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Turkey’s Erdoğan scores election win but faces runoff

The incumbent president did much better than predicted, dashing the hopes of those wanting to see an end to his authoritarian rule.

(CN) — In spite of an economic crisis and deep discontent with his authoritarian rule, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was on the path to reelection Monday after he decisively beat his opponents in a first round of national elections.

Erdoğan picked up slightly more than 49% of the vote in presidential elections on Sunday, a tally just short of the majority he needed to avoid a runoff with Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the main opposition candidate. Kiliçdaroğlu took in about 45% of the ballot, but his prospects of beating Erdoğan now seem dim because he's unlikely to win over many of the ultraconservative voters who backed Sinan Oğan, the third-place finisher who got just over 5% of the ballot.

In another major blow to the opposition, Erdoğan's alliance of nationalists, conservatives and Islamists held onto a majority in Turkey's parliament by winning 321 seats, according to Turkish state media.

Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party will be the biggest force in the Grand National Assembly, with 266 seats, while the People's Republican Party, led by Kiliçdaroğlu, got 169 seats, the second most, state media reported.

Turnout was extremely high at 88.9%, and the election did not see major disruptions or irregularities, though Erdoğan was accused of seeking to meddle by challenging the results in many places where he was trailing. Still, experts say the elections cannot be called fair because Erdoğan controls much of the media and his regime has jailed rivals.

Sunday's result was a major blow to those in Turkey who see Erdoğan's 20 years in power as seriously undermining democracy and worry that he will do much more damage to the country if he is given another five-year mandate. The runoff will take place on May 28.

Many in the West are also eager to see Erdoğan ousted because he has taken an adversarial approach to NATO and the European Union while cultivating warmer ties with Russia and China.

Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People's Party, or CHP, gather outside the party's headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, on May 14, 2023. (AP Photo)

Financial markets responded harshly to Erdoğan's successes: Turkish stocks dropped by about 6.3% at the opening of the day on Monday, triggering an automatic pause in trading. The Turkish lira and government bonds also fell sharply.

This election has been billed as the opposition's best chance to remove Erdoğan from power because of the confluence of steep inflation, accusations of government failures in the wake of catastrophic earthquakes and opposition leaders uniting behind Kiliçdaroğlu.

“On paper, Erdoğan should have lost with a landslide because of 50% inflation, transgressions of democratic rights and freedoms, journalists in jail, politicians in jail, a huge earthquake, a big disaster, but the government's reaction to it was lackluster,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert and Erdoğan critic at the Washington Institute, a think tank, in an interview on BBC.

In a big surprise, Erdoğan's support in provinces devastated by earthquakes in February remained very strong, defying expectations.

Opposition leaders had hoped that the election would swing their way because of anger in earthquake-hit regions. In the wake of the disaster, many Turks blamed Erdoğan for overseeing a corrupt system that allowed construction companies to get away with erecting substandard buildings, ignoring warnings from scientists and engineers about unsafe buildings, and putting an unqualified crony at the head of Turkey's emergency relief agency.

Erdoğan won mostly in rural areas of Turkey where his conservative religious message has had the strongest resonance. Kiliçdaroğlu garnered the most votes in Istanbul and Ankara, but Erdoğan did well in those cities too. Kiliçdaroğlu did particularly well in Turkey's eastern and southeastern provinces where Kurds are dominant.

Kiliçdaroğlu is the longtime leader of the People's Republican Party, and he had made “restoring democracy” and putting Turkey's economy on track at the center of his campaign.

There were big doubts in the opposition about uniting behind the soft-spoken Kiliçdaroğlu because of his previous election losses against Erdoğan. At 74, he's a pioneering politician because he is both of Kurdish roots and an Alevi, a religious minority within the Islamic faith whose members have suffered discrimination and violence in Turkey.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People's Party (CHP) speaks at the party's headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, on May 14, 2023. (AP Photo)

Kiliçdaroğlu's minority background may have helped Erdoğan consolidate his support among Turkey's Sunni majority.

Despite Turkey's current economic troubles, Erdoğan remains highly popular because he's overseen a huge expansion of wealth and massive public works projects, such as new bridges and high-speed rail lines, and broken down some of Turkey's secular restrictions on Islam.

He's also built up Turkey's military and moved to make the country an important regional player while also challenging the EU. Turkey has been in talks about joining the EU for years, but those negotiations have been put on ice.

On Sunday night, Erdoğan appeared with his wife on a balcony at his party headquarters in Ankara and greeted throngs of adoring supporters with a speech and sang with them.

“We have witnessed another festival of democracy,” Erdoğan said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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