Turkey’s election results and what they mean

CHP members watch TV after the first results at the CHP building in Istanbul on May 14, 2023, after polls closed in Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections first round – AFP 

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – It was an eventful night in Turkey, yet one without a decisive conclusion. Accusations were traded, victories declared, but no final tally will be reached until May 28, when a run-off presidential contest is to be held. Last night’s presidential and general election results have left both government and opposition supporters wanting. Most observers are simply baffled. What happened? 

Which are the results of the election?

“Erdogan lost; Kilicdaroglu underperformed,” concludes Michael Sarcan Daventry, a political commentator for JamesInTurkey. With 99.9 percent of ballot boxes opened, Erdogan’s parliamentary coalition seems to have clung on to their majority. As it stands, they would receive 322 of 600 seats, despite having won just short of half the votes. The main opposition would get 213; the Kurdish-led left-wing alliance 65. Erdogan’s AK party shed nearly 7 percentage points and 22 parliamentary seats compared to the last elections, but it is enough to keep governing. It is a disappointing result for the opposition, which hoped to win a majority.

Harder to swallow still is their lead man’s results in the presidential elections. The opposition had tried to entice everyone from disgruntled right-wing Turks to the Kurds to vote for Kemal Kilicdaroglu in order to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Instead, the incumbent fell just short of winning in the first round, with 49.5 percent, against Kilicdaroglu’s 44.9 percent, according to Anadolu Agency, a state news organization. The country’s Supreme Election Board has officially announced that a run-off will be held on May 28.

Winning a second round will be harder for Kilicdaroglu than Erdogan. A third candidate, Sinan Ogan, managed to convince 5.2 percent of the public to vote for him. Ogan represents the ATA Alliance, a collection of far-right parties which split off from the MHP, Erdogan’s junior coalition partner. The president will have to do little to convince Ogan’s supporters to vote for him in a second round. The opposition, on the other hand, which has promised to be more liberal and less nationalist, has very little to offer.

According to Reuters, Ogan has demanded that Kilicdaroglu drop concessions to the Kurds in return for his support. Yet Kilicdaroglu needs the support of both if he wants to win in two weeks’ time. Even if Ogan were to join the opposition camp, Kilicdaroglu would need nearly every one of Ogan’s voters to cast their ballot for him, which is unlikely to happen.

Sunday’s elections laid bare the undue influence of Turkey’s secular far-right politicians. Expressly Turkish-chauvinist parties were given less than a quarter of the votes. However, they have consistently influenced the narrative. Erdogan’s ruling coalition moved significantly to the right after 2015, when it was forced to govern with the MHP; Kilicdaroglu’s more liberal message has consistently been derailed by the IYI party, another Kurdophobic outgrowth of the MHP. Now, Ogan and the ATA Alliances, despite having won no parliamentary seats, will decisively shape the outcome of the May 28 election. Kilicdaroglu’s failure will also likely lead to a shift within his CHP party in favor of a more nationalist leadership.

In midst of the uncertainty, a positive note: at 88 percent, it was among Turkey’s highest turn-out for an election.   

Was the election fair?

Much had been written in the run-up to May 14 about how it could all go wrong. That evening, both of the main political coalitions traded veiled accusations, while declaring that they were ahead, and urging their election observers to remain by the ballot boxes. An initial AKP lead was predicted by most observers, as the votes from rural communities leaning towards to the ruling party were logged in first. were logged in first. Yet the tide never fully turned. This, coupled with faulty polling predicting a win for Kilicdaroglu in the first round, gave rise to accusations of fraud.

Indeed, the state-appointed Supreme Election Board seems to have deliberately held off on logging in some votes for opposition-dominated districts, such as Ankara’s Cankaya district, or the Kurdish-majority Van district. The opposition accused the government of orchestrating it. Some cases of voter intimidation were reported; some accusations of manipulation need to be investigated. Yet, overall, international election observers have not sounded the alarm. With nearly all votes in, it seems the state-reported results are genuine.

Nevertheless, opposition-linked election observers continue to say that their preliminary count showed Kilicdaroglu in the lead. That seems unlikely. Yet, if the accusations are true, Erdogan did himself a disservice by attempting to manipulate when the results were announced. This decreased trust in the final results, which seem to favor him. In the coup-prone republic, playing with an election’s integrity is a risky move.   

Why were polls so wrong?

In the aftermath of the election, more than one observer commented on how flawed preliminary polling was. It is true, most polls gave Kilicdaroglu the lead in the presidential elections; some even had him winning in the first round

Yet not all predictions were so far off the mark. In three polls conducted in the days before the election, the AKP received between 35 and 40 percent for parliamentary elections; the final result was 35 percent. The CHP was expected to receive between 27 and 30 percent; it got 25.3 percent. Smaller parties were harder to pin down: the MHP was polling at between 5 and 8 percent, but received 10.1 percent; the pro-Kurdish YSP consistently polled at between 10-11 percent; it only received 8.8 percent.

Why were some predictions so bad? “Turkish polls are notoriously wrong,” Sarcan Daventry said in a video on election night. At least one pollster has already accepted the criticism and vowed to tweak his methodology.

Why did the Kurds flop?

