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Erdoğan looks to extend his 20-year rule as Turkey votes in presidential runoff

Voters will decide whether Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stretches his rule into a third decade or is unseated by challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a polling station on the day of the presidential runoff vote in Istanbul on May 28, 2023.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a polling station in Istanbul on Sunday, the day of the presidential runoff vote.Murad Sezer / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

ANKARA, Turkey — It’s one of the most hotly contested presidential elections in recent times, but at the Arjantin İlkokulu elementary school in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, the mood was quiet, orderly and calm. 

There was no pushing and shoving as voters waited in short lines to decide whether the country’s longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stretches his rule into a third decade or is unseated by challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has promised to restore a more democratic society. Continuity or change? 

“I hope it will be good for Turkey,” said geologist Salami Toprak, 67, shortly after he voted. “Let’s see what’s gonna come out.” He said that he was thinking about the next generation as he cast his ballot.  

Watched closely from Washington and Kyiv to Moscow and Beijing, the runoff in the Turkish Republic’s centenary year comes after neither candidate was able to secure more than 50% of the votes in the first ballot on May 14, with Erdoğan falling short by a minuscule amount.

Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, has described the runoff as a referendum on the country’s future. The leader of the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010 is a starkly different figure from Erdoğan, who is known for his bombastic speeches. Soft-spoken, Kılıçdaroğlu has a reputation as a bridge builder. 

Along with returning the country to a parliamentary democracy, Kılıçdaroğlu and the alliance have promised to establish the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, institute checks and balances and reverse the democratic backsliding and crackdowns on free speech and dissent. 

Ballot papers for the Turkish presidential election at the Arjantin İlkokulu elementary in Turkey's capital, Ankara.
Ballot papers for the Turkish presidential election at the Arjantin İlkokulu elementary in Turkey's capital, Ankara. Paul Goldman / NBC News

But Erdoğan has been favored to win, especially after his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, retained a parliamentary majority in the elections earlier this month.  

Initially, however, he had trailed in opinion polls during a campaign dominated by the fallout from the devastating earthquake that left more than 50,000 dead earlier this year and the country’s economic turmoil. 

Erdoğan increased wages and pensions ahead of the election’s first round, and subsidized electricity costs and gas bills in an attempt to woo voters who have faced a steep cost-of-living and currency crisis precipitated by numerous rate cuts by the government in an attempt to boost exports.

Immigration has also been high on the agenda, and both candidates have sought to bolster their nationalist credentials before the runoff.

Ahead of the first vote, Kılıçdaroğlu said he intended to repatriate refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return. But he has since toughened his stance and has vowed to send all refugees home once he's elected president.

Erdoğan, meanwhile, courted and won the backing of the nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, the former academic who was backed for president by an anti-migrant party but was eliminated after finishing third in the first round of voting. On the campaign trail, Ogan said he would consider sending migrants back by force if necessary.   

While the economy and migration were important issues, “Erdoğan managed to securitize the elections and convinced his base that national security was at stake,” said Dimitar Bechev, a lecturer on Turkey at Oxford University and author of “Turkey Under Erdoğan.” He added that “identity politics revolving around ethnicity and religion” had determined much of the allocation of the votes. 

The results will also have myriad ramifications outside Turkey, which enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Turkey boasts of having NATO’s second largest armed forces after the U.S. Controlling the crucial Bosporus Strait, Turkey is widely believed to host U.S. nuclear missiles on its soil. 

Despite being a NATO member, the country has maintained close ties with Russia and has blocked Sweden’s membership in the Western military alliance. 

An Erdoğan win would likely deepen the country’s relationship with Moscow, according to Nilgun Arisan Eralp, the director at the Center for E.U. studies at the Economic Policy Research Institute of Turkey in Ankara. 

“Given the dire straits the economy is in, Russian money will be needed for the regime to continue,” Eralp said, adding that it was likely he would continue to reject Swedish membership in NATO, damaging relations with the United States and drawing the country closer to the Kremlin.

Ankara has long accused Sweden of harboring militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, which is a designated terrorist group in Turkey, Sweden and the United States. 

In Istanbul Emre Türkoğlu, 36, said he was waiting for the results with “enthusiasm.”

“This is important to be here today,” said the travel agent. “But I think that there was no need for a second round because we all know that the president Erdoğan is going to win anyway. The past two weeks was an unclear period. I don’t like uncertainty in politics.”

Matt Bradley and Paul Goldman reported from Ankara. Leila Sackur reported from London.