ANKARA: Turkiye’s hotly contested presidential runoff vote between incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the joint opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu will take place on Sunday, with Turks deciding if they want continuity or change.
Polls will open at 8 a.m. local time and close at 5 p.m., with the results to be announced within an hour.
In the initial round of presidential voting on May 14, Erdogan fell just 0.6 percent short of an outright victory, receiving 49.5 percent of votes, while his rival Kilicdaroglu claimed 44.88 percent and a third candidate, ultranationalist politician Sinan Ogan, bagged 5.17 percent.
Following parliamentary elections on May 14, Erdogan retained a majority of 323 in the 600-seat parliament through his People’s Alliance.
The new parliament composition is predominantly right-wing, with Islamist and nationalist tendencies. The Free Cause Party, or HUDA-PAR, directly affiliated with the Islamist paramilitary organization Hezbollah, managed to win three seats on Erdogan’s list.
During the two-week-long campaign for the second round, secular, pro-Western Kilicdaroglu tried to galvanize his supporters around the devastating economic situation and current nationalist fears. At the same time, he also attempted to win over undecided nationalist voters.
“This is no longer an election, but a referendum on Erdogan,” he repeatedly said. He also pledged to repatriate 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkiye. “The border is our honor,” he added.
Around 6 million people cast votes for the first time on May 14, while about 50,000 new voters will go to the polls in the second round as they turned 18 after May 14.
Turkiye saw a high voter turnout of 86.2 percent on May 14, with more than 55 million heading to the ballot box. A similar trend is expected on Sunday.
State media coverage mostly favored Erdogan’s campaign, as about 90 percent of the country’s media is under government control.
On Friday, the government blocked the dissemination of Kilicdaroglu’s cellphone text message campaign.
The same day, Interior Minister Soylu harshly criticized the opposition and said “whoever conducts an American-oriented policy will be considered a traitor.”
Ogan, the third contender of the first round, on Monday announced his support for Erdogan in the runoff vote. Whether his endorsement will tilt the election in Erdogan’s favor is yet to be seen, but not all of his supporters are expected to vote for the incumbent and some might opt to not vote.
Kilicdaroglu is still backed by a broad church of six opposition parties, as well as some fringe opposition parties, from left-wing to ultranationalist groups.
Turnout rates in Kurdish-majority provinces in the east and southeast, as well as in the main heartlands where Erdogan is leading, will determine the outcome. The country’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, said it will back Kilicdaroglu in the runoff.
The voting pattern of about 8.5 million Turks who abstained from voting in the first round will also influence the result.
Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at Washington Institute who has written several books on Erdogan’s rule, tipped three likely outcomes of Sunday’s runoff.
“As the least plausible outcome, we can see a fragile Erdogan if he wins by a very narrow margin of around 1 percent. The result will be contested by the opposition. In that case, he would emerge with vulnerability. He may tilt further to Vladimir Putin to secure more foreign currency inflow ahead of next year’s local elections. On the economic side, a fragile Erdogan will continue with his unorthodox model,” he told Arab News.
Cagaptay believes that a fragile Erdogan will result in a more authoritarian rule and more crackdowns domestically, while the country will lean more on Russia and Gulf countries for much-needed inflows.
Turkiye’s official annual inflation rate stands at 43 percent, while the country’s foreign currency reserves fell by $7.6 billion to $60.8 billion in one week, the biggest decrease since 2002.
For Cagaptay, the second outcome could be an “emboldened Erdogan” if he won by a landslide, especially by taking more than 55 percent of the votes.
“In this scenario, he will have more space to validate his policies, including those about foreign policy. He will also use his parliamentary majority to pass controversial legislation demanded by his far-right allies because he will feel vindicated with the vote results,” he said.
The most plausible outcome, according to Cagaptay, is Erdogan winning comfortably, but not by a landslide.
“In that case, business will continue to be as usual. Erdogan won’t feel the need to change his economic and domestic policies, and he will continue pursuing a transactionalist foreign policy. But he will more likely rebalance relations with Europe and the US by being less authoritarian at home.”
If the opposition challenger Kilicdaroglu wins, it is likely to be a narrow victory, and the lack of a parliamentary majority will pose problems in the short term, Cagaptay said.
“Although the parliament has turned largely into a rubber stamp under Erdogan’s new system, with little de facto power, it will still create some complications for a Kilicdaroglu win, for instance with parliamentary commissions and committees which will be largely under Erdogan coalition’s control.
“The parliament is the biggest minefield, but Erdogan will also have a hold over the bureaucracy. Kilicdaroglu’s presidency won’t have a solid legislative mandate. He will not really be able to return Turkiye formally to the old parliamentary democratic system. And because Erdogan will have many loyal appointments in the security and foreign policy bureaucracies, these allies can slow down the reform process,” he said.
“The opposition coalition, having seen that it can win only if it is united, will stay together at least through the 2024 local elections,” he added.
Cagaptay expects economic prosperity, emphasis on the rule of law and institutions, and a return to democratic freedoms and short-term political stability if Kilicdaroglu wins.
“Return to rule of law and institutional autonomy for the central bank will improve the investment environment, triggering large cash flows. Markets will rally and the lira will stabilize eventually,” he said.
Meanwhile, Erdogan told CNN Turk on Thursday that he would show “gratitude” to Arab Gulf states for financial support after the elections.
In February, the president paid his first official visit to the UAE in nine years. This trip was followed by another to Saudi Arabia in April. The two countries deposited billions of dollars in Turkiye’s central bank and made key investments in the country.