In the world’s “most important election” of 2023, as Politico dubbed it, longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defied most expectations and poll predictions, barely missing winning the presidency for a third time by less than 250,000 votes out of almost  55 million valid ballots. He captured 49.2 percent of the votes against his widely favored opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who received only 45 percent. Erdoğan’s ruling alliance, led by his Justice and Development Party (AKP), won a clear majority in the parliamentary elections that were held on the same day. The presidential contest will now go to a second round on May 28, leaving a third candidate, Turkish nationalist Sinan Oğan, holding a potentially influential hand with the 5.2 percent support he garnered.

It is highly likely that Erdoğan will prevail next Sunday. Neither the dire state of the economy nor his responsibility for the extent of the damage caused by the Feb. 6 earthquake and his government’s failed rescue-and-relief assistance seemed to matter. Instead, his divisive, negative, and identity-driven politics carried the day against his opponent’s call for a more democratic and accountable Turkey. The country has now moved further to the right and away from democratic ideals, as well as from its traditional Western orientation defined by the founder of the Turkish republic, Atatürk, exactly a century ago this year. Autocrats around the world are sure to be relieved to see that it is, after all, possible to prevail through the ballot box.

What Happened?

As much as the results from the May 14  election caught many Turkish and international commentators off guard, with hindsight, they are not that terribly surprising. The polls, apart from two, were significantly off the mark, especially those that predicted Kılıçdaroğlu winning the contest in the first round.  Furthermore, many observers also were misled by Kılıçdaroğlu’s well-attended and jubilant rallies in Erdoğan strongholds, as well as his positive and inclusive campaign narrative symbolized by the heart symbol that he and his supporters adopted. This atmosphere suggested an electorate tired of Erdoğan’s 20-year-long reign and his deeply divisive and aggressive language.

Additionally, echo-chamber dynamics blinded sober analysis of Turkey’s sociopolitical realities and the benefits of public resources and partisan bureaucracy that accrued to Erdoğan as the incumbent. Hence, it is not surprising that numerous commentators boldly predicted that Erdoğan was losing and his reign was coming to an end. They were terribly mistaken. One such commentator, a veteran journalist, in an act of self-criticism, suspended his column until further notice. Even the Turkish stock market appears to have been under the spell of the expectation that Erdoğan was on the way out. It rallied as traders priced in this expectation before falling after the election.

Contrary to widespread concerns, the actual voting process appears to have been free from any major fraud, though there are still some allegations of electoral irregularities. As the OSCE election observation mission preliminarily concluded, the elections fell short of being contested fairly and were marked by practices that “tilted the playing field” against the opposition, giving the incumbent president and ruling parties “unjustified advantage.” This was most conspicuous in the case of media access, so critical to ensuring a fair and informed election process. The state-run and taxpayer-funded TV channel TRT, for example, gave Erdoğan coverage time amounting to almost 49 hours during the course of 41 days, compared with only 32 minutes and 23 seconds to his opponent.

This imbalance in access to the media enabled Erdoğan systematically to bombard the public with inflammatory language, such as saying that the opposition will be “buried in the upcoming elections as politically dead” and using a deep fake video to accuse them of receiving instructions from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. He also employed discriminatory language against the LGBTQ community, associating the opposition with this community and labeling Kılıçdaroğlu as a member of it to galvanize conservative voters. Additionally, he argued that the opposition lacked the competence and unity to govern, presenting himself as the only savior of Turkey.

Such language was critical to tightening the edges of his conservative and nationalist electoral coalition, and to mobilizing a broader electorate keen on continuity and strong leadership at a time of crisis. It also helped deflect attention away from the dire state of the economy, which has been marked by persistent high inflation, ever-growing current-accounts deficits, and collapsing foreign currency reserves, as well as from the government’s conspicuous failure to provide effective post-earthquake rescue and relief.

Erdoğan’s control of the media enabled him to skillfully attribute the massive destruction caused by the earthquake to fate and to the impossibility of preparing for what he termed a “once in a century disaster.” The role of shoddy construction due to corruption and mismanagement, extensively highlighted by the opposition and covered in the international media, made little impression on the electorate, including in the affected provinces. In these areas, Erdoğan lost few votes compared with 2018 and even managed to increase his votes in two of them.

His control over state resources — together with financial favors from “friendly countries” in the form of foreign currency deposits, swap arrangements and postponement of natural gas payments coming from autocratic allies — facilitated his hand in sustaining an unprecedented populist spending spree. He extended generous early retirement benefits to more than 2 million people, enabled another half million government employees on temporary contracts to be moved into permanent positions with generous social benefits, raised pension payments for retirees significantly, increased minimum wages, provided cheap credits for small businesses, and kept interest rates at incomprehensibly low levels to stimulate consumption on credit. Shortly before the elections, he crowned his generosity with billboards across the country publicizing his policy to provide free natural gas to households for a month. As a former Treasury official and commentator pointed out, such largesse aligned well with the public’s poor understanding of the terrible state of the Turkish economy. Ironically, he adds, Kılıçdaroğlu, by making unrealistic promises to match Erdoğan, inadvertently reinforced this misperception and the notion that the state has limitless resources. Additionally, Kılıçdaroğlu and his team’s promises for accountable, effective, and merit-based economic governance did not make much of an impression on Erdoğan’s supporters.

