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A flag shows the image of two men far above and man walking on the pavement.
Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu – which one will be flying high after the runoff? Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Turkey’s presidential runoff: 4 essential reads on what’s at stake

Turkish voters will head to the polls on May 28, 2023, for the second time in the month – this time facing a choice between a winnowed field of two candidates, each of whom is vowing to take the country in a very different direction.

The fact that the presidential vote has gone to a runoff is no great surprise – polls had predicted that none of the initial candidates would get above the 50% mark needed to be declared the outright winner. Nor is the binary choice in front of voters a shock. Turkish people have long known that the likely option would be between sticking with incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled the country for two decades, or throw their lot in with main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

But the fact that Erdoğan enters the runoff as the favorite, having secured more votes in the first round, is something that earlier polls had not predicted.

Here are four stories from The Conversation’s Turkish election coverage that help contextualize the choice in front of voters, and how it could impact the future direction of the nation.

1. Erdoğan defies the polls

How did Erdoğan enter the runoff weekend in such a strong position?

The assumption was that he might have sunk under the combined weight of a faltering economy, concerns about his authoritarian style and a widely held perception that he mishandled a devastating earthquake just months before the vote.

But as Salih Yasun, an expert on Turkish politics at Indiana University, noted, Erdoğan had some things going for him as the campaign took shape. First off, he was able to use state resources, and utilized control over a large section of the media to bolster his bid for reelection.

He has also mitigated falling support for his AKP party by adding smaller Islamist and nationalist parties to his coalition.

“By doing that, he has allowed his base to vote for coalition parties other than the AKP while maintaining their support for his own candidacy within the presidential race,” wrote Yasun.

Meanwhile his main opponent made several missteps, such as not agreeing to public debates and bypassing primary elections to secure his candidacy as opposition leader. In addition, under Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition party has become more of a catchall organization at the cost of presenting a clear social democratic message, Yasun argued.


Read more: Turkey's presidential election – how Erdoğan defied the polls to head into runoff as favorite


2. Claiming counterterrorism success

There is another potential factor in Erdoğan’s outperforming of the polls in the first round: his political use of counterterrorism.

Just as it looked like the long-standing Turkish leader was struggling to achieve any momentum, events played into his hands. On April 30, 2023, the suspected leader of the Islamic State group, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, was said to have been killed in an apparent Turkish strike in Syria.

Terrorism and political science scholars Graig Klein and Scott Boddery noted how Erdoğan claimed credit for the operation, echoing a tried and tested tactic by leaders around the world.

“The targeted killing of al-Qurashi was announced three days after Erdoğan fell sick on national TV and the same day he returned to the campaign trail. The counterterrorism strike created an opportunity for Erdoğan to focus domestic attention on his national security credentials, his role in the anti-Islamic State coalition, and his abilities to be an authoritative and strong leader,” Klein and Boddery wrote.


Read more: Turkey's Erdoğan took a page from US presidents and boosted reelection campaign by claiming to have killed a terrorist


3. Pushing science and tech credentials

But it wasn’t only his self-proclaimed counterterrorism credentials that Erdoğan was pushing to the electorate. As Merve Sancak, a lecturer in political economy at the U.K.’s Loughborough University, noted, the incumbent centered much of his campaign around what he framed as his “great achievements” in putting Turkey firmly on the science and tech map.

A man in suit and tie exits a red car.
Erdoğan stands next to his Togg T10X, Turkey’s first domestically produced electric car. Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

As others pointed to soaring inflation and a sluggish economy, Erdoğan trumpeted a series of initiatives in the lead-in to the first-round vote. These included plans to send a Turkish astronaut to the International Space Station, the launching of an aerospace and technology festival, and state-of-the-art military projects. He even took to driving around in the first “Togg” car – the result of a project to produce a domestically made Turkish national car.

“Erdoğan clearly hoped that these announcements would boost his popularity by creating an image of Turkey becoming a world leader in science and technology,” wrote Sancak.


Read more: How Erdoğan framed his science and tech 'great achievements' as part of election campaign


4. After 100 years, what’s next for Turkey?

Later in 2023, Turkey is set to celebrate its centenary as a modern republic. Ahmet Kuru, a political scientist at San Diego State University, argued that what is presented to the electorate is two distinct visions ahead of that landmark occasion: a future in line with that of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, or one that takes Turkey further down an autocratic, religious path.

“Erdoğan seeks to win the election to present himself as the founder of ‘a new Turkey,’ where populist Islamism prevails. Kılıçdaroğlu, on the other hand, wants to revive Atatürk’s secular vision, with certain democratic revisions,” Kuru wrote.

Which way Turkish voters turn will have ripple affects across the world, Kuru added.

“An Erdoğan win will signal that the global rise of right-wing populists is still robust enough to dominate a leading Muslim-majority country. A victory for Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, may be celebrated by democrats worldwide as a defeat of a populist Islamist leader, despite his control over the media and state institutions.”


Read more: In centennial year, Turkish voters will choose between Erdoğan’s conservative path and the founder’s modernist vision


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