05/09/2023, 12.21
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Elections in Turkey: the diaspora, young people and the possibility of a post-Erdogan era

by Dario Salvi

On 14 May, the country will go to the polls for parliamentary and presidential elections (with a possible runoff on the 28th) for a round characterised by great uncertainty. Voting abroad began at the end of April and closes today. Great uncertainty among expatriates, fights at the polling stations in France between pro-government and opposition groups. The electorate on its first vote, tired of the sultan's promises.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Dominant presence of the Turkish political scene for two decades, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to face the toughest challenge of his career as absolute leader, as prime minister and later president with the institutional reform he himself wanted.

On Sunday 14 May the country will go to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections, with polls giving opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, supported by the 'Table of Six', a slight lead.

The margin is not great enough for a victory in the first round (where a 50 per cent majority is needed), with analysts and experts agreeing in predicting a game that will only end in the runoff, a first for Turkey, with the second round scheduled two weeks later, on May 28.

The crux of the matter is to understand how the strong man will react to the ballot response, since never before has his unchallenged dominance appeared threatened.

The 69-year-old leader, with a few health setbacks in the last period that led to a brief interruption of the election campaign, has shown an increasing authoritarian drift over the years by claiming roles and decisions for himself, especially after the referendum on the new Constitution in 2017.

All this against a backdrop of accusations of voter intimidation, threats and irregularities - not to say fraud - raised by the opposition. In reality, the challenge to the last ballot - and beyond, with probable appeals - has already begun at the end of April with the vote abroad, also important in delineating the winner, and with the first skirmishes, if not street clashes, between pro-government and opposition.

Turks in the diaspora

The position of expatriates with voting rights could have a significant weight in the choice of the future president, in what is also seen abroad as a kind of referendum for or against Erdogan.

With 17 days ahead of their fellow citizens at home, hundreds of thousands of Turkish expatriates in various diaspora countries or at border points have started the election machine. According to official statistics, there are about 3.4 million eligible voters, or 5 per cent of the total electoral body of 64.1 million.

Polling stations are operating in as many as 73 countries, and although the turnout abroad is 'only' around 50 per cent on average compared to the domestic 85 per cent, these votes are important for the final outcome. Abroad, the largest numbers are in Germany (1.5 million) and France (400,000 expatriates), with voting operations ending today. 

Interviewed by Middle East Eye (Mme) Ulas Tol, director of the Research Department at the Centre for Social Impact Studies, says that the vote abroad could tip the scales in Erdogan's favour, especially in Europe where most of the mostly conservative expatriates live.

In 2018, he adds, the outgoing president 'received almost 60 per cent of the vote from abroad' and for this election round he believes he could be worth '0.5 per cent: if the turnout rate remains the same,' he explains, 'and Erdogan receives the same level of support as in 2018, the overall impact would be around 0.4/0.5 per cent'.

The parliamentary race is another question. The amount of votes from abroad is distributed in all 81 provinces of Turkey according to the votes of each party and the population of the electoral district. Therefore, foreign votes in provinces uncovered by candidates would be wasted and indirectly benefit Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Akp).

Aydin Enes Seydanlioglu, MP of the opposition Good Party (IYI) in Mersin, a Turkish citizen of German nationality, emphasises that the greatest weight will be placed on parliamentary elections, especially in some provinces where the vote from Europe counts. To no small degree.

'I expect,' she says, 'that [support for the Akp] will change in these elections'. That is why it is important to get 'as many MPs as possible', also by using preferences from abroad.

Mustafa Yeneroglu, also a Turkish-German and candidate in Istanbul for Kılıçdaroğlu's Republican People's Party (Chp), with years of experience behind him, predicts a drop in support for the sultan. "I think that many former supporters,' he points out, 'will change their minds because of economic difficulties', also because 'many know the problem from the stories of their relatives' who have remained in the country.

Voting, fights and divisions

What is certain is that, as at home, the electorate abroad is divided and the appointment a source of deep tensions and splits. In Berlin, a migrant named Fatma says she is voting for the outgoing president because "Erdogan is a strong man. And we support him".

Her words are shared by 39-year-old Ozlem Dinc, in Paris, who expresses full confidence in Erdogan. 'We really hope from the bottom of our hearts that he can still remain in power and can - she hopes with some emphasis - go on to conquer the world."

The internal polarisations are reflected in the different positions abroad, as is evident from the comment of Sema Jude, who emigrated to the French capital. "We have to change the president first, then the system," she explains. "The presidential system has become a kind of dictatorship in Turkey." The wish is shared by Cinar Negatir, albeit for other reasons. "Yes to change, because the economy is at 0%." 

The vote abroad has seen tense moments that, in some cases, have degenerated into clashes between the parties, with the police intervening. Proof of this is what happened in Marseille, France, last week where several fights broke out between pro-government and Erdogan critics in front of a polling station, with a final toll of at least four injured.

According to the police in Bouches-du-Rhône, a first brawl broke out in the early afternoon in the southern area of the coastal city, near the Chanot park. Officers had to use tear gas to separate the two groups. Despite the massive police presence, further clashes occurred late in the day, leading to the arrest of at least two people.

Young people at the ballot box

Having said the variable linked to the foreign vote and the weight of the Kurdish electorate, whose support could be decisive for the anti-Erdogan opposition, there is a further element at stake: young people, many of whom are called to the polls for the first time, in a nation where they represent a large component and among the first to be affected by the crisis.

There are more than six million first-time voters, around 10% of the electorate, and the majority have only known the current president. Like the young Efe (name is fictitious), a university student interviewed by al-Monitor who bet on the opposition leader because he is capable of guaranteeing respect for the law, personal freedoms, and human rights violated under Erdogan.

A survey conducted last year by the Konda Institute shows that 57% of young voters describe themselves as modern, 32% as traditional-conservative and the remainder as religious-conservative. In recent weeks the government parties have winked at the youth electorate with promises and reassurances such as the 10 free gigs per month for internet. 'What's the point?,' retorts 19-year-old Kaan Erdinc, "the government has already blocked half of the sites I want to consult." 

A recent survey by the Raporu agency shows that 89% of young people intend to go to the polls, but ideas are still unclear and indecision prevails. At least in the first round, since between Erdogan and Kılıçdaroğlu, it is - in reality - the teacher and writer Muharrem İnce who receives the most support, while in the event of a runoff, preferences go to the opposition leader.

Many young people do not know or share the struggles of their parents: for a conservative young woman, the veil is not an issue, just as for a liberal boy, going to a civil servant wearing the hijab. What really matters is the economy, prospects for the future, opportunities for study and employment and, at least in this sense, the opposition leader represents hope for change.

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