Turkey’s nail-biter election on Sunday made clear that the people’s faith in the country’s electoral system remains strong and that the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is still a formidable political force, despite his failure to secure a first-round victory.
A runoff is likely to be held on May 28 after preliminary results showed Mr. Erdogan with 49.4 percent of votes and his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, with 45 percent, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. Mr. Erdogan, who has led Turkey for 20 years, appeared to be in a strong position to emerge with another five-year term.
The election was closely watched around the world for how it could determine the future course of an important NATO ally with a wide array of diplomatic and economic ties across continents. Of particular interest was the fate of Mr. Erdogan, who has often flummoxed and frustrated his Western partners, including the United States, and faced growing discontent amid high inflation and the destruction wrought by earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 in southern Turkey.
Before the vote, most polls suggested a slight lead for Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of a newly formed alliance of six opposition parties. But the preliminary results showed the enduring appeal and influence of Mr. Erdogan.
Here are some key takeaways:
Turkey’s first runoff
This is the first election in Turkey’s history in which no presidential candidate secured a majority in the first round. That opens up a complicated two-week window during which the candidates will go all-out to pull more voters into their camps.
Sunday’s election was the country’s second since a 2017 referendum supported by Mr. Erdogan that changed Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Mr. Erdogan won the last two presidential contests, in 2014 and 2018, outright and by significant margins.
Still, his inability to do so this time makes clear that he has lost some support.
Erdogan has the edge
Mr. Erdogan appears to have the edge with his lead over Mr. Kilicdaroglu, just shy of an outright majority. The elimination of a third candidate, Sinan Ogan, leaves the 5.2 percent of voters who chose him, many of them from the right, up for grabs. Most of them are likely to opt for Mr. Erdogan.
In the run-up to the election, Mr. Erdogan freely tapped state resources to improve his chances, raising civil servant salaries and the national minimum wage and unleashing other government spending in an effort to insulate people from the immediate effects of high inflation. He could deploy more such measures between now and the runoff.
Also helping Mr. Erdogan make his case is his party’s strong showing in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, which took place at the same time.
Preliminary results suggested that Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and its allies would keep their majority in the 600-seat Parliament. That would allow Mr. Erdogan to argue that he should win to avoid a divided government that could hamper the efficient functioning of the state.
For his part, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has predicted that he would prevail in a runoff, telling supporters early Monday: “We will definitely win and bring democracy to this country.”
Turks’ faith in elections remains high
Across Turkey and in Turkish communities abroad, an overwhelming majority of the 64 million eligible voters made their voices heard. Some endured long lines and returned to quake-destroyed neighborhoods to exercise what many see as a national duty.
Although the Supreme Election Council, which oversees elections, has yet to release official numbers, Anadolu reported that turnout exceeded 88 percent. That is significantly higher than the 66.6 percent turnout in the 2020 presidential election in the United States.
Such high numbers are not unusual in Turkey.
In the last presidential and parliamentary elections, in 2018, around 85 percent of voters cast ballots. And since 1983, turnout in any election — including for mayors and city councils — has never fallen below 74 percent.
Many political scientists don’t consider Turkey a pure democracy, largely because of the tremendous power exercised by the president and his ability to shape the political playing field before the vote.
But Turks still take elections very seriously. That includes Mr. Erdogan, who told supporters early Monday that he was prepared to face a runoff if necessary.
“In my political life, I’ve always respected your decision,” he said. “I expect the same democratic maturity from everyone.”
Nationalism appeared to prevail
Turkish voters may not prioritize foreign policy at the ballot box, but Mr. Erdogan’s decision to step up nationalist rhetoric during the campaign appears to have paid off, both for him and for his conservative parliamentary alliance.
During the campaign, Mr. Erdogan had a warship dock in central Istanbul for voters to visit. He escalated his criticism of the United States, even claiming on the eve of the elections that President Biden was seeking to topple him.
Mr. Erdogan and members of his party also openly accused the opposition of cooperating with terrorists because they received the support of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party. Turkish nationalists often accuse Kurdish politicians of supporting or cooperating with Kurdish militants who have been at war with the Turkish state for decades.
Mr. Ogan, the candidate in third place, also spoke about prioritizing ways to send home the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and criticized the opposition coalition over its Kurdish support. In a runoff, the candidate who more effectively espouses nationalist positions could pick up more of Mr. Ogan’s supporters.