Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.    

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.   

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.  

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results. 

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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Should Turks living in Europe be allowed to vote in May’s elections?

Sultan has lived in London for more than two decades.

The 59-year-old housewife is close to her extended family and enjoys spending time with the three grandchildren. 

And like many other Turkish nationals living abroad, Sultan plans to cast a vote in the upcoming Turkish elections.

“I need to know who is ruling my country, if I am given this right, I need to have a say. It is my country at the end of the day,” she tells Euronews.

“We keep the ties alive with our home country. We always travel and stay there for months sometimes. When there, we use the same daily services such as hospitals and post offices with the people residing in Turkey. So why shouldn’t we?”

“People criticise me for living in London and being involved in Turkish politics,” she continues.

“I tell them, when I left Turkey, the atmosphere was different. We just had a massive earthquake at the time in 1999. I didn’t have many opportunities for work. The general situation wasn’t so great. But although I believe things have improved, it is not easy for someone to relocate at a certain age when you need your children and grandchildren around you”.

‘If those granted citizenship later in life can vote, why shouldn’t we?’

Forty-year-old Umut is a business owner in the construction industry and called France home for the past 17 years. 

He tells Euronews he’ll be heading to the polls for the election to exercise his democratic right, but he adds: “My situation might be different to others as I have businesses in both countries. I travel between the two often, so I believe I have a say.”

“Many Turkish living in Europe feel they belong to Turkey. Even if they are born and bred here, they always have a dream of returning one day, although deep inside know they will never go back”.

Umut believes people who are against extending voting rights to the Turkish diaspora are not criticising the right to vote, but are more likely critical of the fact it was the current AKP government who made it possible since they know a majority of voters overseas are on their side. 

Asked what his priorities are when deciding on how to vote, Umut says, “justice, an independent judiciary”.

“If a non-Turkish person, for example, an Iranian or someone from the Gulf states, is granted citizenship, hence the right to vote when they invest in Turkey, why shouldn’t we? Nearly all Turkish citizens living abroad have some kind of investment in Turkey”.

The father of three says his children are unlikely to vote in Turkey’s elections when they become eligible.

“They identify themselves as French first, then Turkish. I don’t think they will be interested in Turkish politics”.

Millions of voters overseas

Sultan and Umut are just two of more than three million Turkish nationals who live abroad, and who are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections on 14 May – around 5% of the total electorate. 

With polls suggesting the race will be neck-and-neck between the two main candidates, overseas voters could potentially play a decisive role in deciding the outcome. 

The question of whether expatriot Turks should even get a say in determining the fate of the country they don’t live in comes up at each election, since they were given the right to vote back in 2012. 

Turkish nationals with residency abroad cast their first votes remotely for the first time in 2014 for the presidential elections. Previously, those residing abroad could only vote at border gates.

Critics of the right to vote abroad argue that Turkish migrants living in the West are well off with better living standards, unaffected by the internal politics of Turkey and enjoy the rate of the currency they earn against the Turkish Lira. 

Defendants say it’s a democratic right.

‘Where do we set boundaries?’

For Emre Erdogan, a professor of political sciences at Bilgi University, the governing bodies should be inclusive when deciding who should vote.

“If we defend that it is a right derived from citizenship, then migrants or refugees cannot vote. But they are directly affected by the policies of governments or affect the policies directly. However we do not give them a voice,” he tells Euronews.

“So arguing that people should be voting only at their residential country becomes restrictive.”

“Where do we set boundaries?” he asks.

“There are many people especially residing in Germany who have investments in real estate in Turkey. There is no harm in being inclusive.”

Erdogan argues the issue of external voting cannot be discussed without examining the policies of Turkey towards its nationals living abroad.

“When we look at Germany example, Turkey saw the potential in mobilising a mass population of Turkish nationals at the time of Turgut Ozal’s leadership,” he says.

