The results from the May 14 general elections in Turkey were a surprise for some, a disappointment for others, and for those who rallied behind President Erdoğan and his coalition, a victory. These elections also showed how the main opposition coalition underestimated the societal split and the priorities that mattered — nationalism, big infrastructure projects, identity, religion, and security, to name a few. The financial crisis, graft, deterioration of rights and freedoms, as well as mishandling of the devastating February 6 earthquake did not matter in the end — especially as eight of eleven provinces affected by twin earthquakes backed President Erdoğan in the presidential votes.
The results were also a testament to the ruling state benefiting from the full control of the media landscape — “for comparison, Erdoğan got 32 hours of air time on state TV compared with 32 minutes for Kilicdaroglu,” wrote journalist Amberin Zaman — making it much harder for the opposition to reach those who remained undecided or voters who were skeptical of their promises in the run-up to the election. This was also reflected in a statement by the International Election Observation Mission, according to which, “Public broadcasters clearly favored ruling parties and candidates.”
But the outcomes of the May 14 vote reflect more than just an uneven playing field. In fact, many observers got it wrong, as well as the pollsters, the opposition coalition itself, and the opposition's presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who, on the night of the election, tweeted:
— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (@kilicdarogluk) May 14, 2023
We are leading.
On May 14, the numbers shared by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) party indicated that Kılıçdaroğlu was clearly leading in the polls. But the enthusiasm of Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş — the municipal mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively — who appeared on television screens in the first hours of the polls assuring voters that the opposition coalition and Kılıçdaroğlu were leading in the polls, disappeared as hours went on.
It turned out there were discrepancies. For that, Onursal Adıgüzel, the party's vice president who was also responsible for ballot box data entry, was let go. It turned out the algorithmic system used to count votes was faulty — it was missing input from 20,000 polling stations where the CHP did not have observers, according to the findings of journalist Nevşin Mengü.
The disappointment among opposition supporters was short-lived especially as reports of voter fraud began to galvanize the momentum needed to ensure a second round of presidential voting.
Starting on May 16, a hashtag on Turkish Twitter space was trending, #OylarYenidenSayilsin as reports of massive fraud in processing election results started trickling in. In some cases, the votes for the opposition party CHP and its ally Iyi Parti were dismissed by the Supreme Election Council (YSK) while in others, it was clear that votes for the opposition coalition were transferred to the parties within the ruling alliance.
At the time of writing this story, YSK is yet to announce the official results of the election.
In a series of tweets, academic Timur Kuran attempted to explain what was happening:
Turkey’s opposition is recovering from its shock. The PR and central monitoring teams responsible for the Election Night fiasco have been fired. Votes that local polling stations reported to the High Election Council are being compared with those in the HEC (High Election Council) data base. (1/3)
— Timur Kuran (@timurkuran) May 16, 2023
Kuran also urged the High Election Council or the Supreme Election Council (YSK) to “investigate who voted and how results from local polling stations compared with those in its own database.”
Like many others, local columnist Can Atakli was also concerned about fraud on election night. He found it suspicious when YSK chief Ahmet Yener, during his third appearance on television, announced a sudden jump in the difference between votes for Erdoğan vs. Kılıçdaroğlu — 49.5 percent vs. 45 percent respectively.
In total, out of 201,807 ballot boxes in the race, objections were made over the results from 2,269.
The discrepancies and CHP's weaknesses in vote count led volunteers to offer their support in the second round:
Ikinci turda istatistik simulasyon, veri incelemesi, kampanya iletisimi icin Millet Ittifaki Cumhurbaskani Adayi sayin Kemal Kilicdaroglu’nun ekibine her turlu yardima hazirim. Diplomalarim. Her sey cok guzel olacak @kilicdarogluk @ekrem_imamoglu @mansuryavas06 @Canan_Kaftanci pic.twitter.com/nJhHj05aAH
— Övül Sezer (@ovulsezer) May 16, 2023
I am ready to assist the team of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Presidential Candidate of the National Alliance, for statistical simulation, data analysis and campaign communication in the second round. (Here are) my diplomas. Everything is going to be beautiful.
