The Pivotal Turkish Election: Erdogan and Kılıçdaroğlu Compete for Power

On Sunday, millions of Turkish voters cast their ballots in what has been called the most pivotal election in modern Turkish history.[0] The election will determine if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will remain in power after 20 years of rule or if he will be defeated by his main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to reverse Turkey's slide into authoritarianism and bring back the rule of law. He has also promised to reinstate orthodox economic policies and cool Turkey's sky-high inflation rate.[1]

This election is crucial because it will have massive implications for both the future of democracy in Turkey, a NATO member with a population of 85 million people, and for security in Europe and the Middle East. Erdogan has been a highly divisive authoritarian figure with a religious nationalist bent.[2] He rose to power as an Islamist politician and commands a loyal base of supporters, including Muslim conservatives whose rights and place in public life he has championed.[3] However, some of his supporters have wavered due to his failure to solve Turkey's economic woes, including skyrocketing inflation, and his steady accumulation of power over virtually all the levers of state.[3]

Kılıçdaroğlu, on the other hand, has built a record of steadiness over a long career.[4] He was an accountant and has headed the country's social security administration, once winning “Bureaucrat of the Year.”[4] In addition, he held a position in the parliament and rose to the leadership role of the primary non-religious political party in the nation.[4] His victory could usher Turkey into a new era by revitalizing democracy after years of government repression and refreshing ties with Turkey's allies in the West.[3] He promises to bring Turkey closer to the West politically, economically, and culturally, and restart attempts to join the European Union that lost steam under Erdogan years ago.[4]

However, if Kılıçdaroğlu wins the election by a slim margin, Erdogan is almost certain to contest the result. In the spring of 2019, an upstart opposition challenger won Istanbul's mayoral election by a small margin, dislodging Erdogan's party from city hall.[2] Erdogan was furious and contested the result, calling for a rerun.[5] There are analysts who suggest that in the event of a narrow loss for Erdogan, he may challenge the outcome.

Erdogan's campaign has focused on Islamic fundamentalism and resurgent nationalism.[5] He provokes his crowds with invective against his opponents, rails against LGBTQ people and minorities, and blames the country's woes on shady outside powers who, he claims, are manipulating the lira on global currency markets.[5] The communication is customized to attract his core supporters of historically disadvantaged Turkish citizens residing in impoverished urban areas and traditional rural communities.[5]

Although the election will be free, it is unlikely to be fair.[6] Erdogan has changed electoral boundaries and tinkered with candidacy rules to the disadvantage of the smaller parties in the opposition coalition.[5] In 2017, while counting votes in the constitutional referendum, the Turkish election board modified regulations to permit the inclusion of unverified ballots which were not stamped.[5] This week, Erdogan's interior minister has been insisting that police and gendarmerie officers, rather than civilian electoral staff, should collect ballots from polling booths, though the electoral board has pushed back on this.[5]

Even if Erdogan is ousted in the polls, a foreign policy u-turn for Turkey is not a given. Although some individuals affiliated with the opposition suggest that a victory would lead to a shift back towards the West for Turkey, there are those who believe that fundamental foreign policy matters are expected to persist. Erdogan's policies have been useful to its Western allies.[7] Ankara played a crucial role in brokering a significant agreement on grain exports between Ukraine and Russia last year. Additionally, Ankara supplied drones to Ukraine that aided in thwarting Russian assaults.[7]

In conclusion, Turkey's future is at stake in this election. If Erdogan wins, he will continue his slide into authoritarianism and further weaken the country's democracy. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins, he will have to contend with Erdogan's base of supporters and the possibility of contesting the results. Regardless of the outcome, Turkey's geopolitical orientation will likely remain unchanged, and its role in the world's hot spots will continue to be significant.

0. “Turkey decides on future with or without Erdogan” BBC, 14 May. 2023,

1. “As Turkey heads to the polls, currency traders are bracing for absolute chaos” CNBC, 12 May. 2023,

2. “Turkey's Crucial Election Is Coming. Here's What to Know” TIME, 11 May. 2023,

3. “In Turkey's election, voters choose between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu” The Washington Post, 14 May. 2023,

4. “Turkey's president has built vast power over 20 years. But he may lose on Sunday” NPR, 12 May. 2023,

5. “Turkey's Election Is Its Last Best Chance to Avoid Dictatorship” The Atlantic, 13 May. 2023,

6. “Turkey's elections: What’s at stake?” Responsible Statecraft, 13 May. 2023,

7. “Turkey’s upcoming elections could unseat Erdogan. Here’s everything you need to know” CNN, 12 May. 2023,

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