The final days leading up to Turkiye’s election certainly didn’t lack for drama. One candidate dropped out after an alleged deep fake video showed him having an affair, the opposition leader was wearing a bulletproof vest, allegations flew that the US and Russia were meddling, Twitter restricted “access to some content,” and there are now allegations of vote count manipulation.
Now there will be two more weeks of campaigning as the presidential election heads to a runoff between incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. That vote is scheduled for May 28. With 98 percent of the votes counted, Erdogan led with 49.35 percent compared to Kilicdaroglu’s 44.98 percent.
Voting patterns in Sunday’s election remained polarized with Istanbul, Ankara, the Mediterranean regions and eastern Kurdish region favoring the opposition while Erdogan and the AKP cleaned up everywhere else.
The outcome was a victory for Erdogan who had been trailing in the polls. Since Erdogan’s alliance led by his AKP party won the majority in parliament, he will now likely try to make the runoff about the need to avoid gridlock.
The nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan received about five percent of the vote, which Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu will now compete for. Both are in favor of Ogan’s pet issue of repatriating the 3 million-plus Syrians, although not quite as eager as Ogan who has advocated doing it by force if necessary. Whoever wins, a normalization of ties with Damascus is expected eventually. Erdogan is expected to have the inside path for a deal with Ogan:
Kılıçdaroğlu’s plan to win the elections with HDP and Erdoğan’s refugee stance has led to a rise in nationalism. If the elections go to the second round, Oğan’s supporters are more likely to turn towards Erdoğan due to Kılıçdaroğlu’s relation with HDP. https://t.co/qfwlkRj0XK
— Levent Kemal (@leventkemaI) May 14, 2023
The fact that the election is headed to a runoff is a major missed opportunity for the opposition who failed to capitalize on the country’s dismal economy that had severely weakened Erdogan. They may rue the decision to go with the soft-spoken and some would say uninspiring leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kilicdaroglu. If they can’t take down Erdogan while the country is suffering from record-breaking inflation and an array of other economic problems, Erdogan might just be president for life.
Turkiye’s Very Own Russiagate
One of the most substantial events in the runup to the vote was Kilicdaroglu’s reaction to Homeland Party head Muharrem Ince dropping out of the race on Thursday. Ince was polling in the single digits but was believed to be siphoning off support from Kilicdaroglu. Last week a video was leaked online that allegedly showed him having an extramarital affair and riding in expensive cars. Ince claimed it was a deep fake and blamed the Gulenists whose leader resides in the US. That would at least make sense, as Ince dropping was seen to boost Kilicdaroglu who the US wanted to see win. As Biden declared during his 2020 election campaign, Washington should help the Turkish opposition “take on and defeat Erdogan.”
What does not make sense is that Russia was behind the leaked video, as Ince exiting the race allegedly hurt the chances of its preferred candidate, Erdogan.
Nonetheless, Kilicdaroglu wrote the following on Twitter:
Dear Russian Friends,
You are behind the montages, conspiracies, Deep Fake content and tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday. If you want the continuation of our friendship after May 15, get your hands off the Turkish state. We are still in favor of cooperation and friendship.
Should Kilicdaroglu win and run with this accusation that Russia interfered in the election, it could provide cover for a move towards the west. And cover he would need as such a policy would run counter to public opinion and would hurt the already-fragile Turkish economy that was at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied the accusations and said Kilicdaroglu won’t be able to present evidence “because there is in fact none.”
Erdogan, for his part, defended Russia and said Kilicdaroglu was “attacking” Russia. “Our relations with Russia are no less important than those with the United States,” Erdogan added.
Erdogan has also criticized the US Ambassador to Turkiye, Jeff Flake, meeting with Kılıçdaroğlu back in April. This added to Erdogan’s attack line that Kilicdaroglu is a western stooge, as did the latter’s trips during the runup to the campaign season to the UK and US to visit MIT, Harvard, John Hopkins University, the Washington Post, and meet with World Bank executives, digital industry “stakeholders,” and financial institutions.
Turkish ties with Russia and the US will likely continue to be an issue in the runoff contest. It benefits Erdogan to continue to paint Kilicdaroglu as the US’ favored candidate.
A December poll by the Turkish company Gezici found that 72.8 percent of Turkish citizens polled were in favor of good relations with Russia. Compare that to the nearly 90 percent who think the US is a hostile country.
