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Erdogan speaks on stage with his wife Emine Erdogan during an election campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 7, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Ankara: On May 14, tens of millions of Turkish voters will head to the polls to cast their ballots for president and parliament in a pivotal election that could unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led the country for two decades.

It is Erdogan’s most serious political challenge since his party’s sweeping victory in the 2002 elections. Though his opponents have long criticised his accumulation of power, Erdogan is still hugely popular among his base.

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Under his rule, Turkey’s role as a regional and international power broker has grown substantially, and the election results will be watched closely across the Middle East and around the world.

Here’s what you need to know:

Could Erdogan really lose?

Turkey’s opinion polls have shown a neck-and-neck race between the two main blocs, Erdogan’s People’s Alliance on one side and the opposing bloc, dubbed the “Table of Six,” on the other. April polls showed Erdogan’s main opponent for president, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, with a slim lead.

But scepticism remains about Kilicdaroglu’s ability to pull off an upset over Erdogan, Turkey’s longest-serving leader - surpassing even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic.

Erdogan, 69, is most at home on the campaign trail and has stepped up the pace of rallies in the election’s closing stages, often making several speeches a day.

Erdogan has led Turkey since he became prime minister in 2003, a post he occupied until 2014, when he took office as president. In 2017, he succeeded in expanding the president’s powers in a referendum, which replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with an executive presidency and abolished the post of prime minister.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a rally in Istanbul on May 7, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

The referendum gave Erdogan the authority to issue decrees without parliamentary approval

Erdogan commands a large and loyal base of supporters, which he tried to bolster this year through a rapid rollout of economic appeasements — including tax relief, cheap mortgage loans, energy subsidies and pledges to not raise road and bridge tolls.

After two earthquakes in February that devastated cities across the south of the country, killing more than 50,000 in Turkey and neighboring Syria, the government came under fire from quake victims for the slow deployment of first responders and for failing to enforce building codes.

Can Turkey’s opposition seize the opportunity?

Facing Erdogan is an alliance of six opposition parties, which named Kilicdaroglu as its presidential candidate.

The 74-year-old former civil servant became the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, in 2010. Though he has previously failed to lead his party to victory against Erdogan’s AKP in parliamentary elections, he has effectively harnessed social media during this campaign to reintroduce himself to voters.

His emboldened bloc is banking on the support of opposition voters who delivered victories in 2019 in big-city mayoral elections - most notably in Istanbul, where charismatic CHP member Ekrem Imamoglu defeated Erdogan’s chosen candidate.

When will we know the winner?
A presidential candidate must secure more than 50 per cent of the vote on May 14 to win. If Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu both fall short — which polls suggest is likely — they will face a runoff election on May 28.
Voters will also cast votes to fill seats in the 600-member parliament. The opposition would need at least a majority to be able to enact some of the democratic reforms it has promised.
More than 64 million people, including 3.2 million expatriate Turkish citizens, are eligible to vote. More than 1.6 million people have already voted in ballots overseas or at airports.
Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally high.
There are concerns over how voters among the 3 million people who have been displaced following the earthquake that devastated 11 provinces will be able to vote. Officials say only 133,000 people who were forced to leave their hometowns have registered to vote at their new locations. Some political parties and nongovernmental organizations plan to transport evacuees back to the earthquake zone to allow them to vote.

Imamoglu, a rising political star, was named by Kilicdaroglu as his candidate for vice-president alongside CHP member and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas. Imamoglu has been sentenced to more than two years in prison for insulting public officials in a trial widely viewed as politically motivated. He faces a ban from public office if the ruling is upheld.

Though Turkey’s famously fractious opposition parties have managed to paper over their differences in the run-up to this election, a win by Kilicdaroglu would force him to contend with competing interests inside his umbrella alliance, which includes nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals.

Kilicdaroglu has focused on issues that have eroded Erdogan’s popularity, promising to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, protect gender equality and prioritise the rule of law by reforming the judiciary, which critics say has been weaponized by the government to target its opponents.

Kilicdaroglu also promised to return to orthodox economic policies and restore the parliamentary system of governance, reinstating the role of prime minister and reducing the powers of the president.

What does the election mean for Europe and Nato?

Perhaps no European nation will be watching Turkey’s election more closely than Sweden, whose bid to become a Nato member has been held up by Erdogan.

Though Turkey voted last month to allow Finland to join the military alliance - doubling Nato’s land border with Russia - Erdogan continues to hold up Sweden’s bid for membership, citing Stockholm’s refusal to extradite “terrorists” affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

A supporter of Erdogan cheers during his election campaign rally in Ankara, on April 30, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Kilicdaroglu’s chief foreign policy adviser, Unal Cevikoz, told Politico in March that he would not stand in the way of Sweden’s Nato ambitions: “If you carry your bilateral problems into a multilateral organisation, such as NATO, then you are creating a kind of polarisation with all the other Nato members with your country,” he said.

Kilicdaroglu has promised to revitalise Turkey’s strained relations with the European Union, raising the prospect of unfreezing long-stalled accession talks and emphasising the importance of deepening economic ties and cooperating on migration and refugees.

Turkey’s extensive border with Syria made it a natural point of escape for those fleeing bombardment and starvation imposed by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad after his crackdown on popular revolts in 2011, and the country now hosts at least 4 million Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Though Syrians were once welcomed in Turkey, public opinion has shifted against them, and they have become a popular target for ultranationalist politicians seeking to deflect blame for the country’s economic downturn.

Erdogan has admonished Turks for attacking refugees but has also bowed to public pressure by promising to resettle a million Syrians in opposition-held parts of their country.

And even as Kilicdaroglu has said he will try to repair Turkey’s record on human rights, he has sounded many of the same notes as Erdogan on refugee policy, saying the European Union should provide funds for Turkish contractors to rebuild parts of Syria for resettlement. If the EU does not provide these funds, he said, “I’m sorry, I’ll open the doors. [Refugees] can go wherever they want.”

What does the election mean for Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Following Russia’s war in Ukraine last year, Turkey immediately put itself forth as a mediator, hosting an initial round of diplomatic talks between Moscow and Kyiv, efforts that died down as the conflict intensified. Last summer, Turkey aided in and hosted the signing of a UN-brokered agreement to restart shipments of grain that Russia had blockaded.

Erdogan is known for his balancing acts: He resisted joining Western sanctions against Russia but allowed the sale of drones to Ukraine, which have been employed against Russian targets in the war. He continues to import Russian oil and even suggested in March that Russian President Vladimir Putin might visit Turkey’s first nuclear reactor in April - Putin joined via video link instead.

Kilicdaroglu has pledged that, if elected president, he would maintain a “sound and credible continuation of Turkey-Russia relations” — continuing to act as a mediator and working to extend the grain deal but prioritising Ankara’s status as a NATO member.