The Kremlin’s long-time partner Recep Erdogan did better than expected in the first round of Turkey’s presidential elections this weekend. However, he couldn’t secure a third term in office outright. Now he faces another, even more difficult run-off with opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the second round of voting at the end of this month. The Russian authorities are counting on Erdogan’s victory since Kilicdaroglu’s pro-Western stance promises to make it harder to sidestep sanctions with Turkey’s help.
- Most opinion polls before election day pointed to a majority for Kilicdaroglu. But during the first round of voting on May 14 Erdogan exceeded expectations and almost claimed an outright victory. In total, Erdogan took 49.35% of the votes, with Kilicdaroglu receiving 45%. A third candidate, Sinan Ogan, received 5.22% and has already urged his supporters to vote for Kilicdaroglu in the next round. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that Kilicdaroglu can count on all of those votes, but it does suggest that the run-off will be every bit as tight as the first round.
- Despite clear sympathy for Erdogan, Russian state media was fairly impartial in its coverage. In the May 14 edition of Russian TV’s Vesti Nedeli weekly review, Dmitry Kiselyov described Kilicdaroglu as a “strong opposition candidate” and suggested that a third term for Erdogan would be “too anti-democratic for Turkey.” However, in the report Kilicdaroglu was portrayed as a Western puppet: the reporter highlighted the candidate’s meeting with the U.S. ambassador and his promise to enforce sanctions against Russia. In return, the reporter claims, the West promised to pump money into Turkey’s failing economy. At the end of the report, he hinted that if Kilicdaroglu loses at the polls, he could lead his supporters onto the streets in protest, invoking the Kremlin’s favorite bogeyman of a popular uprising.
- Political propaganda channels on Russian Telegram were less even-handed (1, 2, 3). The general view seems to be that Erdogan effectively won in the first round and Kilicdaroglu has little chance in the run-off voting later this month – but his Western puppet masters are already preparing mass protests for when he loses.
Why the world should care
We wrote previously about the importance of Turkey’s elections for Russia here. Erdogan is important to Putin not only as a fellow autocrat but as a predictable economic partner: Turkey has become one of Russia’s major channels for evading sanctions, as well as a transport hub in the face of isolation from the West. If the opposition comes to power it would be a boost for Western efforts in enforcing sanctions against Russia.