“The main aim was to keep the Turkish identity. These policies were not aimed at integrating Turkish citizens into the countries they have settled in. Those who emigrated abroad embraced religion whenever they had to overcome issues they faced or to maintain their political or national identities. This has created a hinterland of Turkey in Germany. Therefore, it was already known who would benefit the most from this kind of hinterland,” Erdogan tells Euronews.

“At the same time, the Kurdish movement is also a powerful movement abroad, especially in France and more in Sweden.”

“When it comes to Social Democrats or the opposition in Turkey, they have failed to grab the attention of Turkish people living elsewhere. They don’t take enough action in this field.”

Ayhan Kaya, a professor of politics and director of the European Institute at Istanbul Bilgi University, believes participating in elections from abroad shows that the political, cultural, social and economic ties of those living outside Turkey with their homeland remain strong.

“These ties are growing stronger with the globalisation that offers more accessible communication and transportation”, he says.

The previous election results show each country has a different voter profile. The majority of Turkish citizens favour current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Germany, but those in the UK favour the pro-Kurdish HDP or main opposition party CHP.

According to Prof Kaya, this can be explained by the integration policies of each country. 

For example, Germany, where most Turkish migrants live, does not allow dual citizenship. Those who don’t give up their Turkish IDs for a German one tend to be much more patriotic or have a strong religious identity. It is no surprise that these voters favour Erdogan over parties of the left.

“Another factor that determines the voter’s decision is the underlying reason for living abroad. A significant portion of people of Turkish origin living in countries such as the UK, Switzerland, the USA and Sweden are refugees who distanced themselves from the government in Turkey. This explains why there are differences of voter tendencies in different counties.”

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Can Turkish voters in Europe decide May’s presidential election race?

Turkish citizens will vote on the country’s presidential elections on 14 May, but with an estimated 5.3% of the electorate registered to cast their ballots abroad, the role of Turkish expats might be crucial in deciding the outcome of a tight race between incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the main unified opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

The polls show the two men almost neck-and-neck, but the polling doesn’t factor in the possible intentions of Turkish voters overseas — predominantly in Europe and especially in Germany — and their preferences could be decisive for the top two candidates if they want to get more than 50% support in the first round of voting, and avoid a second round vote at the end of the month. 

Could Turkish voters in Europe have the final say in the upcoming presidential election? What do the figures suggest about the role of voters abroad? How many Turkish voters will vote abroad on 14 May? In which European countries did Erdoğan have the highest support in the last presidential election?

This presidential election is widely seen as the most important to occur in Turkey in decades, and 60.7 million citizens are eligible to vote in Turkey while 3.42 million are registered abroad. Thus, voters abroad correspond to 5.3% of the total electorate. In the presidential election of 2018, this figure was 5.1% or 3.04 million.

Erdoğan received 1.3 million more votes than needed to claim the presidency in 2018

To win the presidency in Turkey, a candidate must receive a simple majority of the votes, or, in other words, more than 50%. In the 2018 elections, Erdoğan won 52.6% of all votes in the first round and was thus elected president. Out of 50.07 million valid votes, he received 26.33 million. 

This was 1.3 million more votes than a candidate would have needed to cross the threshold of 50% and be elected in the first round. All of these figures include votes cast abroad.

2018 election results: The difference between votes in Turkey and abroad

In the 2018 elections, 3.04 million Turkish citizens were registered to vote abroad. They could also vote at the Turkish border gates. Half of these eligible people (1.53 million) ended up voting.

Comparing the votes cast in Turkey in the 2018 elections and those cast abroad, the chart below shows that Erdoğan largely had the support of Turkish citizens living abroad.

While Erdoğan received 52.4% of the votes cast in Turkey, he received 59.4% of votes cast abroad including those at border gates, or nearly 895,000 votes.

The results were quite the opposite for his main rival, Muharrem Ince, who received a lower percentage of votes from Turks living abroad (25.8%) compared to Turks at home (30.8%).

