Turkey’s election: five things to watch

Turkey is set to hold its most consequential elections in decades on Sunday. For the first time since President Recep Erdogan took over as Turkey’s leader in 2003, an opposition unified behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu has a realistic chance of winning power. We have picked out 5 things to watch ahead of the crucial vote.

1. Race on a knife edge but second-round victory for Erdogan our base case

Polls show President Erdogan is neck and neck with opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Both candidates look set to fall short of the 50% threshold required to win outright in the first-round.

A second-round run-off between the two most popular candidates is therefore likely to go ahead on 28 May. In this scenario, we see a narrow Erdogan victory as the most likely outcome. The president is using his control of the levers of state to win support – he boosted wages by 45% for 700,000 public sector workers on 9 May – and is likely retaining firepower for the second round. Reporters Without Borders estimates that 90% of Turkish media has a pro-Erdogan slant, drowning out opposition narratives. Media critical of the government faces severe legal restrictions, accounting for Turkey’s extreme risk score on our Freedom of Opinion and Expression Index.

2. Close results are likely to be contested in court

If Kilicdaroglu manages to beat Erdogan, the margin of victory will be key. A close result is likely to be contested by Erdogan and his supporters at Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK), whose independence is suspect since Erdogan began a purge of the judiciary in the wake of the failed 2016 coup. The YSK ordered a re-count and re-run of the Istanbul mayoral elections in 2019, for example, after the pro-Erdogan candidate lost – although it is worth noting that the opposition candidate still won the re-run contest.

Erdogan and his party are already preparing the ground for a contestation. Firebrand interior minister Süleyman Soylu recently claimed that an opposition victory would be tantamount to a coup. This incendiary rhetoric is designed to rally Erdogan’s base to get out and vote, but also to cast doubt on official results should things not go the president’s way.

3. Will Erdogan go if he loses?

Erdogan’s centralisation of power since the failed 2016 coup and the introduction of an executive presidency in 2017 has led to fears that the president will simply refuse to go if he loses the election.

Erdogan is unlikely to go quietly. In addition to challenges to the results at the YSK, it is likely that Erdogan will call on his supporters to take to the streets, risking widespread street violence and guaranteeing a post-elections period of turbulence.

If a challenge to the results via the YSK fails, Erdogan is likely to step aside. The president still values popular legitimacy and risks losing it altogether if he simply refused to acknowledge the election results and step aside. In any case, he can also make a political comeback (see 5).

4. Stark policy differences divide the president and opposition

  • Economy: Policy differences over the economy are the reason why markets will be watching this election closely. Kilicdaroglu would return Turkey to more orthodox policies, chiefly by restoring central bank independence and reining in government spending. Erdogan’s unorthodox view that lower interest rates reduce inflation, re-stated as recently as April and not reflected in Turkey’s economic performance, would be jettisoned. A Kilicdaroglu victory, and the return to orthodox policymaking that it promises, would likely boost investment flows into Turkey.
  • Foreign policy: Kilicdaroglu would reach out to the West to repair frayed relations. This would entail dropping Turkey’s block on Sweden’s NATO application, prioritising defence ties with the US over Russia, and looking to strengthen Turkey’s trade links with the EU.
  • Governance: Kilicdaroglu aims to return Turkey to the parliamentary system that existed before Erdogan’s introduction of the executive presidency in 2017. This would reverse Turkey’s authoritarian drift under President Erdogan. The change in Turkey's governing system in 2017, and Erdogan’s extension of his influence over the judiciary, lies behind Turkey’s deterioration on our Democratic Governance Index.

5. An electoral defeat wouldn’t be the end of Erdogan’s career

If Erdogan loses, it won’t be the end of his political career. Erdogan will still be the head of the AK party, which most polling indicates will remain as Turkey’s largest single bloc in the next parliament. Erdogan would use this as a pulpit to pick apart Kilicdaroglu’s unwieldy coalition – which includes Islamist, leftist and nationalist parties.

A Kilicdaroglu-led Turkey will face an immediate economic crisis upon taking office. An expected hike to interest rates to combat inflation is likely to cause short term economic pain for ordinary citizens. Erdogan would be able to capitalise on any resentment at local elections scheduled for 2024.

Hamish Kinnear

MENA Analyst, Risk Insight