MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.

Erdoğan fell ill

On Tuesday, April 25, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fell ill during a live evening TV broadcast, which had to be halted. Turkey’s minister of health announced that the president had a gastrointestinal infection and was recovering swiftly, but Erdoğan canceled three days of election rallies and appearances. Due to his illness, Erdoğan inaugurated Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which was built by Russia, in a virtual ceremony on Thursday. Erdoğan’s first public appearance after falling ill came on Saturday, when he unveiled the country’s first astronaut at the Teknofest aviation and space fair in Istanbul, alongside Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and Libya’s interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. Then Erdoğan hit the campaign trail, arriving in the opposition stronghold of Izmir to an unimpressive crowd.

Erdoğan is known to be a strong campaigner. He usually holds large rallies in big cities in the final stages of his campaigns to boost support for himself and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and energize his base to vote. But this time around, he is running a weak campaign. Neither the party leaders in his alliance nor his ministers have his magic touch, forcing Erdoğan to shoulder the entire campaign himself. If his health problems compel him to hold fewer rallies, it is likely to deal a significant blow to both his own and the AKP’s election prospects.

Kılıçdaroğlu rallies in an Erdoğan stronghold

Opposition presidential candidate and Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu held a large rally on Saturday, April 29, in Kayseri, a town where Erdoğan captured 70% of the vote in the 2018 presidential elections against the CHP candidate’s 18%. Erdoğan’s far-right ally the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) traditionally has a very strong standing in the town. Well-respected journalists who attended Kılıçdaroğlu’s rally said that the opposition bloc was pleasantly surprised by the large crowd and how much resentment there was toward the MHP among nationalists. The murder of a prominent Turkish nationalist, Sinan Ateş, is one of the key issues driving anger among MHP supporters. Ateş, a former president of the Ülkü Ocakları, an ultranationalist group tied to the MHP that is also known as the Grey Wolves, was shot dead in Ankara in December. He was rumored to have ambitions to become the head of the MHP and was close friends with key figures in the breakaway Good (İyi) Party, which reportedly angered MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. Fifteen suspects, many with links to the MHP, were detained in connection with the murder. Bahçeli did not make any statements condemning the incident, leading to protests from the nationalists. Banners bearing Ateş’ name were carried in the Kayseri rally for Kılıçdaroğlu, who promised to bring his killers to justice if the opposition wins the elections.

Ultranationalists and conservatives pledging to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu in a conservative and nationalist town like Kayseri is a sign that the ruling bloc faces an uphill battle in the upcoming vote. Erdoğan understands the challenge and asked the popular minister of defense, Hulusi Akar, who is from Kayseri, to run for the parliamentary seat there.

Erdoğan dials up the culture war

Dialing up the culture war is one of the most popular tactics in the autocrat’s tool kit and one that Erdoğan has repeatedly used in the past. In the run-up to the May elections, he is once again trying to unify the masses behind him by whipping up perpetual culture wars. He uses Sunni Muslim symbols as nationalist identity markers and rallying cries. He campaigns at mosques, falsely claims the opposition will close down the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and ostracizes the LGBTQ community by describing them as polluted by “viruses” and “perverts.” His ministers have jumped into the fray as well. Shortly after mocking Kılıçdaroğlu’s video in which the opposition candidate embraced his Alevi identity, Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu targeted the LGBTQ community, saying they facilitate marriages between “animals and humans.” Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ said that on May 14 there will be “those who either pop champagne and celebrate until the morning, or those who put their pure foreheads on the ground in prostration, praising the Lord.”

Stoking the culture wars has worked very well for Erdoğan before and may remain helpful in consolidating his conservative base. But what makes this approach less useful for the president this time around is the opposition bloc’s diverse nature. There are Islamists, conservatives, nationalists, secularists, Turks, and Kurds in the opposition ranks. Veiled women running on the CHP’s parliamentary list are going door to door asking for votes for Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy was announced by Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), a member of the opposition bloc, in front of the party’s headquarters, which was draped with a giant banner of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi video was applauded by the SP and other key conservative figures in the opposition ranks. The diversity of the opposition bloc as well as Kılıçdaroğlu’s inclusive narrative that seeks to unite the country’s different segments makes it difficult for Erdoğan to credibly claim a monopoly over conservative values.

Concerns grow over election security

Turkish authorities recently arrested four Kurdish journalists, accusing them of having ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and detained at least 128 people, including lawyers and members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The crackdown focused on the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır and targeted people tasked with protecting the ballot box or informing the public about potential manipulation of the polls, raising concerns about election security.

Adding to those worries is Interior Minister Soylu’s statement on April 27 calling the upcoming vote a coup attempt by the West. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s former foreign and prime minister and the head of the Future Party, which is part of the opposition bloc, released a video shortly after Soylu’s statement, conveying his concerns about it. Davutoğlu said that Soylu was paving the way for what he might do on election day to delegitimize the results of the vote and called on Erdoğan and others in the Turkish bureaucracy to do their jobs to ensure the security of the elections. Kılıçdaroğlu responded to Soylu’s “coup” comments as well, saying that he had known that “dirty work” might be carried out in the last 10 days before the elections. All of these developments are feeding anxiety among the opposition that if they cannot win the first round of the presidential vote with a wide enough margin, Erdoğan will not accept the results or others in the bureaucracy might try to illegally change them.

What do the polls say?

According to a report from Euronews analyzing election surveys published in March by 11 different polling firms, on average, the AKP received 32.8% of the vote, while the CHP got 27.6%, HDP 10.7%, İyi Party 10.5%, and MHP 6.5%. This suggests the Nation Alliance representing the opposition parties will receive more seats in parliament than the ruling People’s Alliance coalition. However, the presidential election seems to be a closer race. According to an April survey from Metropoll, Kılıçdaroğlu received 42.6% of the vote while Erdoğan got 41.1%. Furthermore, when asked “which leader would you like to drink tea with?” Optimar Research found that 44.7% of participants answered Erdoğan while 42.4% leaned toward Kılıçdaroğlu. As the two candidates go head-to-head, their efforts will make the most difference among undecided voters. Turkey Report’s director, Can Selçuki, revealed that there is a decrease in undecided voters and a gradual increase in support for the CHP and MHP, while noting that the level of support for Muharrem İnce of the Homeland Party indicates a strong likelihood that the presidential election will go to a second round.


Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative. She is the author of Erdoğan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria.

Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images.

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