Kilicdaroglu opened himself to such attacks with the aforementioned visits to the US and UK and the meeting with Flake. He is also relying on US-based economists, including Jeremy Rifkin, a former advisor to the EU on energy security and one of the principal architects of the EU’s long-term economic vision and “Smart” Europe.
While Kilicdaroglu and the opposition have made statements about continuing the status quo with Russia while simultaneously repairing ties with the West, that is close to impossible since the main issue between the West and Turkiye is the latter’s cordial ties with Moscow. In the bloc’s “memorandum of understanding on common policies”the alliance also states it would “reduce the risk of dependence on certain countries/companies in natural gas imports,” which sounds eerily similar to the EU’s ill-fated plan with Russia. Türkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia and a quarter of its oil. Erdogan and Putin are also discussing expanding their energy relationship, which would allow Türkiye to increase its transfer fees when sending gas to Europe – if they want it.
The opposition alliance also pledges to “take initiatives” in order to make it possible for Türkiye to be reaccepted to the F-35 fighter jet program. The memorandum does not expand on this, nor does it mention why the US expelled Türkiye from the program in the first place. The reason was that after years of ignored requests for the US Patriot system with technology transfer, Türkiye purchased the arguably superior Russian system in 2017. Would Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance get rid of the S-400? Would they make amends in other ways in order to rejoin the F-35 program? It remains unclear.
Lastly, the Nation Alliance vows to review the contract for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which Russia financed and built, helping Turkiye join the club of countries with nuclear energy.
Kilicdaroglu’s eagerness to blame Russia for interfering in the election was an unforced error as it reinforced doubts about what his balancing policies would be. It was also a distraction from Erdogan’s biggest weaknesses: the economy and the fallout from his past escapades in Syria, which helped lead to millions of Syrian refugees in the country.
Turkiye’s runaway inflation was at 50.5 percent in March – down from a high of 85.5 percent in October. The lira began to hit turbulence back in August 2018 when the US imposed sanctions on Turkish exports, and the Erdogan administration has continued to cut interest rates despite the record-breaking inflation.
Kilicdaroglu has promised to follow a more orthodox policy and raise rates to help bring the inflation under control. The economic problems don’t stop there, however, and whoever wins the runoff will have major economic headaches to deal with that will require difficult decisions. From Al Monitor:
Erdogan’s spending spree ahead of the elections and the whirlwind of pledges by both sides raise the specter of a budget deficit unseen in the past two decades and further impediments to controlling inflation.
The state budget already registered a deficit of over 250 billion Turkish liras ($12.9 billion) in the first three months of the year, amounting to 38% of the deficit that was projected for the whole year. The gap is likely to reach at least 1 trillion liras, or 6% of gross domestic product, by the year’s end. The two huge earthquakes in southern Turkey in February have contributed to the widening gap, and quake-related spending will continue to strain the budget in the next several years. A review of economic programs and a supplementary budget appear inevitable for the winner of the elections.
With all that in mind it would make sense for Turkiye to continue its profitable role as middleman between Russia and Europe, as well as emulating the former German model of turning cheap energy imports from Russia into manufacturing prowess for exports. As War on the Rocks points out:
As cliched as the platitude about Turkey being a bridge between East and West is, it helps to describe trade flows: Turkey imports energy from Russia and goods from China to cover domestic demand, and local factories assemble components for Europe. Turkey’s greatest trade surpluses are close to home — with countries like Azerbaijan and Iraq — but it is the European market that allows Turkey to maintain an export-oriented manufacturing sector of scale.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Ankara and Moscow have developed or strengthened arrangements that benefit both economically. Turkiye helps Russia bypass sanctions and profits from being the middleman.
Turkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia and a quarter of its oil, and unlike its neighbors to the west, is not blowing holes in its budget trying to avoid shortages. Russian tourism to Turkiye has gone through the roof since the war in Ukraine and western sanctions started.
Elsewhere, both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are in favor of repairing relations with Syria and repatriating the refugees. Moscow has been central to helping the two countries mend fences and will be needed to continue that process.
On the issue of Sweden joining NATO, the opposition is in favor. Under Erdogan, it would likely continue to be delayed until he gets what he wants, which includes the extradition of individuals Turkiye accuses of terrorism.