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Turkey votes in crunch election as President Erdogan faces greatest threat to his 20-year rule

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Millions of Turks headed to the polls Sunday in what is set to be Turkey’s most consequential election in two decades, and one whose results will have implications far beyond its own borders.

The country of 85 million holds both its presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14. For the presidency — which is expected to be close — if no candidate wins more than 50%, the vote goes to a run-off two weeks later.

Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing his toughest test yet after two decades in power, grappling with public anger over worsening economic conditions and the slow government response to a series of devastating earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people.

His primary opponent, 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), is running as a unity candidate representing six different parties that all want to see Erdogan out of power.  

In a possibly game-changing development, one of the four presidential candidates, Muharrem Ince, pulled out of the race Thursday. A former CHP member, he had been under heavy criticism for splitting the opposition vote in a way that would hurt Kilicdaroglu’s chances.

Now, with Ince out of the race, his votes may go to Erdogan’s top challenger Kilicdaroglu, helping him tremendously and spelling more trouble for the 69-year-old Erdogan.

Another crucial factor will be turnout: More than 5 million young Turks will be voting for the first time, and the greater the youth turnout, the better for the challenger candidate and the worse for the incumbent, election analysts say.

Campaign posters of the 13th Presidential candidate and Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kiliçdaroglu (L) and the President of the Republic of Turkey and Justice Development Party (AKP) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) are seen displayed.

Tunahan Turhan | Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

With such a high-stakes contest, many inside and out of the country are asking whether Erdogan may dispute the result if he does not win.

“The most likely tactics that he’s going to use to try to tip the vote will be to use influence in the electoral board (the YSK), courts, and media to build a narrative that either elections should be re-run or that they are illegitimate,” said Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Rane. Erdogan did this in 2019 when his party narrowly lost the Istanbul mayoral race, only to lose again by a greater margin after demanding a re-run.

Some even fear violence and instability if the result is disputed, which would bring more volatility to Turkey’s already damaged economy. Turkish and foreign analysts and rights activists have for years been sounding the alarm over increasingly autocratic governance coming from Erdogan’s administration.

CNBC has reached out to the Turkish Presidency’s office for comment.

‘So much at stake’

The election’s outcome and its impact on stability in the country, which sits as a crossroads between Europe and Asia and is home to NATO’s second-largest military, is of paramount importance both domestically and internationally.

“There is so much at stake for President Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) for the first time, as his 20-year rule over Türkiye may come to an end given the unified opposition has managed to maintain a strong alliance and stay on a hope-building positive campaign,” said Hakan Akbas, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Advisory Services based between Istanbul and Washington.

This is similar, he noted, to “what Istanbul Mayor Emrak Imamoglu did to win twice against Erdogan’s AKP candidate in the mayoral election in 2019.”

Imamoglu, a popular figure who was widely expected to run for the presidency as a formidable opponent to Erdogan, was in December sentenced to nearly three years in prison and barred from politics for what a court described as insulting the judges of the Supreme Election Council (YSK). Imamoglu and his supporters say the charges are purely political and were influenced by Erdogan and his party to sabotage his political ambitions. 

Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks as he and his wife Emine Erdogan attend an election rally in Mardin, Turkiye on May 10, 2023.

Turkish Presidency | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Politically, Turkey is highly divided, with candidates using polarizing and fear-mongering messages in an attempt to galvanize voters. But for most Turkish citizens, economy is top of mind as the country stares down a cost-of-living crisis with the official inflation figure hovering around 50% and a currency that has lost 77% of its value against the dollar in five years.

“The next president of Türkiye will face the challenge of restoring economic stability and state institutions such as the central bank, treasury, and wealth fund and rebuild investor confidence,” Akbas told CNBC.

“The country suffers from historically low FX reserves, widening current account deficit, artificially overvalued local currency, undisciplined fiscal balance and persistent, high inflation.”

Even if Erdogan wins, Akbas said, “after years of low interest rate policies that have contributed to high inflation and currency devaluation, he would likely need to adjust his economic policy to address the current economic crisis and attract investment.”

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