Lastly, Erdoğan pursued much more successful alliance politics than Kılıçdaroğlu did. He was able to sustain his coalition with the nationalist Devlet Bahçeli, whose Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) received a solid 10 percent of the votes, well above poll predictions. He also was able to bring on board two Islamist parties, Yeniden Refah Partisi and the Kurdish HUDA-Par, both known for their conservative demands such as curtailing women rights. Those voters of Erdoğan’s AKP who were disappointed by the government’s mismanagement of the economy seem to have switched their support to other parties in the ruling alliance but remained loyal to Erdoğan. This enabled him to compensate for his declining electoral performance in 73 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, compared with  2018; AKP received support from only 35.6 percent of voters, its lowest level by far compared with five previous elections. In Sunday’s election, Erdoğan’s vote share surpassed that of his party by a record 14 percent.

In contrast, Kılıçdaroğlu, who has been credited for having patiently woven into place the Nation’s Alliance, an electoral alliance involving six political parties spanning a wide range of political inclinations, does not appear to have enjoyed much support from the voters of these parties. The glue of the coalition was undoubtedly the common desire to end Erdoğan’s rule. However, the commitment within this coalition to getting Kılıçdaroğlu elected remained half-hearted. Four smaller, right-wing political parties of the Nation’s Alliance ran under the electoral list of Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and obtained a disproportionate 38 out of this list’s 169 winning candidates for the 600-member Grand National Assembly. Yet, the leadership of these parties failed to mobilize their base in support of Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential election. So they effectively got a free ride into the parliament while CHP saw its number of seats fall from 146 in 2018 to 131.

Kılıçdaroğlu also had trouble in reaching out to some voters of the nationalist İyi (Good) Party due to intra-alliance disagreements between CHP and İYİP leadership. Meanwhile, strong electoral support appears to have come from the supporters of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (renamed as New Left Party to avoid being banned by a closure case) and the Turkish Workers Party. Both had called on their followers to support Erdoğan’s opponent and in total received 10.5 percent of the votes cast in the parliamentary elections.

Ahead: The Culture Clash Persists in Turkish Politics

Kılıçdaroğlu’s task during the runoff is going to be a tough one. It is difficult to see from where he could attract additional votes to defeat Erdoğan, while retaining his diverse electoral base. There are the votes of the third presidential candidate, the Turkish nationalist Sinan Oğan, who is touted as a potential kingmaker. In recent days, Kılıçdaroğlu has stepped up his national rhetoric and pledged to return  refugees back to their countries. Meanwhile, Oğan’s supporters are recognized for their dislike of both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. Whether they would lend their support to whoever Oğan ultimately advises them to support in the runoff is not evident. Many are protest voters who may simply not vote in the second round. In any event, current indications are that Oğan, as a vocal Turkish nationalist, considers Kılıçdaroğlu’s close ties with the Kurdish political party a “red line.” It will be challenging for Kılıçdaroğlu to receive Oğan’s endorsement without alienating the Kurdish voters who cast their ballots for him in overwhelming numbers. There are reports that Oğan is more likely to support Erdoğan, though that too is not certain.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat next Sunday would be a reminder of how an authoritarian populist who controls the media, has access to state resources, and enjoys the financial solidarity of other autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin can win in a country trapped in what Turkish political scientist Ersin Kalaycıoğlu in 2011 called a “kulturkampf,” or culture clash. EU officials highlighted the high level of participation in the elections as a “clear sign of strength of the Turkish democracy.” Erdoğan seized on  that to call the elections a ”great feast of democracy” and undoubtedly sees them as a massive source of legitimacy.

However, the real lesson to be learned from this recent electoral success is to recognize that, in an era of authoritarian consolidation around the world, it is exceedingly difficult to defeat populist autocrats who capture the key checks-and-balances of the democratic system. It is not evident that the opposition’s agenda for a pluralist democracy at ease with Turkey’s ethnic, social, and religious diversity was adopted wholeheartedly by the voters. Yet, the election results also suggest that Turkey is a deeply divided society holding or adhering to two different conceptions of democracy, and that Erdoğan no longer enjoys the support of an electoral majority.

Should Erdoğan prevail in the runoff, as appears likely, it will be interesting to see how he will address the wreckage his last term has left behind — economic, institutional, infrastructural (especially in the earthquake-hit region), and in foreign policy. Time will tell whether he will be able to stabilize the Turkish economy and restore relations with the West, if he is even interested in doing so. There are already alarming signs that the economic crisis will worsen after the election. Daron Acemoğlu, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), notes that it is not evident that Erdoğan will be able to address such a crisis, having to choose between two politically difficult options: returning to orthodox policies or imposing capital controls.

Either way, Erdoğan will soon need to prepare for the March 2024 local elections, when the country’s largest municipalities, currently controlled by the opposition, will be up for grabs. This electoral defeat in the presidential and parliamentary elections will weaken the opposition parties, but not knock them out entirely. The CHP still controls some of the major metropolitan governments, such as İstanbul, Ankara, and İzmir, and has popular leaders with national appeal such as İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş.

Turkish democracy appears set to experience another round of heavy bruising on May 28. After that, the next opportunity to stop Erdoğan’s authoritarian juggernaut will be the local elections in 2024, especially if he fails to salvage the economy and if he allows those elections to take place at all rather than ending what is left of Turkey’s electoral institutions.

IMAGE: Turkish opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (bottom right) and Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of the capital Ankara, visit Anıtkabir, a complex in the city that contains the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, during Youth and Sports Day on May 19, 2023 . (Photo by Yavuz Ozden/ dia images via Getty Images)