Turkey’s presidential election is going to a runoff after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comfortably defeated his chief rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu but failed to clear the 50% vote threshold needed to avoid a second round.
The 69-year-old conservative incumbent confounded pollsters’ predictions and his secular rival to win the first round of the country’s pivotal election, scoring 49.51% against Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.88% with a small number of overseas votes left to count. The runoff will take place on 28 May.
Ahmet Yener, the head of the Supreme Electoral Board, said on Monday that even when the remaining 35,874 uncounted overseas votes were distributed, no one would secure the majority needed to win the elections outright.
Pre-election polls had suggested Erdoğan risked a first national election defeat to his main challenger, the unity candidate for a disparate six-party alliance, in a vote seen as the most critical in the Muslim-majority country’s recent history.
A nationalist third candidate, Sinan Oğan, emerged as a potential kingmaker after picking up 5.17% of the vote. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) and its far-right allies were also close to an outright majority in parallel parliamentary elections.
The result was a bitter disappointment for Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, and his Republican People’s party (CHP) supporters, with some in the opposition camp questioning whether their candidate, chosen after a year of bitter debate, had been the right one.
The opposition had expected to benefit from voter anger at Turkey’s economic crisis after Erdoğan’s unorthodox policy of low interest rates sent the lira plunging and inflation soaring to hit 85% last year.
A slow government response to earthquakes that killed 50,000 people in February had also been expected to sway voters. But Erdoğan successfully rallied conservative voters and is thought likely to extend his rule into a third decade.
“The president is likely to ride his strong approval rating, surprise win in parliament, and incumbency advantages to secure re-election,” said Emre Peker, of the Eurasia Group consultancy.
The strong performance by the AKP and its allies in the parliamentary poll suggested “identity, terrorism and security issues played well with Erdoğan’s broader base and helped the president make up for his economic shortcomings”, he added.
Support from Kurdish voters for Kılıçdaroğlu’s alliance, meanwhile, meant it was unlikely that many Oğan supporters would switch their allegiance, making it difficult for the opposition candidate to claw back the difference, Peker said.
Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to revive democracy after years of state repression, return to orthodox economic policies, empower institutions that lost autonomy under Erdoğan and rebuild frail ties with the west.
Erdoğan has ruled Turkey, first as prime minister then as president, since 2003, championing religious and conservative social values and presiding over an increasingly authoritarian regime that is more and more intolerant of criticism.
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