ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish voters will head back to the polls in two weeks for a runoff election to decide if conservative President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or his main rival will lead a country struggling with sky-high inflation as it plays a key role in NATO expansion and in the Middle East.
The May 28 second round of presidential elections that election officials announced Monday will allow Turkey to decide if the nation remains under the increasingly authoritarian president for a third decade, or if it can embark on the more democratic course that Kemal Kilicdaroglu has claimed he can deliver.
As in previous years, the nationalist Erdogan led a highly divisive campaign.
He portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who had received the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, of colluding with “terrorists” and of supporting what he called “deviant” LGBTQ rights. As a devout leader of the predominantly Muslim country, which was founded on secular principles, Erdogan has had the backing of conservative voters and has courted more Islamists with his anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
In a bid to woo voters hit hard by inflation, he increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s homegrown defense industry and infrastructure projects.
Some voters said the results announced Monday should strengthen Turkish democracy by reminding Erdogan of the important of convincing voters.
Sena Dayan said she voted for the Erdogan alliance, but wasn’t upset at the need for a runoff.
“I believe this is good for the government, and better for our future, to look back at mistaken decisions,” Dayan said in Istanbul. “Erdogan is too confident in himself. The people broke this confidence a bit.”
For others, Sunday’s vote showed how polarized Turkey has become.
“I am not happy at all,” voter Suzan Devletsah said. “I worry about the future of Turkey.”
Kilicdaroglu leads the pro-secular main opposition party, which was established by the founder of modern Turkey. He campaigned on promises to reverse crackdowns on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding and to repair an economy battered by high inflation and currency devaluation.
The latest official statistics put inflation at about 44%, down from a high of around 86%, but independent experts estimate them as much higher.
As the results came in, it appeared those elements didn’t shake up the electorate as many expected. Turkey’s conservative heartland overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party, with Kilicdaroglu’s main opposition winning most of the coastal provinces in the west and south.
Western nations and foreign investors were particularly interested in the outcome because of Erdogan’s unorthodox leadership of the economy, and often mercurial but successful efforts to put the country that spans Europe and Asia at the center of many major diplomatic negotiations.
Erdogan faced electoral headwinds due to the cost-of-living crisis and criticism over the government’s response to a devastating February earthquake. But with his alliance retaining its hold on the parliament, Erdogan is now in a good position to win in the second round.
Preliminary results showed that Erdogan won 49.5% of the vote on Sunday, while Kilicdaroglu grabbed 44.9%, and the third candidate, Sinan Ogan, received 5.2%, according to Ahmet Yener, the head of Supreme Electoral Board.
The remaining uncounted votes were not enough to tip Erdogan into outright victory, even if they all broke for him, Yener said. In the last presidential election in 2018, Erdogan won in the first round, with more than 52% of the vote.
Uncertainty looms for the 3.4 million Syrian refugees who have been under Turkey’s temporary protection after fleeing the war in neighboring Syria. Both Kilicdaroglu and Ogan campaigned on sending Syrians back, arguing that they’re a burden as Turkey faces an economic downturn, and Syrian President Bashar Assad and Erdogan’s governments are working on improving relations after years of hostility. Erdogan, who welcomed Syrians to Turkey, has put them and other migrants on the table in negotiations with Europe, which has been wrangling with the flow of people.
Erdogan, who has governed Turkey as either prime minister or president since 2003, painted Sunday’s vote as a victory both for himself and the country.
In a tweet Monday, he said the votes for him and his alliance confirmed the nation’s trust but added he respected the results that kept him from an outright victory by half a percentage point.
“God willing we will have a historic win by increasing our votes from May 14 and emerging victorious on May 28 elections,” he said as he added he would seek votes from all people regardless of their political preferences.
Kilicdaroglu sounded defiant, tweeting around the time the runoff was announced: “Do not fall into despair … We will stand up and win this election together.”
Kilicdaroglu, 74, and his party have lost all previous presidential and parliamentary elections since he took leadership in 2010 but increased their votes this time.
Right-wing candidate Ogan has not said whom he would endorse if the elections go to a second round.
Erdogan’s party and its allies secured 322 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition won 213 and the 65 remaining went to a pro-Kurdish and leftist alliance, according to preliminary results.
Results reported by the state-run Anadolu Agency showed Erdogan’s party dominating in the earthquake-hit region, winning 10 out of 11 provinces in an area that has traditionally supported the president. That was despite criticism of a slow response by his government to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.
Nearly 89% of eligible voters in Turkey cast a ballot and over half of overseas voters went to the ballot box. Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, despite the government suppressing freedom of expression and assembly over the years and especially since a 2016 coup attempt.
Erdogan blamed the failed coup on followers of a former ally, cleric Fethullah Gulen, and initiated a large-scale crackdown on civil servants with alleged links to Gulen and also jailed activists, journalists and pro-Kurdish politicians.
Michael Georg Link, Special Co-ordinator and leader of the OSCE observer mission monitoring the election, said the elections were competitive but limited.
“As the criminalization of some political forces, including the detention of several opposition politicians, prevented full political pluralism and impeded individuals’ rights to run in the elections,” he explained.
The observer mission also noted the use of public resources, media bias in favor of Erdogan, the criminalization of disseminating false information and online censorship gave Erdogan an “unjustified advantage,” while saying the elections showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press journalists Robert Badendieck contributed from Istanbul, Mehmet Guzel from Ankara, Turkey and Cinar Kiper from Bodrum, Turkey.