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Turkey Presidential Election Heads to Runoff as Erdoğan Faces Toughest Challenge of 2-Decade Rule

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Turkey’s closely watched presidential election is headed to a May 28 runoff, as both incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival fell short of the 50% needed to win outright in Sunday’s vote. Erdoğan is facing his toughest challenge since coming to power 20 years ago, as opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu leads a broad coalition in a bid to unseat him amid criticism for his administration’s economic policies, weakening Turkey’s democracy and poor response to the deadly February earthquakes. Kılıçdaroğlu has vowed closer ties with NATO and the EU and to reinforce democratic institutions. We get an update from Istanbul with Turkish historian Kaya Genç, who says Erdoğan’s political survival was a “stunning comeback” that contradicted polls predicting a comfortable first-round victory for Kılıçdaroğlu. “This was a total shock for the Turkish establishment,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Turkey’s presidential election appears to be headed to a runoff in two weeks. Preliminary results show Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received 49.4% of the vote; his main challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, received just under 45%. The two candidates will likely face each other in a second round of voting on May 28th.

Kılıçdaroğlu campaigned on a vow to end what he called Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. Erdoğan has been in power for 20 years, first as prime minister, then as president. On Sunday, Erdoğan spoke to a crowd outside the AK Party headquarters in Ankara.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOĞAN: [translated] If the decision of our nation shows that the elections have been completed, then there is no problem. Elections for the lawmakers of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey resulted in our People’s Alliance winning the majority. Currently, the majority in the parliament is in our People’s Alliance. Our alliance dominates almost all commissions. Therefore, we do not doubt that the choice of our nation, which gave the majority in the parliament to our alliance, will be in favor of trust and stability in the presidential election.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, Erdoğan’s challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said would he prevail in the runoff.

KEMAL KILIÇDAROĞLU: [translated] Despite all his smear campaigns and insults, Erdoğan did not get the result he expected. Nobody should get excited by the fait accompli. Elections are not won on the balcony. Election data still continues to come in. If our nation decides on a runoff, with our pleasure, we will definitely win this election in the second round. Everyone will see it.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Istanbul, Turkey, where we’re joined by Kaya Genç, an award-winning Turkish essayist and historian. He’s the author of several books, including, most recently, The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey. He has covered the Turkish elections for the London Review of Books. His recent article for the Nation is headlined “The Political Aftershock of Turkey’s Devastating Earthquake.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kaya Genç. Can you start off by talking about the significance of this runoff and that it is likely going to a runoff on May 28th?

KAYA GENÇ: This was a total shock, because we were expecting a clear opposition victory. All the polls were pointing to that direction. And so we were preparing to write a political obituary of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president for two decades. But Erdoğan made a stunning comeback, and that was a total blow for people in Istanbul. Istanbul voted predominantly for the opposition, but when you look at the whole country, the whole ballots opened, now it seems like we have been mistaken in the polls, and Erdoğan has a five-point lead. And the third candidate in the presidential race is also a right-wing figure, whose supporters are more likely to support Erdoğan, so if he gets that 5% as well, it will be an easy, comfortable win for Erdoğan for the next elections.

But this was a total shock for the Turkish establishment, because, for months, Erdoğan was never speaking optimistically about the election results. He was his usual self, bombastic rhetoric, muscular nationalism, but he never said, “We are going to win definitely.” This is what the opposition said. The opposition was very certain that this was the end of Erdoğan, that we were getting rid of him in the first round. And so, yesterday, there was huge disappointment, and the supporters of the opposition felt a little bit betrayed, because after hours, when the first results came, the opposition leaders were nowhere to be seen. They made very brief appearances during the night, but very brief appearances that gave no hope to the voters whatsoever. So, this morning, we woke up to a very frustrated city. People feel betrayed and fooled by the pollsters. And I don’t know if the opposition will gather enough energy to prepare for the runoff in two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about who the opposition leader is, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Talk about he himself and also the movement that came together to try to defeat Erdoğan.

KAYA GENÇ: Sure. So, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi, a short, well-mannered, softly spoken Alevi, a grandfatherly figure, who’s the anti-Erdoğan. He speaks in a very civilized way. He never gets angry. He’s very calculating. And he seems a very civilized man. And he’s the leader of the CHP, the Republican People’s Party, which is, of course, the founder of modern Turkey, a century-long party — a century-old party.

And so, Kılıçdaroğlu played the role of a mediator, a middleman, and he said, “We are going to change the direction of the CHP. We are going to make peace with the religious people. We are going to make peace with the Kurds. We are going to get the support of the nationalists. We are going to be the centerpiece of the anti-Erdoğan movement.” And that, he did, very diligently and for months. So, he went into meetings. He convinced five other opposition parties to form an alliance, and he called it the National Alliance. And then, he also received the support of the Kurds and the far left and the environmentalists. So, 13 parties in total supported his bid.

So, at the one hand, we have these 13 parties, and Kılıçdaroğlu, as their candidate, always saying the right things, culturally, politically, saying nothing politically incorrect. And then we had Erdoğan and his coalition, which was a far-right coalition. And we have to be honest: The winner of yesterday’s vote was the far right in Turkey. And so, these are different shades of far right — one party, called Yeniden Refah, which is a very religious party, another one, a Kurdish religious party. So, we thought that Kılıçdaroğlu, a Biden-like figure, white-haired, a bit boring, but a peacemaker, would steal the vote from the extremities of Turkish politics. But we were very badly mistaken. This was a huge win for the extremist movements.

