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Erdogan supporters in post-victory celebration in Ankara
Erdogan supporters in post-victory celebration in Ankara
Ahmet Insel

ISTANBUL — What does voter turnout in Sunday's Turkish presidential election tell us about the popularity and ambitions of President-Elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

So far, we know the number of Turks who went to the polls for the country's first direct presidential election in history was about 13% lower than the number who turned out for the March 30 municipal elections. But that should not offer too much comfort for Erdogan's opponents.

In garnering 51.79% of Sunday's presidential vote, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) avoided a runoff in this historic vote. (Before now, the Turkish parliament appointed the country's leader.) The man who has already served as prime minister for the past 11 years also increased his 19.3 million votes from March to 20.5 million Sunday.

While it's clear that a small portion of AKP voters failed to turn out this time around, some who voted with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in March instead cast their ballots Sunday for Erdogan.

Erdogan's personal success is naturally an important victory for him and his party. Still, taking into consideration the turnout question, he fell short of the 50% of eligible voters that would ostensibly be needed for a constitutional reform referendum to give the president greater powers. Unlike largely ceremonial predecessors, the president-elect has made it clear that he plans to exercise all the power available to the presidential administration under current laws. He has also made no secret of his plans to change the constitution and forge an executive presidency.

To achieve that, Erdogan would need to convince two to three million more voters to support such far-reaching changes. This won't be an easy job for the former prime minister, who needs to at least appear to be impartial.

Still, the real victim of the lower turnout in the presidential election was Erdogan’s chief political opponent. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the runner-up and concensus candidate for the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the MHP, saw support slip on election day, as did a handful of smaller other political parties. It also seems that Ihsanoglu was the candidate who suffered the biggest losses from the grassroots. Early results show that MHP voters preferred Erdogan over Ihsanoglu, particularly in central Turkey.

The second victory of this election belongs to the Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas, of the leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). He received almost 10% of the vote, while the average vote for other pro-Kurdish parties was around just 6%. This increase in votes from western Turkey provides hope for Demirtas' future as a major opposition force. Still, such success comes with a significant political risk if the HDP decides to enter the next elections seeking to top the 10% election barrier instead of having their parliamentary deputies elected as individual candidates.

If the party falls short of the 10%, they will have no representation in the parliament at all, and the AKP could wind up with an even greater majority.

A little bit more than the half of those who went to the polls Sunday voted for Erdogan in the first direct elections for the presidency. It marks a turning point for Turkey’s democracy where the political stakes will only grow higher.

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