Erdogan is forward after bitter election campaigns

People walk past an election campaign poster for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, May 25, 2023. The country is holding its first presidential runoff after no candidate received more than 50% of the vote in the May 14 election.

Chris McGrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Millions of Turks will cast their ballots for the second time in two weeks on Sunday to decide the outcome of the closest presidential election campaign in Turkey’s history.

Powerful incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69, faced off against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in what many described as the heaviest fight in Erdogan’s political life and a potential deathblow to his 20-year rule. But the first round of voting – which saw a huge turnout of 86.2% – proved disappointing for the opposition: 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu was about five percentage points behind.

Nonetheless, no candidate surpassed the 50 percent hurdle required for victory. and with Erdogan at 49.5% and Kilicdaroglu at 44.7%, a runoff was scheduled for two weeks after the first vote on May 14. The victor will rule a divided country in transition, a cost of living crisis and complex security issues, and – as NATO’s second-largest military and a key mediator between Ukraine and Russia – an increasingly important role in global geopolitics.

Country analysts are almost certain of Erdogan’s victory.

“We expect Turkish President Erdogan to extend his rule into the third decade in the May 28 runoff, with our judgment-based forecast giving him an 87% chance of winning,” said Hamish Kinnear, senior MENA analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft, wrote in a research note.

In the space of two short weeks, some candidates’ campaign messages have changed dramatically, and both candidates have lashed out at malicious accusations, hard-line nationalism, and scapegoating.

“Send all refugees home”

Known for his more forgiving, gentle demeanor, Kilicdaroglu took a surprising course toward xenophobia and scaremongering as part of his runoff campaign strategy, capitalizing on widespread Turkish discontent with the country’s more than 4 million refugees.

He promised that if elected he would “send all refugees home” and accused Erdogan of flooding the country with refugees. He also claimed that if Erdogan stayed in power, Turkey’s cities would be at the mercy of criminal gangs and refugee mafias. The vast majority of refugees in Turkey hail from neighboring, war-torn Syria.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), delivers a news conference in Ankara May 15, 2023.

Bülent Kilic | Afp | Getty Images

Previously, Erdogan’s biggest rival had worked to restore economic stability, democratic values ​​and better relations with Europe and NATO.

Kilicdaroglu’s new strategy appeared to be a reaction to the fact that a third-party nationalist hardliner, Sinan Ogan, won just over 5% of the vote on May 14, essentially making him kingmaker. Whoever Ogan supported would likely win a potentially crucial segment of his constituents – and although Kilicdaroglu reinforced nationalist and anti-refugee rhetoric, Ogan ultimately supported Erdogan.

“Kilicdaroglu took a harder line on immigration and security ahead of the runoff…that probably won’t be enough,” Kinnear said.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s supporters circulated numerous fake posters and videos intended to make it appear that Kilicdaroglu’s party, the CHP, supports militant Kurdish groups, which Ankara classifies as terrorists.

The German news agency DW, citing the Turkish fact-checking organization, reported that the posters were fake.

And in a TV interview on Tuesday, Erdogan admitted to showing manipulated footage of Kilicdaroglu during his campaign rallies, which falsely depicted him meeting Kurdish militants.

Surprisingly, on Wednesday a far-right, anti-immigrant party called Victory Party backed Kilicdaroglu on his promise to send refugees back to Syria – splitting right-wing groups between the two presidential candidates.

“Now we have two anti-refugee political leaders supporting the competing candidates,” said Ragip Soylu, head of Middle East Eye’s Turkey office, in a Twitter post.

economy, earthquake

Erdogan’s enduring and seemingly unshakable popularity comes despite several years of economic deterioration in the country of 85 million people.

The Turkish lira lost about 80% of its value the dollar In five years, the country’s inflation rate is around 50%, thanks in large part to the President’s unorthodox economic policy of lowering interest rates despite already high inflation.

And a series of devastating earthquakes in February killed more than 50,000 people, a tragedy made worse by slow government response and reports of widespread corruption that allowed construction companies to circumvent earthquake safety codes for buildings.

People carry a body bag as local residents wait for their loved ones to be rescued from the rubble of collapsed buildings in Hatay February 14, 2023 after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the southeast of the country.

Bülent Kilic | Afp | Getty Images

But Erdogan appears to be largely unaffected politically; He still won the most votes in Turkey’s earthquake-hit eastern provinces, which are predominantly Islamic conservative. Additionally, his powerful AK party won a majority in Turkey’s parliament, meaning his opponent would have far less power as president.

“Erdogan wasted no time in urging voters to back him to avoid a destabilizing split between parliament and the president,” Kinnear said. Kilicdaroglu, meanwhile, has appealed to the 8 million Gen Z and Kurdish voters who didn’t vote in the first round to come forward and support him.

However, his anti-refugee rhetoric has already angered many of his supporters and led to the resignation of some of his campaign allies.

As the incumbent’s victory looks increasingly certain, analysts are not waiting for a return to economic normalcy. Turkey’s central bank is already aggressively introducing new regulations to stifle the local lira’s purchases of foreign currency, thereby preventing the lira from falling any further. After the first round of voting, when Erdogan’s lead became clear, the currency fell to its lowest level in six months against the dollar.

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“Investors should not expect a sea change from Turkey’s unorthodox approach to economic policy anytime soon. Erdogan’s belief that lower interest rates lead to lower inflation, which affects monetary policy, will continue to unsettle markets,” Kinnear wrote.

Amid speculation about the direction of the lira after the vote, Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said the only question now is “how weak the lira will go and how, without the ability to take advantage of higher interest rates, the CBRT.” (Turkish central bank) can prevent a renewed devaluation-inflation spiral.”

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