When is Turkey's run-off election and why is it happening?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has transformed the country's political system to a highly centralised form of democracy

Kemal Kilicdaroglu supporters wave national flags at a campaign rally in Antakya, Turkey. AFP
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On Sunday, Turks will vote in the second round of the presidential election which could leave incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan out of a job after almost a decade in the post.

Mr Erdogan transformed the presidential system in 2017, allowing Turkish voters to select their leader rather than leaving it up to the parliament.

None of the three candidates in May 14's election achieved the 50 per cent threshold, forcing a run-off between Mr Erdogan and rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the Nation Alliance. The third candidate, Sinan Ogan, has declared his support for Mr Erdogan.

What is at stake in the run-off elections?

Mr Erdogan's consolidation of power in 2017 and 2018 means that Turkey is now one of the most highly centralised forms of democracy in the world.

"The president is able to effectively rule the country by decree," Guney Yildiz, PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, told The National.

“He has ... threatened to take action against those who oppose him.”

Meanwhile, Mr Kilicdaroglu has promised to undo the centralisation of the past two decades, restoring more power to bodies such as parliament and the judiciary. Even if he triumphs, that might not be easy.

"One of the first orders of business, the opposition has said, is reverting back to a decentralised system of power but with a majority of 320 out of 600 seats in parliament, the ruling AKP party still holds all the cards," says Mr Yildiz.

The economy has been a huge issue in recent years following a long slide in the value of the currency and a dire cost-of-living crisis brought on by his policy of slashing interest rates in the face of soaring inflation.

But one of the most significant differences between Mr Erdogan and his rival is their respective stance on the Syrian refugee issue.

Turkey has nearly four million refugees who have fled the war in Syria since it began in 2011. Many Syrians face racism and xenophobia on a daily basis and have been also accused of playing a role in the economic crisis, despite data suggesting they have made a net positive contribution, according to an August report from US-based NGO Building Markets.

Mr Kilicdaroglu has vowed to crack down on Syrian refugees and send them back.

Many of the nearly 200,000 Syrians who have been granted citizenship in Turkey over the past decade are worried by this.

"There are many reasons why Syrians are voting for Erdogan," said Orwa Ajjoub, senior analyst at the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research.

"Erdogan stands out from his political rivals by promising not to repatriate Syrian refugees unless they voluntarily choose to return and that’s not the case with his opponent, who is very adamant to send them back to Syria.

"If it wasn’t for Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, they wouldn’t have gotten their citizenship. This makes him a favourable choice for many Syrians in Turkey."

Who is predicted to win?

Analysts are expecting a win for Mr Erdogan in the run-offs but they were also not anticipating that there would be a second round to begin with.

"The largest political camp is anti-Erdoganism," Mr Yildiz said. "In the beginning of the elections, the opposition was divided among four candidates. But now, there are two main rivals. We are in uncharted territory in the run-offs."

Mr Erdogan received a boost this week when Mr Ogan endorsed the President.

Mr Ogan received slightly more than 5 per cent of the vote in the first round but that doesn't mean an easy win in the second round. Political analysts such as Seren Selvin Korkmaz say the support for the opposition would have been greater had there been unity among anti-Erdogan factions.

"The fact that the opposition got 45 per cent of the vote is important," said Ms Korkmaz, who is also the executive director of the Istanbul-based think tank IstanPol Institute. "If Mr Ogan did not run, Kilicdaroglu would have gotten more than this percentage ― up to 49 per cent."

Although Mr Ogan has called for supporters to back the President, which way they vote will be crucial.

The bruising first round has also left its mark.

"Given the damage that was done by Mr Erdogan's campaign against Mr Kilicdaroglu through the fabrication of his ties to the PKK, the opposition has a very, very difficult job in the second round," Mr Korkmaz told The National.

How fair will the run-off be?

While the opposition claimed there were irregularities in the first round of the election, there were no claims of widespread fraud. The international observers on hand have not raised any issues.

However, there is concern around freedom of speech and the media's role.

Reporters Without Borders scored Turkey 165 out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom, saying "more than 90 per cent of the national media is now under government control".

Critics argue this has given Mr Erdogan monopolistic and even inappropriate access to the public through the media.

The Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordination (OSCE) in Europe said after the initial poll that the ruling party had an "unjustified advantage, including through biased media coverage".

“The continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression hindered the participation of some opposition politicians and parties, civil society and independent media in the election process," the OSCE's Michael Georg Link said before the first round vote was held.

One example held up is from early this month, when Mr Erdogan showed a video during a rally of his opposition rival followed by clips of Murat Karayilan, one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey has designated a terrorist organisation.

Mr Erdogan suggested the PKK was involved in Mr Kilicdaroglu's campaign.

"This is against Turkish law, which prohibits knowingly sharing false information for political gains," Mr Yildiz said.

"So Erdogan broke his own law."

Mr Erdogan later admitted in a televised interview that the video was a montage and not a real campaign clip from Mr Kilicdaroglu.

"I am tired of being slandered but he is not tired of slandering me," Mr Kilicdaroglu wrote in a tweet after the interview.

In recent years, Mr Erdogan has used his consolidated position of power to influence electoral decisions on a local level.

"In 2019, his party lost municipal elections by a small margin of 13,000 votes in Istanbul," Mr Yildiz said.

The judiciary then "annulled the election", he added, following numerous complaints from Mr Erdogan and his AKP with another round held within two months.

"In that round, people reacted negatively to Erdogan not accepting the poll results. He lost by 18,000 votes this time, as people increasingly voted against him."

Updated: May 24, 2023, 10:20 AM