Turkey election: Erdogan faces battle for survival as polls open

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections in Istanbul, Turkey, May 7, 2023. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Polling stations have opened across Turkey for crucial parliamentary and presidential elections.

Roughly 61 million people are eligible to vote, including nearly 5 million first-time voters. Turks abroad have already cast their ballots.

The vote is being seen as a major test to incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule.

Besides choosing the president, voters will also select 600 members of parliament from 87 electoral districts to represent them for the next five years.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed hundreds of observers to monitor the vote.

How the ‘earthquake zone’ views Turkey’s elections
On February 6, powerful earthquakes rocked large portions of southern Turkey and northern Syria. More than 50,000 people lost their lives in Turkey alone, according to official figures.

About three months after the disaster, many people still don’t have a place to stay, while basic services like water and electricity have not yet been restored everywhere.

DW reported on two cities in the “earthquake zone” which have starkly different views on Sunday’s election.

The southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, which was at the epicenter of February’s earthquake, is considered an AKP stronghold. It is unlikely the incumbent will see support wane on May 14 because of the earthquake.

The situation appears to be different in Hatay, a city near the Syrian border. There, many people were critical of the government, saying some cities — not including Hatay — were given priority when it came to aid deliveries.

Many in Hatay still lack clean water, clothing and hygiene articles.

‘People are more vulnerable to disinformation’ Turkish fact-checker tells DW
Turkish fact-checker Gülin Cavus spoke to DW about the tension ahead of the 2023 polls and the level of disinformation doing the rounds.

“People are just really tense. And during these kinds of uncertain times, people sometimes have fears, sometimes excitement. It really affects how we consume information on social media,” Cavus said.

“People are more vulnerable to disinformation in these times. This polarization deeply affects this Turkish election and the amount of misinformation,” Cavus pointed out and said that deepfake videos were now among the types of disinformation circulating.

Cavus said that a mistrust of media meant that people were getting more news from social media platforms as opposed to conventional media houses.

“It’s really important to understand the dynamics and atmosphere in Turkey’s media ecosystem. People actually don’t trust the media that much. They consume and get news from social media channels,” Cavus said, while adding that “troll armies” are influencing attitudes.

“In this election, the leaders’ troll armies actually did many things to change people’s attitudes towards the parties, the leaders, and the campaigns. Everyone shares disinformation about other candidates.”

Who are the candidates and what’s at stake?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is founder and leader of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The 69-year-old served as the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 and then rose to the top positions in the country.

From 2003 to 2014, he served as prime minister, after which he became president after stepping down as party leader.

He promptly set about expanding the power of the presidency and in 2017, he used a referendum to enshrine a series of amendments that gave the office more control in the constitution.

Erdogan’s critics say he has shifted Turkey away from its long standing secular traditions towards religious conservatism.

Six opposition parties have set aside their political differences to present a united front in their bid to topple Erdogan, who has been Turkey’s longest serving leader.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu has prevailed as the six-party opposition alliance’s choice candidate.

The 74-year old has been chairman of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2007.

Kilicdaroglu and the opposition alliance are promising to transform Turkey back into a “strong parliamentary system.” They want to undo as many of Erdogan’s constitutional changes, which increased his power, as possible.

Two other politicians were running for the presidency, although one pulled out of the race on Thursday in a shock move.

Muharrem Ince’s withdrawal could ultimately bolster the chances of top opposition candidate Kilicdaroglu.

The final candidate is Sinan Ogan, who probably has the slimmest chance of winning the presidential race. He is supported by an alliance of small, ultranationalist parties.

Turkey is in the midst of an economic meltdown which has seen the Turkish Lira plummet to record lows while inflation has been rampant. The Erdogan government’s response to deadly earthquakes in February has also drawn criticism, hurting his reelection prospects.