And people, when Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition candidate, announced his bid in March, some people said, “This man will never do the job. He will not win, because we need someone as tall and angry and rabble-rousing as Erdoğan to beat him.” But the opposition party, the CHP, said, “No, we’ll be very calm. This is the man.” And now I think the people who opposed Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy maybe in two weeks will say, “We were proven right. We need someone a bit more like Erdoğan to beat Erdoğan.” So, now the opposition, unfortunately, will spend the next few weeks, I think, debating this issue. Did we pick the right candidate? What could we do right? What did we do wrong? Of course, this will help little to win the second round for them. So, this will be a frustrating two weeks for the opposition.

And Erdoğan now has the full winds of the Turkish political system in his sails. And he made a speech yesterday. He made it clear that this was a definite win for him, but he fell short of announcing a victory in the first round. So he played his cards right. Three years ago, in the mayoral elections in Istanbul, the candidate that he picked for Istanbul just rushed to the cameras and said, “We won,” in the first round, and then the opposition candidate, the mayoral candidate for Istanbul, won a few hours later. So, Erdoğan didn’t make this mistake. He didn’t rush things. And he seems confident that he will win the elections in the second round. So, the problem is, Kılıçdaroğlu was 100% confident that he would win in the first round, and how will he be able to explain to his voters that he made a miscalculation and that he can win, certainly, clearly, definitely, in the second round?

AMY GOODMAN: Given his authoritarian rule, Erdoğan, his enormous power that he’s gained over 20 years, do you believe the results of the election? That’s number one. And talk about the crisis of the economy in Turkey, not to mention the devastation of the earthquakes in February, and how that affected people and how people in Turkey are feeling right now.

KAYA GENÇ: Yes. So, these two questions are actually related. Erdoğan has a huge control of the Turkish media. So, if you look at CNN’s Turkish edition, it’s 24 hours Erdoğan propaganda. If you look at most mainstream channels, 24-hour Erdoğan propaganda. So he has authoritarian control over the Turkish media. You look TRT World, for example, you look at all different channels, it’s all about Erdoğan’s rhetoric.

And what is Erdoğan’s rhetoric so far, for the past two months? It was this. The opposition parties are organized, curated, if you will, by Joe Biden, by the U.S. imperialist system. So he used this very anti-imperialist rhetoric. And he said, “Any vote for the CHP, the founder of the Turkish Republic, was a vote for Joe Biden.” So, he used this, honestly, eccentric rhetoric very carefully.

And thanks to his authoritarian control over the media, when opposition candidates were attacked with stones during their campaigning in different Anatolian cities, all these TV channels were saying these are self-organized attacks, the opposition parties stoned themselves, this is a whole drama, these are all scenarios implemented by Biden, by the Pentagon. And when Turkish TV channels interviewed people on the streets, people were saying exactly the same things. So this was an incredible example of how media could form public opinion in Turkey. And as I’ve been saying, it’s 85 — more than 85% of Turkish media under Erdoğan’s control. So they really managed the whole discourse very well.

And to the second question, the economic crisis, on February 6, when the earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people in Syria and Turkey, with a bill of more than $100 billion, Turkey was already in deep trouble. The inflation had soared. The Turkish lira had melted against the dollar for months. And so Turkey was really in a very difficult position.

But Erdoğan said, using his incredible media dominance, that “We are the builders, they are the critics. They are the talkers, we are the builders. And we will use this huge crisis as a great chance to rebuild Turkey.” So he started using the rebuild rhetoric. And he said, “Who has built stuff for you throughout the 20th century? The Turkish right-wing parties did. And who is the representative of the Turkish right-wing legacy now? It’s me and my coalition partners. OK, maybe we are a bit far too far to the right of the equation, but trust us. We are the builders. We will rebuild those houses. But we will not do that for free. You will have to pay for us. We will give you credit, which will help you pay for your new houses.” And, of course, those houses were destroyed because of irregularities in the whole construction system, and Erdoğan took no responsibility whatsoever. He said, “Those buildings are gone. Drink a glass of cold water and come back to me. Vote for me, and let’s play this whole game again.”

And I was listening to lots of supporters of Erdoğan in the earthquake-hit cities, 11 of them, and people were saying, “The opposition promises to build housing for us for free. But there is no free lunch on Earth. We don’t believe them. We trust Erdoğan, because in a capitalist system, we will have to pay for this.” So, it is a very strange scenario, where the people most violently affected by the earthquake were most passionately supporting the government that was responsible for the toll, I think. And all the experts think like that. But they were saying, “We want to do this again. We want new houses. You are the one who can deliver.” So, Erdoğan’s message is, the answer to this crisis, this example of crisis capitalism, will help us rebuild this country, will help enliven the economy, so the way out of this crisis is rebuilding these 11 cities. And that’s the message he tried to sell, and that’s the message he sold, much to our dismay.

AMY GOODMAN: Kaya Genç, I want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning Turkish essayist and historian, author of several books, including the most recent, The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey. He covered the Turkish elections for the London Review of Books. And we’ll link to your article in The Nation, “The Political Aftershock of Turkey’s Devastating Earthquake.”

Coming up, a ceasefire has been reached in Gaza after Israel killed 33 Palestinians over five days. The ceasefire comes as Palestinians mark the 75th anniversary of what they call the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” when over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were violently expelled from their homes in 1948, when Israel was founded. Stay with us.

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Ongoing Catastrophe: Israel Threatens New Mass Expulsions as Palestinians, U.N. Mark 75th Nakba Anniversary

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