One can hardly accuse the Kurds of not showing up to this election. Kilicdaroglu received 59 percent of the vote in Turkey’s 15 Kurdish majority provinces (Kars, Igdir, Agri, Van, Mus, Hakkari, Bitlis, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Batman, Diyarbakir, Bingol, Tunceli, and Sanliurfa). This is a higher average than in all other provinces but four. The seven provinces where the opposition candidate polled highest are all found in the southeast.

The pro-Kurdish YSP party (an emergency substitute for the HDP), however, had a disappointing run. In 2018, the HDP had commanded 11.7 percent of the vote, including just over half within the 15 Kurdish provinces. This year, the YSP won only 8.8 percent of the vote overall and 48.5 percent in the southeast. Internationally, too, the pro-Kurdish party has become much less popular. During the last parliamentary elections, it received 17.3 percent of support from absentee ballots. This year, it was 9.8 percent. What explains this result?

A variety of factors are important. For one, HDP politicians were forced, in the eleventh hour, to run under a hitherto unheard party, the YSP, because of an impending court-ordered closure. Paradoxically, the low barrier of entry into parliament, which was changed from 10 to 7 percent in 2022, may also have kept voters away. The old threshold, among the highest in the world, had barred Kurdish parties from entering parliament in the past. The HDP (and its predecessors) had been able to concentrate the Kurdish vote as a result. Since this is no longer the case, many protest voters in the southeast have diversified. The CHP vote in the 15 Kurdish provinces increased by more than 5 points from 2018. The fact that Kilicdaroglu is a Tunceli native and ethnic Kurd helped, too. The IYI party received 60,000 more votes in the region as well.

The AKP, on the other hand, lost some voters. In the southeast, party support dropped from nearly 33 percent to 29.7 percent between elections. However, most of the votes have gone to Erdogan’s allies, including the MHP, New Welfare Party, and Huda Par – an Islamist-Kurdish party Erdogan had courted in the weeks before the election.

As a previous North Press report showed, Kurds in Turkey have usually preferred the AKP over explicitly pro-Kurdish parties. Yet, previously, the swing vote had been that of Kurdish immigrants in western urban centers, not those in the southeast. In Gaziosmanpasa, one of the most Kurdish districts of Istanbul, support for the pro-Kurdish party fell from 10 to 7.5 percent, though that loss seems to have been picked up by the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), not the AKP. In Ankara’s Cankaya district, 10.7 percent of voters had marked their ballot for the HDP in 2018; in 2023, only 4 percent voted for YSP. Yet here, too, the migration seems not to have been to the AKP, which also lost considerable support, but rather to the CHP.  

These numbers may not be representative. How exactly Kurds voted on May 14 will be studied by experts in the coming months. Yet they suggest that the pro-Kurdish party’s political competition is no longer Erdogan’s AKP, but other opposition parties.  

Did the earthquake have any effect?

Just over three months ago, a number of earthquakes devastated Turkey’s south, killing over 50,000 people and displacing around three million. Reports before the election suggested that at least half of those displaced had not re-registered in their new places of residence. Many wondered if they would make the trip home to vote, and what effects the earthquake would have on the election.

Some compared the February earthquake and the government’s botched response with a similarly destructive disaster in 1999, which uncovered corruption in the government’s disaster relief services. The failure had carried Erdogan to power, the narrative went, would it have the same effect now?

It did not, the numbers show. Most residents of the 12 provinces affected by the earthquake (Adiyaman, Hatay, Kahramanmaras, Kilis, Osmaniye, Malatya, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, Elazig, Adana) voted in the elections. The provinces saw a net decrease in voters of around 171,000 since 2018. If the electorate grew in size at the same rate as the rest of Turkey (8.57 percent), that would put the deficit at 775,000 voters (before factoring in earthquake-related deaths). It seems that well above half of those who had failed to register in their new place of residence did take on the journey home.

More surprising still is who they voted for. In 2018, 49.7 percent of voters in the region had elected Erdogan, compared to 35.5 percent voting for CHP, IYI or HDP candidates. Yesterday, 54.9 percent voted for Erdogan and only 37.8 percent for Kilicdaroglu. Only two provinces – Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir and opposition-stronghold Hatay – cast more votes for Kilicdaroglu than the incumbent. It seems the February earthquake did not have an effect similar to the one in 1999. Reporters will have to return to the region to ask why.  

What is next?

The election is far from over. The two leading presidential candidates now have two weeks to reframe the narrative, gather political allies, and rally the troops (figuratively speaking, one hopes). Turkey’s future is still going to be shaped fundamentally by the Turkish electorate’s decision on May 28.

Yet the chances for Kilicdaroglu are slim. He is unlikely to court enough votes to beat Erdogan. Even if he can somehow pull it off, his coalition of liberals, far-right nationalists and Kurds will probably fall apart within months, if not weeks. Much likelier is a scenario in which Ogan approaches Erdogan, who may lend his support to the 55-year-old in regaining control of the MHP, from which he had been ejected in 2016.

Erdogan will remain in control in parliament, though heading a smaller majority and more diverse ruling coalition. One thing is already clear: he will not be dislodged. But with a historic election bearing only winners and losers, Turkish politics are set to become a lot uglier.

Sasha Hoffman