Turkish voters in Europe have largely supported Erdoğan

In the 2018 elections, 87% (2.63 million) of the Turkish voters registered abroad were residents of 19 EU Member States, the UK, Norway or Switzerland. Almost half of all expat voters in 2018 (47%) were living in Germany.

Turkish voters in Europe overwhelmingly supported Erdoğan in the 2018 presidential election. He received 64% of votes in Germany, 63% in France, 72% in the Netherlands, 74% in Belgium and 71% in Austria. These were respectively the countries that had the highest numbers of Turkish voters. Germany had 1.44 million registered Turkish voters, followed by 341,000 in France and 260,000 in the Netherlands.

On the other hand, Erdoğan had very low support in some European countries in 2018. He received just 11% of the votes in Czechia, 16% in Ireland and 18% in Spain. However, the numbers of voters in these countries were very low compared to those where Erdoğan had support above 60%.

Expat voters: Turnout rate increased considerably in 2018

Turkish expats were able to cast votes abroad for the first time in the 2014 elections. That year, the voter turnout rate abroad, including votes at border gates, was just 18.9%. This increased to 50.1% in 2018.

There is no poll predicting what the turnout rate of voters abroad will be on May 14 or their preferences at the ballot box. However, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party expects the votes to be in its favour and aims to increase the turnout rate abroad.

Why do these numbers matter?

Do all these figures really matter? Istanbul’s mayoral election in 2019 suggests that they do. Ekrem Imamoğlu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party, won that election in March 2019 by a margin of just 13,000 votes, out of 10.5 million voters.

However, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council called for a re-vote upon the request of Erdoğan’s party that the March results be annulled based on claims of “organised unlawfulness” and “election fraud.” In June, Imamoğlu increased his lead of 13,000 votes in March to a lead of 806,000, thus seizing 54% of the total votes. This marked the first time in 25 years that Erdogan’s party or its Islamist predecessors failed to win control of Istanbul.

With opinion polls indicating a very close race between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu in 2023, the case of the Istanbul mayoral election confirms the significance of every vote.

Is there any reason for Turkish expats to change their minds?

Could a dramatic change in the preferences of Turkish expats happen in this election? The cost-of-living crisis and increasing inflation rate may have a role in shifting the votes of some people in Turkey away from Erdoğan. However, those are not major concerns for Turkish expats as they are not directly exposed to them.

More importantly, Erdoğan addresses their emotions. For example, his supporters can be proud that he oversaw the delivery of Turkey’s first electric car, TOGG, in early April, the first vehicle to be produced by Turkey’s automotive industry in decades. 

It was no coincidence that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuşoğlu brought Turkey’s domestic and national TOGG to Vienna in his recent visit to Austria. He used the car to attend meetings with his counterpart there and announced that the car will be exported to Europe while he addressed Turkish expats.

Therefore, there seems to be no reason for Erdoğan’s supporters in Europe to change their minds. The opposition has also failed to launch well-organized political campaigns in Europe to increase the voter turnout rate abroad.

Who are Erdoğan’s rivals in 2023?

Four candidates are running for the presidency in 2023, but the polls predict a close race between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu.

Muharrem Ince, leader of the right-wing nationalist Homeland Party, will be running against Erdoğan for the second time following the presidential election in 2018. He was a member of the Republican People’s Party and main opposition candidate at that time, but he left the party in 2021 to form his own. The opposition wing has been calling for him to withdraw his 2023 candidacy. They hope to win the election in the first run if that happens.

Sinan Oğan, nominated by the Ancestral Alliance, was previously a member of the Nationalist Movement Party and is running as an independent this year.

Based on the latest reports by poll companies, Kılıçdaroğlu is ahead of Erdoğan by a single-digit margin. However, these polls also suggest the inevitability of a final run-off. See Euronew’s “Everything you need to know about Turkish elections” for more comprehensive background on the candidates and alliances.

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