Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won re-election on Sunday to extend his presidential tenure for a third term, securing 52.1% of the votes. His contender, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was only able to garner 47.9% in a race that went to a runoff after a hung vote in the first round two weeks earlier.

On a bus in front of his house in Istanbul, Erdogan expressed his gratitude to his loyal supporters for granting him another term to serve the nation. “We will be together until the grave,” he joyfully extolled.

Stopping short of praising Erdogan for the unofficial result, Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of the makeshift alliance of six opposition parties and chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), lamented the uneven playing field. “All the means of the state were mobilized for one political party and laid at the feet of one man,” he exclaimed during a press conference. He vowed to continue fighting for democracy, justice, and the rights of the public, regardless of the results.

Defied predictions of political downfall

The May 28 election took place after neither candidate, Erdogan nor Kilicdaroglu, were able to surpass the 50% threshold in the first round on May 14. Erdogan’s electoral triumph defied predictions that a flagging economy and devastating twin earthquakes that claimed over 50,000 lives in southeastern Turkey would lead to his political downfall.

However, such predictions did not materialize as the embattled president secured most of the votes in eight of the 11 provinces ravaged by the February 6 earthquakes. At least two and a half million citizens were displaced, and they still reside in temporary accommodations, tents, and other facilities reserved for the earthquake victims.

Sinan Ogan, an independent candidate, received more than 5% in the first round, becoming a kingmaker for the second round. The nationalist figure, who built his credentials on an unwavering anti-immigrant discourse, endorsed Erdogan, contributing to his victory.

Erdogan’s electoral triumph defied predictions that a flagging economy and devastating twin earthquakes that claimed over 50,000 lives in southeastern Turkey would lead to his political downfall

As the Turkish Republic marks the 100th anniversary of its foundation this year, no leader other than President Erdogan has served longer as the head of state and prime minister.

Surpassing the ruling longevity of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923–1938), the founding father of the secular republic after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Erdogan secured another victory in what observers believe to be an unfair campaign process marred by a media crackdown, uneven allocation of media time for the running candidates, and many other repressive practices that tilted the playing field in his favor.

As the country reels from punishing 43% inflation and a tumbling Turkish lira against foreign currencies, Syrian refugees have become a consuming political controversy and campaign slogan on both sides. Banners promising to send refugees back to Syria decorate billboards and buildings, underscoring the broad appeal of tough policies among the public against immigrants scattered across the country.

What lies ahead?

Since becoming chairman of the main opposition CHP in 2010, Kemal Kilicdaroglu has faced numerous electoral defeats, with little to no threat to his position. His political acumen, the fragmentation that plagued the larger opposition against Erdogan, and favorable conditions helped him maintain his grip on CHP’s leadership all these years. However, the loss against Erdogan in the most crucial election of the century may be his breaking point.

Calls for his replacement have already emerged. CHP Bolu Mayor Tanju Ozcan urged Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to take over the leadership of CHP, joining a growing insurgency against the current chairman in the aftermath of the electoral debacle. Imamoglu, who would have been vice president if Kilicdaroglu had won the election, emerged as one of the promising stars during the campaign, displaying his communicative skills and down-to-earth connection with the people on the street. The Istanbul mayor put his political muscle behind his chairman, Kilicdaroglu. He exhibited coveted charismatic leadership during the campaign period, while other “People’s Alliance” leaders appeared lackluster and sloppy.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of CHP voting in the second round of election 2023 in Turkey. [Photo: © Kemal Kilicdaroglu/Twitter]

After Erdogan declared in late February that there would be a snap election on May 14, the Alliance briefly descended into partisan bickering and squabbling over the nomination of a joint candidate. Nationalist IYI Party leader Meral Aksener threatened to break away if Kilicdaroglu did not agree to nominate either Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu or Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, believing that their chances of defeating Erdogan would be higher than Kilicdaroglu himself.

However, the current CHP leader did not waver and proposed himself as the joint candidate to challenge Erdogan at the ballot box. After days of political wrangling and intense back-channel diplomacy, Aksener, also known as Turkey’s Iron Lady for her harsh political style, was brought back to support the CHP chairman.

She was the first opposition leader to congratulate Erdogan after his victory speech. In return, Kilicdaroglu expressed his gratitude to other alliance members to alleviate the psychological blow of the electoral defeat. However, whether the opposition alliance will remain intact in Parliament or fracture due to emerging cracks among members is closely intertwined with how each party navigates the post-election chaos within their ranks.

Demands of realpolitik and the teetering Turkish economy may compel the Turkish strongman to engage in a democratic balancing act, offering some toothless reforms as window dressing to deflect international criticism

Aksener’s premonition that Kilicdaroglu was a weak candidate against Erdogan has proven prescient. However, many of the election assessments unwittingly give a veneer of objectivity to the entire electoral process.

As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) delegation stated after the first round, the Supreme Election Board (YSK) “lacked transparency,” and the Erdogan party suppressed the media.

“The elections were neither free nor fair,” said Moscow-based Turkish journalist Kerim Has after the elections.

“The opposition should have publicly objected to how the electoral voting process played out right after the first round, not at the last minute following the second round,” he said on YouTube, questioning the validity of the results. He predicts that Erdogan will remain in power until he dies.

How will Erdogan act politically after the election?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan [ Photo: © Recep Tayyip Erdogan/Twitter]

Has, Levent Gultekin, and many other commentators muse that Erdogan may soften his political discourse to gain international legitimacy. Erdogan’s long-term agenda will largely be driven by his authoritarian playbook. However, the demands of realpolitik and the teetering Turkish economy may compel the Turkish strongman to engage in a democratic balancing act, offering some toothless reforms as window dressing to deflect international criticism.

The second round also saw a slight decline in voter turnout. While 88 % of registered voters went to the polls in the first round, the figure remained at 84.41 % in the runoff vote on Sunday. This reveals an entrenched sense of public resignation among the opposition strongholds in western and southern Turkey after the opposition candidate performed poorly in the first leg of the presidential contest.

Opposition accounts on social media were somber. Many commentators on Twitter Space and other platforms displayed an overt sense of shock at the direction of the country and the resilience of what many consider an autocratic leader, despite two devastating earthquakes and an ongoing economic crisis.


Abdullah Ayasun is a New York-based Turkish journalist specializing in international and American politics. He is a recipient of the 2023 White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) scholarship. Ayasun...

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