Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing his first runoff after votes in his country’s presidential election ended on Sunday with a tie between him and the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). Both candidates are expected to face each other again in a second round on May 28.
Polls opened Sunday at 8 a.m. local time for the over 64 million Turkish citizens who are eligible to vote to choose their next president and parliament for a five-year term, according to AlJazeera. There are also 3.4 million voters overseas, who completed voting on Tuesday, according to Reuters. Voter turnout in Turkish elections is usually high. Around 87 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2018 presidential election.
Vote counting started after the polls closed at 5 p.m. local time, with Erdogan gaining most of the voter support over other candidates, according to initial results that were regularly updated on Turkish news agency TRT Haber. AlJazeera also reported similar initial results.
With the unofficial count nearly completed, Erdogan, 69, was slightly ahead of Kilicdaroglu, 74, with a 49.4 percent voter turnout compared to the liberal candidate’s 44.8 percent. Meanwhile, other candidates had a low voter turnout compared to their two rivals who led the race, with Muharrem Ince, founder of the Homeland Party gaining 0.5 percent of votes, while the leader of the ATA Alliance, Sinan Ogan, gained 5.3 percent of votes.
Erdogan has ruled the country for 20 years, first as Prime Minister between 2003 and 2014, then as president since 2014. While previously the President of Turkey was purely a ceremonial position, this changed in 2017 when constitutional amendments abolished the office of prime minister.
The Turkish president has long faced criticism over the course of his 20 years of leadership, despite securing voter majority so far. He repeatedly faced backlash for cracking down on human rights and censoring the media and has been scrutinized for his close ties with Putin—who launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February. Erdogan also faced backlash over his relief response to the deadly earthquake that killed thousands in Turkey.
Voter Sentiment in Turkey
Anticipation and eagerness for the final results was a shared sentiment among Turks, including those who were concerned about rising tensions when the results were announced, Reuters reported. Still, Erdogan said on Friday that he will concede to election results if he loses.
Erdogan’s campaign was centered over the past month around the government’s achievements in the defense sector and infrastructure projects. During his campaign, Erdogan claimed that the opposition is receiving orders from the West and that they will respond to demands of Western countries if elected, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu, a more progressive candidate, pledged “true democracy” for Turkish citizens, according to his interview with DW this week, and said that political activists who were jailed under Erdogan’s regime will be released if he was elected.
However, Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of History at St. Lawrence University, where he teaches courses on Middle East History and Politics, warned that five more years of Erdogan’s rule would mean less emphasis on democracy.
“[It] would mean further crackdowns on dissent, further jailing of journalists, and further politicization of key institutions, including the courts,” he told Newsweek in an email on Sunday.
The associate professor said that Turkish citizens are massively divided because of Erdogan’s governance.
“Turkey is a highly polarized country and Erdogan, like many populists, has focused and intensified that polarization as part of his style of governance. Turks have been – and continue to be – sharply divided; Erdogan has ruled Turkey for more than twenty years, but he has only ever won elections by the barest of margins – and often through manipulation of the election process,” said Eissenstat.
Eissenstat explained that many Turkish voters identify “very strongly” with Erdogan, partially for cultural reasons and because “they feel it is the patriotic thing to do,” while others are hoping that Erdogan would take back the country to the economic growth achieved by his party AKP (Justice and Development Party) in its early years since it was established in 2001.
Economy is a major factor in today’s election in Turkey, according to Eissentat, who described Erdogan’s management of Turkish economy as “appalling.”
A new sector of the country’s economy has been recently created with the inauguration of Turkey’s first nuclear plant. The $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant was built and owned by Rosatom, a Russian state-owned nuclear corporation. Turkey is highly dependent on Russian energy and investments that are contributing to its struggling economy. Turkey receives about 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia along with massive amounts of coal and oil, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Turkey’s Policy Towards Russia and the West
Turkey made sure that it maintains close ties with Russia, its Black Sea neighbor, despite also being an active mediator role between Kyiv and Moscow with the country brokering a grain export deal that both sides signed on, easing a global food crisis that stemmed from Putin’s war. Ankara also supplied drones to the war-torn country, with the Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, announcing last year the construction of a factory in his country owned by Baykar, a Turkish company that produces “Bayraktars” drones, which has been used against Russian troops.
Erdogan’s close ties with Putin has often sparked concerns among Western nations who completely denounced the war in Ukraine and continued to send military aid to the Eastern European country. However, Kilicdaroglu, has a different view when it comes to Turkey’s foreign policy as he wants to rebuild relations with the West, which were undermined during Erdogan’s presidency, but still remain in a good standing with Russia.
“We are a member of the NATO alliance. We are also a country that has applied for membership of the European Union,” the opposition leader told DW. “Therefore, we will turn towards the West and towards Western civilization. Of course, we would like to have good relations with Russia. We have many business people working there. But we do not think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is right and we do not accept it.”
Daria Isachenko, an associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Newsweek that Turkey’s relation with Russia is a “mutual and interdependent one” regardless of who is in power.
“It is a tit-for-tat relationship, based on give-and-take. If the opposition wants to remain a mediator in the war in Ukraine, dialog with Moscow will be necessary and the Russian leadership will expect something in return. So if Ankara wants the Black Sea grain deal to continue, Moscow would expect concessions elsewhere. The grain deal is actually the outcome of the Turkish-Russian bilateral relationship,” said Isachenko.
If Kilicdaroglu wins, Turkey-Russia relations are “unlikely to expand further,” according to Isachenko, but will remain at the same level.
“There is mutual dependency in fact in several areas: regional conflict management (Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine), nuclear energy, and bilateral economic relations,” added Isachenko.