Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Ermine Erdogan, waves to supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, on May 15, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Ankara: Turkey will hold a runoff vote to determine if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extends his time in power into a third decade.

Although Erdogan was leading the race by than 2 million votes, it wasn’t enough to secure more than 50 per cent of the ballot and avoid a second round.

Another vote on May 28 will pit him against top rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74, who’s backed by Turkey’s broadest-ever grouping of opposition parties.

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Erdogan won 49.5 per cent of the votes, while Kilicdaroglu secured just under 45 per cent support with nearly all the ballots counted, Turkey’s High Election Board said on Monday. The remaining uncounted votes were not enough to tip Erdogan into outright victory, even if they all broke for him.

Another contender, Sinan Ogan, received 5.2 per cent and was eliminated from the race.

A runoff would be the first under the current electoral system and suggests a more divided electorate than in 2018, when Erdogan won in the first round. That was the first vote under the new executive presidency Erdogan set up that extended the role’s powers and which critics say eroded Turkish democracy.

Turkey’s markets slumped after it became clear that the country was headed for a runoff, surprising investors who were betting for an end to Erdogan’s rule and his unconventional economic path. The lira, equities and Turkey’s eurobonds sold off.

“Our nation has made its decision,” Erdogan said in a speech from the balcony of his party headquarters in Ankara before the outcome became official. His alliance retained a majority in Turkey’s parliament, which Erdogan said will help him get reelected in the second round of voting.

His main rival portrayed the election results as a sign of weakness for the incumbent. “If our nation says second round, we respect that,” Kilicdaroglu said. “Erdogan could not get the results he desired.”

“Sunday’s result marks a huge win for Erdogan,” Emre Peker, Europe director for Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed note. “The president is likely to ride his strong approval rating, surprise win in parliament, and incumbency advantages to secure reelection in the run-off.”

The election results showed that the alliance led by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party looked like it would keep its majority in the 600-seat parliament, although the assembly has lost much of its power after a referendum that gave the presidency additional legislative powers narrowly passed in 2017.

Erdogan’s AKP and its allies secured 321 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition won 213 and the 66 remaining went to a pro-Kurdish alliance, according to preliminary results.

Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history and politics at St. Lawrence University in New York, said those results would likely give Erdogan an advantage in an eventual runoff because voters would not want a “divided government.”

Surprise showing

A surprise showing by Ogan, the third candidate in Sunday’s race who ran on anti-immigrant platform, was a key factor in keeping the front-runners from securing a majority.

How Ogan’s voters might behave in the second round could swing the vote in either direction. In remarks late Sunday, Ogan criticized Erdogan’s unconventional economic views and refrained from endorsing either of the top two contenders.

Kilicdaroglu, however, was endorsed by Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party, making it difficult for Ogan to throw his support behind Erdogan’s rival.

“In comparison to his opponent, Erdogan is better positioned to win the votes that went to ultra-nationalist candidate Ogan in the first round,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence in London.

Erdogan, the country’s longest-serving leader, has molded the NATO member into a regional power that plays a growing role from Ukraine to Syria.

He even maintained strong support in much of the area hit by the devastating February earthquakes that left more than 50,000 people dead. Survivors and opposition parties have accused the government of not responding to the disaster adequately.

But increasingly erratic economic policies left him vulnerable after an inflation crisis last year gutted household budgets.

“It would be good if there was a change,” said 55-year-old gas station worker Cengiz Caliskan, who had voted for Erdogan in the past but backed Kilicdaroglu this time.

“I didn’t think Kilicdaroglu would do a better job than Erdogan but the same people were getting rich by staying in power too long.”

Kilicdaroglu was running on a promise to restore the rule of law, mend strained ties with the West and return to economic orthodoxy.

Another term for Erdogan would likely mean a continuation of “unorthodox and unsustainable policies” and macroprudential measures, Moody’s Investors Service wrote in a note. This would have a heightened risk of very high inflation and severe currency pressures, it added.

If Kilicdaroglu were to win a second round and implement more orthodox economic policies, that would be positive for Turkey’s credit rating, Moody’s said, adding the path to this would be challenging.