They may be political opponents with very different ideas about how the country should be run, but the two main contenders in Turkey’s elections on Sunday know each other – and the rough-and-tumble world of Turkish politics – quite well.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu have been locked in electoral combat for years, with Mr Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the secular Republican People’s Party having lost several national elections to Mr Erdogan. This time, however, polling has put the CHP leader and his electoral bloc neck-and-neck with Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party-led coalition. Whatever the result of the weekend’s parliamentary and presidential contests, the elections will have major implications for the Middle East and beyond.
Turkey, thanks to its geography and history, has significant influence. Turkish troops are in flashpoint areas of Syria and Iraq, and Ankara’s Nato membership gives it a military partnership with a global superpower and major strategic influence, although it remains mired in airspace and maritime disputes with neighbours in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. Economically, Turkey has strong trade ties with several Arab nations, including the UAE, but the country’s bid for EU membership remains moribund.
However, it is at home where the election results will be most keenly felt. Ankara is grappling with several serious domestic challenges, including inflation, a depreciating currency and, most acutely, the aftermath of February’s devastating earthquake in southern and central Turkey that cost an estimated 50,000 lives. For the past nine years, Turkey has also been hosting more refugees from neighbouring Syria than any other country – four million, according to the UN.
These issues are just some that have formed the backdrop to an intriguing election campaign. Mr Erdogan, who has led Turkey for more than 20 years, is going head to head with a perennial rival who, although almost as familiar to Turkish voters as Mr Erdogan, has seen big turnouts at election rallies and enjoys the backing of potential future CHP presidential candidates: Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas.
An estimated 6 million first-time voters – about 10 per cent of the electorate – will be eligible to cast their ballot this weekend. These voters, who have known no other leader aside from Mr Erdogan, will play a critical role in this keenly fought contest. Every vote will count – turnouts in Turkish elections are historically high, almost 83 per cent on average, according to data from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Many members of the 6.5-million strong Turkish diaspora have already voted and the fervour of the campaigning shows that Turkey’s tradition of electoral democracy remains strong, almost 100 years after the founding of the republic.
Whomever emerges triumphant – and the presidential race could go to a second round of voting on May 28 if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent on Sunday – will have their work cut out for them. Many challenges at home and abroad remain but it is important for many neighbouring and regional countries that Turkey remains a stable and engaged partner. Its role in helping to broker a grain-export deal amid the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is just one example of how important the country is.
This will likely be the last electoral tussle between Mr Erdogan and Mr Kilicdaroglu. It has been a turbulent ride for both men over the years – in July 2016, the Turkish president narrowly escaped abduction during an attempted coup. The following month, Mr Kilicdaroglu survived a gun attack on his convoy near the north-eastern city of Artvin. Despite their differences, they both have years of experience in the challenging world of Turkish politics but only one of them will go on to lead the nation for the next five years. Friends of the country stand ready to work with whomever wins the Turkish people’s trust.