Turkish election fever cools down ahead of decisive run-off
Istanbul, Turkey – The two weeks between Turkey’s first and second ballots have seen a marked shift in campaign intensity as the country enters uncharted territory of a presidential runoff.
Sunday will mark the first time that Turkish voters will have to go to the polls for a second time to choose their next president – and many seem to be finding it hard to rekindle the enthusiasm of the first round.
“It’s a weird feeling. I feel like the elections are over, but I know there will be another one on Sunday,” said Soner Ugurlu, 49, drinking tea with friends in Istanbul’s Tophane district.
“Of course I will vote again, but it seems strange because everything is much quieter than two weeks ago,” he said.
Many voters view President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the likely winner as he seeks to extend his 20 years in power for another five years, adding to the sense that the second ballot is something of an anticlimax.
Erdogan surprised pollsters and commentators on May 14 when he beat his two challengers and came close to the 50 percent threshold to win the first-round contest.
He now faces the second-placed candidate, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who took about 45 percent of the vote to Erdogan’s 49.2 percent, according to the most recent tally. It is only the third time that Turks have voted directly for their president. Erdogan won the 2014 and 2018 elections in the first round.
Most polls had predicted Kilicdaroglu to finish first on the first ballot and some even suggested an outright victory, and the opposition’s confident reporting reflected this expected result.
Many opposition supporters now feel deflated after their hopes of removing Erdogan from power were dashed. Erdogan was seen as vulnerable as Turks struggle through an economic crisis and after criticizing his government for its slow initial response to devastating earthquakes in February.
“I was hopeful before May 14 because it looked like we might finally get rid of him, but now it looks like he’s unbeatable,” says Olcay, who runs a clothing store in Cihangir, a fashionable neighborhood in Istanbul.
“Everyone is tired of this fight,” said the 34-year-old, who declined to give her last name. “It is difficult to generate the enthusiasm to vote again because it seems like a foregone conclusion, but of course I will do it because it is my duty.”
Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul, said demoralization of the opposition was to be expected.
“Despite the ongoing economic crisis and the government’s negligence during and after the earthquake, Erdogan still got almost 50 percent,” he said.
“It is really disappointing for opposition voters that Erdogan is still able to command such huge popularity in the eyes of the voters,” he said. “It is also the case that both the opposition leadership and the polling stations had excessively raised the expectations of opposition voters.”
Erdogan supporters, meanwhile, are confident that their man will tighten his grip on the country’s future on Monday.
“I think we will see him start another five years on the anniversary of 1453,” said Osman Cakir, a 22-year-old student from Istanbul, referring to the Monday of the Ottoman conquest of the city.
A diminished feeling of election fever is reflected in the street scene.
Political flags hanging outside party offices hang listlessly in the sun, twisted and confused after two weeks of exposure to the elements. Election buses with the faces and slogans of the candidates and campaign songs seem rarer.
Party campaign kiosks remain at transportation hubs, but the crowds around them are noticeably thinner than they were two weeks ago. Many of the parties that contested the May 14 parliamentary elections and supported the presidential candidates are absent.
In front of the Kadikoy bus and ferry terminal on Istanbul’s Asian coast, only Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party are present, as well as a small tent for the Kilicdaroglu-supporting Deva party.
The campaign of the two remaining candidates has also been more subdued since the first vote.
Rather than mass open-air rallies with tens or hundreds of thousands of supporters waving, Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have largely confined themselves to smaller public appearances, maintaining a schedule of broadcast interviews and statements via social media.
Erdogan was scheduled to attend a women’s rally and a small gathering in Istanbul on Friday for a television interview in the evening. Two weeks earlier, his Friday schedule consisted of holding three rallies throughout Istanbul, organizing a youth summit and a TV appearance.
Commentators still expect a high turnout on Sunday, although probably not the 89 percent achieved in the first round. “It will probably reach about 84 or 85 percent,” Esen said.
Vote numbers from foreign ballots in 73 countries and at border gates even showed a slight increase from the first round on Tuesday evening with border polling stations remaining open until the end of domestic voting on Sunday.
However, the foreign turnout in the first round, at 54 percent, was much lower than the participation within Turkey.
On Sunday, the ballot boxes open at 08:00 (05:00 GMT) and close at 17:00 (14:00 GMT).