Dedem bizden yardım iste; sana ne lazım? Müşahit mi, IT’ci mi, sosyal medyacı mı, reklamcı, grafiker, influencer? Kapına yığılacağız.
— Deniz Özturhan 🐙 (@yanilgi) May 16, 2023
Grandfather ask us for help; what do you need? Observer, IT person, social media person, advertiser, graphic designer, influencer? We'll be crowding at your door.
Eğer “Abi, değmez bu insanlara. Ben hayatıma bakarım. Olmadı yurtdışına çıkarım” diyen varsa etrafınızda, onlara söyleyin. Öyle bir hayat olmayacak. Saklanacak bir “sahil kasabanız” bile kalmayacak. Yurtdışına çıkarım meselesi de öyle kolay bir şey değil. Her gün içiniz yanar.…
— Ece Temelkuran (@ETemelkuran) May 16, 2023
If you have those around you thinking ‘man, its not worth it. I will move on. Or better yet move abroad,’ tell them this. There wont be a life like that. You may not even find a small sea shore cottage to hide at. As for moving abroad — its not as easy as you may think. You will burn on the inside every day.
According to YSK data, out of 64,190,651 registered voters, 53,993,714 voted in total. Among them were 4,904,672 first-time voters. With over 3.5 million registered overseas voters, 1,416,000 voted at the end. The turnout was the highest from all previous elections, with official numbers indicating a 88.92 percent voter turnout. In previous general elections held in 2018, this number was 86.24 percent. Historically Turkey has a high voter turnout. Many analysts say this is largely because elections are the only remaining democratic institution where people can influence the country.
Since neither of the leading presidential candidates was able to secure over 50 percent of the vote, the country is headed to a run-off scheduled for May 28, which will also be the first time Turkey will have a run-off presidential vote under the country's new electoral system. Many observers and pundits view the chance of the second round as a positive development for President Erdoğan.
Meanwhile, while the ruling government coalition secured 323 parliament seats out of 600, it still lacks the majority it needs to, say, introduce constitutional changes, which require 360 votes. There are fears that some of the newly elected members of the parliament represented among the opposition coalition may switch sides, especially as many of them are former members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It remains to be seen whether this will actually happen in the weeks and months to come.
As for election propaganda in the next round, there are notable differences in the tone of the political messaging. In a video shared by Kılıçdaroğlu on May 17, the 74-year-old presidential candidate looked tired but still determined to win the second round. As explained by academic Timur Kuran:
To defeat Erdoğan on May 28, Kılıçdaroğlu has adopted a more aggressive tone. And he’s now emphasizing two causes bound to resonate with nationalist voters, who form 25% of the electorate: (1) repatriation of millions of refugees, (2) reducing Turkey’s dependence on Putin. https://t.co/0DiFvbuU71
— Timur Kuran (@timurkuran) May 17, 2023
Kılıçdaroğlu and his opposition alliance must also take into account what may have prevented more support in the previous round. According to columnist Atakli, it was not that the voters who supported the ruling government coalition agreed with theft. “Societies pushed into poverty and ignorance believe they cannot prevent theft,” wrote Atakli. Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu accused some powerful people of graft — people who employ tens of thousands of people who think they might soon find themselves unemployed if Kılıçdaroğlu won and went after these business owners. Others, like journalist Ismail Saymaz say people believed the AKP propaganda that the opposition was in cohorts with apparent terrorist groups like the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK). In this case, according to Saymaz, Kılıçdaroğlu and his team must break this cycle in less than ten days.
But addressing people's needs is not the only item on the to-do list. According to journalist Murat Aksoy, the opposition must have observers at each polling station to ensure the safety of the ballot box. It will also have to convince its voters to go back to the ballot boxes as well as some 8.5 million voters who did not vote in this election at all.
Scores of Turks, took to social media platforms, reminding peers to show up on May 28 and help shift the tides if not for their own future then at least for a 20-year-old Kübra Ergin, who committed suicide two days after election. In a note Ergin left behind, the young woman said, “I'm tired. They stole my youth. As a woman, I have never felt free. Because of the people of this country, I could not live my childhood, and I could not live my youth.”