 per cent, outperforming opinion polls that predicted it would barely clear the 7 per cent threshold to enter parliament.

Devlet Bahçeli, the MHP’s 75-year-old leader for the past quarter-century, has wielded outsized influence over the AKP by delivering it a majority of votes in the legislature. It has steered the government firmly to the right, especially on foreign policy and the Kurdish conflict.

The MHP’s solid performance helped bolster Erdoğan’s grip over parliament, protecting his majority even after the ruling AKP lost almost 28 seats.

By contrast, nationalists aligned with the opposition did not perform as well as expected. The rightwing İyi party, formed by MHP dissenters who made a failed bid to unseat Bahçeli in 2017, has been the CHP’s main ally since the 2018 general elections. The group led by Meral Akşener had polled as high as 19 per cent earlier this year but secured just 9.75 per cent in the election.

The leftwing HDP was forced in April to run its candidates on the Green Left ticket to sidestep a potential ban from the Constitutional Court over alleged ties to Kurdish militants. The HDP’s leaders on Monday blamed their loss of seats from 2018 on the difficulty of publicising their new banner in such a short time, made worse by “the censorship and isolation imposed by mainstream media”.

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