Turkey election 2023: Polls and what’s at stake as Kilicdaroglu challenges Erdogan

Close race predicted as country decides whether it wants a new leader for the first time in more than 20 years

An advertising hoarding featuring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the facade of a building in Istanbul. EPA
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People across Turkey will head to the polls on Sunday for what is considered the country's most critical vote in its modern history.

The election pits long-time President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against former civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party opposition alliance.

The vote is seen as the greatest electoral challenge Mr Erdogan has faced during his long reign, and its outcome will have regional and global ramifications.

A record number in the diaspora have already cast their vote, with polls predicting a tight result.

So what is really at stake in Turkey?

Why is the election so important?

Mr Erdogan has ruled Turkey, as prime minister and then president, since 2002, and is the country's most prolific leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Millions of people have known nothing other than life under Mr Erdogan during more than 20 years of uninterrupted rule.

The AKP leader has positioned himself as a bastion against secularism and the more progressive opposition, and a defender of Turkey against the West, making the fight for power as much about identity as it is about politics.

He has pushed for the election to be held during a highly symbolic year as Turkey marks its centenary.

The country is reeling from the devastation of a massive earthquake that hit the county in February, exacerbated by a crippling economic crisis, inflation and a record devaluation of the Turkish lira — factors that will play a role in steering voters one way or another.

The outcome of the election will not only shape the start of Turkey's second century, but will also determine the legacy of Mr Erdogan, now in his final bid for the presidency.

A victory for the opposition — which has pledged to “return democracy” to Turkey — will be decisive for the country's large Kurdish minority and thousands of government critics who have been imprisoned since Mr Erdogan adopted an increasingly hardline rule following a failed coup attempt in 2016.

The CHP, a secularist party headed by Mr Kilicdaroglu, has allied itself with the HDP, a pro-Kurdish party that has borne the brunt of the government clampdown, with hundreds of its officials dismissed.

The HDP, which is campaigning under the banner of the Green Left party following a proposed ban before the elections, is now backing the opposition and its support for the CHP may boost Kurdish votes.

“The world is watching because this is also an experiment, because Turkey, like some other countries, has been going down the authoritarian path for a while,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, told AFP.

“And if this trajectory can be reversed through elections only, that could set an example for other countries.”

What are the key issues?

Turkey's economy has been battered by record inflation — peaking at over 85 per cent last year — and a deadly earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in February and inflicted an estimated $35 billion in damages.

The soaring cost-of-living crisis has been a key point of discussion in the run-up to the elections, and the opposition has pledged to boost small business and reduce chronic unemployment.

However, economists have said many of the working-class hardest hit by inflation will still back the ruling AKP.

When it comes to foreign relations, the opposition has pledged to unfreeze EU accession talks and end a Turkish veto on Sweden's bid for Nato membership.

Regionally, analysts expect Turkey to normalise relations with Syria in either case, but this may be expedited under Mr Kilicdaroglu, who has also pledged to send home Syrian refugees — almost 5 per cent of Turkey's population — within two years.

Another big issue domestically is the state of democracy in the country. Mr Kilicdaroglu claims that an opposition victory will bring back democracy and free speech and restore foreign trust in Ankara.

Mr Erdogan's rule has been criticised both domestically and internationally as largely authoritarian.

Who is predicted to win?

It is an extremely tight race. But under current polling, Mr Kilicdaroglu is predicted by many to secure a narrow victory over Mr Erdogan.

An average of the last 18 polls conducted by Euronews put Mr Kilicdaroglu on 48.9 per cent of the vote, ahead of Mr Erdogan's 45.8 per cent. It was conducted before Muharrem Ince, who polled an average of 2.3 per cent, withdrew from the race.

While Mr Erdogan has a large and loyal support base domestically and in diaspora, millions of first-time voters are taking to the polls this weekend, and young people are expected to back the opposition.

There is a big chance that voting will go to a second round on May 28 and may trigger unrest across the country.

Updated: May 15, 2023, 9:57 AM