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Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are less than two weeks away, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing unprecedented challenges that could end his two-decade rule.
Voters will head to the polls on May 14, deciding the fate of Turkey’s democracy less than three months after a February 6 earthquake killed more than 50,000 people and displaced more than more than 5.9 million across southern Turkey and northern Syria.
The elections also take place amid a serious economic crisis and what analysts say is democratic erosion under Erdogan’s government.
Polls predict a record voter turnout this year, and a tight race between Erdogan and the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential nominee for the six-party Nation Alliance bloc.
Turkey’s demographics are also expected to play a role. Most of the provinces struck by the February earthquake were strongholds of Erdogan and his AK Party. But Supreme Election Council (YSK) chief Ahmet Yener said last month that at least 1 million voters in quake-stricken zones are expected not to vote this year amid displacement.
And even if Kilicdaroglu wins the election, some analysts say Erdogan may not hand over power to his successor without a struggle.
Here’s what you need to know about the vote that could become a pivotal moment in Turkey’s modern history:
Turkey holds elections every five years. Presidential candidates can be nominated by parties that have passed the 5% voter threshold in the last parliamentary election, or those who have gathered at least 100,000 signatures supporting their nomination.
The candidate who receives more than 50% of votes in the first round is elected president, but if no candidate gets a majority vote, the election goes into a second round between the two candidates who received the highest number of votes in the first round.
Parliamentary elections take place at the same time as the presidential elections. Turkey follows a system of proportional representation in parliament where the number of seats a party gets in the 600-seat legislature is directly proportional to the votes it wins.
Parties must obtain no less than 7% of votes – either on their own or in alliance with other parties – in order to enter parliament.
The vote will take place on May 14, where candidates will cast their ballots for both elections at the same time. The second presidential ballot, if it takes place, will be held on May 28.
Polls open on May 14 at 8:00 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) and close at 5 p.m. (10 a.m. ET). Results are expected after 9 p.m. local time.
Four candidates are running for this year’s presidential election. Apart from Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, centrist Homeland Party leader Muharrem Ince and right-wing Ancestral Alliance candidate Sinan Ogan are also running.
A second-time presidential candidate who lost against Erdogan in 2018, Ince broke away from the CHP in March and secured enough signatures to join the presidential race despite that party asking him to withdraw.
Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul, told CNN that Ince, who had fallen out with Kilicdaroglu, could be running to boost his popularity despite knowing that he is unlikely to win the election.
He may, however, tip the balance enough to lead the elections to a second ballot, Somer added. Ince’s support lies at around 5%, according to a MetroPoll survey.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM, told CNN the presidential election is likely to go into a second vote, primarily if Ince maintains his moderate but influential level of support.
High in voters’ concerns is the state of the economy and the damage caused by the earthquake. Even before the February disaster, Turkey was struggling with rising prices and a currency crisis that in October saw inflation hit 85%.
That impacted the purchasing power of the public and is “fundamentally the reason why Erdogan’s popularity has been eroded,” said Ulgen. “That is going to be the major handicap for Erdogan,” he said.
Voters are also casting their ballots based on whom they see as more capable of managing the fallout from the earthquake, as well as shielding the country from future disasters, analysts say, adding that Erdogan’s popularity had not taken the expected political impact.
The April survey by Metropoll showed that more voters believe Erdogan and his People’s Alliance can help remedy the effects of the quake, compared to Kilicdaroglu and his Nation Alliance.
“There is a debate about which electoral platform provides the right solution to address these vulnerabilities and enhance Turkey’s resilience to these national disasters,” Ulgen said.
Apart from the economy and the government’s management of Turkey’s frequent natural disasters, voters are likely concerned with Erdogan’s turn away from democracy – something the opposition has campaigned to reverse.
A record number of voters is expected to turn out in May’s elections, the Metropoll survey predicts.
Nearly 5 million first-time voters, most of whom would have only known Erdogan as a leader, are expected to take part this year, Supreme Election Council chief Yener said last month, according to Turkish media.
The Metropoll survey showed that in the first round of elections, voters are more likely to support Kilicdaroglu, with Erdogan coming in second, followed by Ince and Ogan. Kilicdaroglu’s support stood at 42.6% and Erdogan’s at 41.1%. If Ince withdraws from the presidential race, more of voters are likely to switch to Kilicdaroglu than to Erdogan.
In parliamentary elections, however, Erdogan’s AK Party comes ahead in the polls, with a plurality of votes.
Over the years, Erdogan’s government has silenced dissent and detained critics, especially those from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) over alleged affiliation with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization.
The HDP hasn’t fielded a presidential candidate, but on Friday formally endorsed Kilicdaroglu, saying the party is fulfilling its “historical duty to both our tradition and to future generation.”
The HDP, which in March announced that its candidates were running under the Green Left Party amid fears of closure, added that it is taking part in the Labor and Freedom Alliance in the parliamentary election. Founded in 2022, the bloc is an HDP-led, left-wing six-party alliance.
Analysts expect the HDP’s voter base to play a decisive role in the elections, possibly tipping the balance enough in favor of Kilicdaroglu. The Metropoll survey last month showed that an overwhelming majority of HDP voters are likely to vote for Erdogan’s main rival.
Some analysts say that if Erdogan loses the vote by a small margin, it opens up the possibility for him to contest the results.
And if past experience is a gauge, then the president and his AK Party may not take a defeat lying down.
During the 2019 Istanbul and Ankara mayoral election, the AK Party lost control of the country’s financial hub and capital, prompting party officials from both cities to reject the results, citing voter irregularities.
The CHP’s lead in Istanbul was a particularly narrow one, and eventually led to the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) ruling in favor of a re-run that the opposition strongly objected to.
CHP Istanbul mayor candidate Ekrem Imamoglu then went on to win the election re-run, dealing a blow to Erdogan.
Ulgen cast doubt on the YSK’s independence, saying it may give in to potential demands for a recount. The body will be the ultimate arbiter of the race, he said.
A 2023 report by Freedom House said that the judges of the YSK, who oversee all voting procedures, “are appointed by AKP-dominated judicial bodies and often defer to the AKP in their decisions.” The AK Party’s “institutional dominance” in the media and other branches of society also “tilts the electoral playing field” in Erdogan’s favor, the Washington DC-based advocacy group said.
CNN’s Isil Sariyuce in Istanbul contributed to this report.