The first round of the pivotal double (presidential and parliamentary) elections for which Turks have been awaiting impatiently is finally over. The country’s religious and nationalist right has emerged on top, led by a leader promising to make Turkey great again after 20 years as prime minister and president. 

The results will lead to a run-off on May 28 between the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who finished the race just below 50%, and the opposition bloc Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who fell five points behind (for a final result of 49.5% to 44.9%.) 

The votes had been seen as too close to call. Yet several polls showed Kılıçdaroğlu consistently increasing his vote share to 49.5-50.5% right before the elections and predicted that neither of the two main coalition blocs would secure a majority in parliament. The May 14 results, therefore, came as a deep disappointment to opposition supporters. The far-right ATA Alliance’s presidential candidate Sinan Oğan’s 5.2% vote was also a surprise. In the presidential race, both Erdoğan and Oğan fared better than expected. 

The parliamentary elections concluded with victory for the People’s Alliance, composed of Erdoğan’s AKP (despite a 7% drop in its vote share compared to 2018), the far-right nationalist MHP and BBP parties, the Islamist YRP and its supporters in the pro-Kurdish Islamist HUDAPAR (known as the Turkish Hezbollah) took 53.5% of the seats in parliament. The opposing Nation Alliance got 35.5% of the seats, while the Labor and Freedom Alliance, a coalition of left-wing and pro-Kurdish (HDP) parties, won 11%. 

The elections have clearly evinced the resilience, and even rise, of the Turkish right. The Islamist, religious conservative, and nationalist parties now dominate parliament. Erdoğan clearly rode this wave. During the election campaign, instead of focusing on the severe economic crisis and the after-effects of the devastating February 2023 earthquakes, Erdoğan chose to highlight Turkey’s successful defense industry projects. By turning the spotlight to warships, drones, and fighter jets, he tried to achieve two goals. First, he portrayed himself as a prominent world leader who has made Turkey great again and who stoutly fights against Western countries aiming to weaken and manipulate Turkey.  

Secondly, he reinforced his self-promoted image as the strongman who vowed to fight the PKK Kurdish terrorist group. Meanwhile, he demonized the opposition bloc as supporters of terrorism, particularly after the Kurdish HDP, which Erdoğan equates with the PKK, threw in its lot with Kılıçdaroğlu. According to widely circulated (and wrong) pre-election predictions, the HDP was expected to have been the king-maker in a divided parliament. Erdoğan used this to argue that a vote for Kılıçdaroğlu was effectively a vote for an HDP government.  

Furthermore, he gave the message to his constituency that only this strongman is capable of solving Turkey’s economic problems (which are extensive and which can reasonably be laid at the government’s own door.)  

It seems that this strategy worked wonders. Even in the earthquake zone, the People’s Alliance emerged as the winner in 10 of the 11 provinces, with Erdoğan finishing ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu in eight of them. 

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What happens now? 

The results undoubtedly give a significant psychological advantage and a big boost to Erdoğan for the second round. There is no guarantee that Kılıçdaroğlu will manage to keep his frustrated support base intact on May 28, let alone increase his vote. It is likely that the internal bickering will start again about whether or not Kılıçdaroğlu was the correct candidate — a dispute which caused a temporary crisis among the alliance in March. Others may raise concerns criticizing the discrepancy between the significant concessions offered to small, AKP-splinter parties given their relatively insignificant contribution to the results. 

During the run-up to the second round, Erdoğan will doubtless raise the nationalist rhetoric. He will use the AKP and coalition majority in parliament to improve his position. He will quite likely say that a divided government will be disastrous amid economic difficulties.  

In any case, the two sides will seek to win over Oğan’s voters. This is a tricky issue for both sides; most pre-election studies failed to identify the exact socio-political leanings of this constituency. Without a clear understanding of what shapes their preferences, the only reasonable assumptions are based on their presumed nationalist leavings. Whatever the truth, it is doubtful that this constituency will follow Oğan’s lead if he recommends either of the candidates for the second round.  

It is thus still too early to tell whether Erdoğan definitely won or Kılıçdaroğlu undeniably lost the presidency, though it will be hard for the opposition to recover from here. 

Tuba Unlu Bilgic, Research Fellow, CEUTTSS, Virginia Tech.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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