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Turkey elections: Votes from overseas may tilt the balance in a tight race

Overseas voters could contribute half a percent to the presidential poll, and may prove to be a make or break community for Erdogan
A woman, who is a Turkish citizen living in Germany, casts her ballot for 14 May parliamentary and presidential election, at the Turkish consulate in Berlin, 27 April (Reuters)
A Turkish citizen in Germany casts her ballot for the 14 May parliamentary and presidential election at the Turkish consulate in Berlin, 27 April (Reuters)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens that live abroad have begun to cast their votes in the countries they live in, and at Turkish border posts, on Thursday, 17 days before Turkey holds pivotal elections.  

There are 3.4 million registered Turkish voters living outside of the country - more than five percent of the total electorate - which is 64.1 million. Polling stations will be operational in 73 countries.

Despite voter turnout abroad consistently hovering around just 50 percent (compared to around 85 percent in Turkey), those votes are important.

Recent polls indicate that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main competitor, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, are really neck-and-neck. A median of seven polls done in April indicates Kilicdaroglu could get 50.3 percent in a runoff while Erdogan is on around 49.7 percent.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey will be held on 14 May, with the expected runoff for the presidency set for two weeks after if no candidate gets over half the votes the first time around.

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Ulas Tol, research director at the Centre for Social Impact Studies (Team), told Middle East Eye that the votes coming from abroad may tilt the balance in favour of Erdogan, as he polls strongly in Europe, where the bulk of the Turkish immigrants live, who are mostly conservative.

“Erdogan received nearly 60 percent of the vote coming from abroad in 2018,” he said.

“Half of the electorate abroad lives in Germany, where access to polling stations is hard [due to their limited numbers]. That’s why whoever can bring the voters to the stations also wins most of the vote.”

Despite requests, German authorities refused to double the number of polling stations in the country, Akif Cagatay Kilic, the chairman of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told CNNTurk.

The German embassy in Ankara said Germany allowed 16 polling stations in Turkey’s diplomatic and honorary missions, an increase of three stations compared to previous years.

Ankara wanted to have 26 polling stations to increase voter turnout.

Tol said the votes abroad may impact the results of the presidential election by half a percent.

“If the turnout rate stays the same and Erdogan receives the same level of support as he did in 2018 - around 60 percent - the impact would be 0.4 to 0.5 percent,” he added.

“For example, if he receives 47 percent of Turkey-based votes, you can add 0.5 percent to the final tally which would be 47.5 percent for him.”

Making votes count

The second issue is the parliamentary race. The total amount of votes coming from abroad is distributed to all 81 provinces in Turkey in accordance with each party’s total votes and based on the population in each electoral district.

Tol says, because of that, the votes from abroad for the parties that do not run candidates in some provinces would go to waste and will indirectly work to benefit of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Aydin Enes Seydanlioglu, a parliamentary candidate from the Turkish nationalist opposition Good Party (IYI) in the city of Mersin, who is a Turkish-German citizen, told MEE that the vote coming from abroad is very important in tightly contested parliamentary elections in some provinces, where the AKP may win or lose depending on the Europe-based voters.

“Some parties in the past lost three or four seats to the AKP in the past elections [because of votes from abroad],” he said. “I expect that this will change in this election.”

The chances of the Erdogan-led People’s Alliance retaining control of parliament are higher than his rival, Nation Alliance.

But even if successful, the ruling coalition is expected to have a razor-thin majority.

That’s why it is important for both sides to gain as many MPs as possible, including by utilizing the overseas votes.

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Mustafa Yeneroglu, a Turkish-German citizen and parliamentary candidate in Istanbul for Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), has years of experience seeking votes abroad.

He expects Erdogan’s vote share to drop this election. 

“I think many former Erdogan supporters will change their mind on him due to economic hardships in Turkey,” he told MEE. “Many voters feel the problem through their relatives who live back in Turkey.”

Yeneroglu says Erdogan’s decision to hike the military service exemption fee for citizens who reside overseas from €1,000 to €5,563 in recent years has angered some voters, even prompting some to disavow their Turkish citizenship.

The candidate also believes there are supporters of the opposition who largely avoided the ballot box in previous elections but would this time vote Erdogan out.

“I don’t think Erdogan will manage to stay above 60 percent of support this time. He definitely won’t pass the 50 percent level,” Yeneroglu said. “The difference between the opposition and the ruling party votes was only 300,000 in the last elections. I think it will drop to the level of 150,000.”

Kilicdaroglu on Thursday released a statement promising legal and regulatory changes to favour the Turkish diaspora, such as allowing them better pension payments if based in Europe or extending the temporary use of cars or phones they purchased abroad in Turkey.

Oguz Ucuncu, another Turkish-German running for parliament from the AKP in Istanbul, argued Kilicdaroglu’s promises aren’t particularly novel.

“Many parties have the same electoral pledges," he said, noting how policies cutting airfares to Turkey for the diaspora was a common pledge.

“I don’t particularly believe that the opposition would get more votes from Europe.”

Ucuncu in fact believes the contrary: claiming that more Erdogan-leaning voters would turn out eager to avoid squandering the “achievements” made by the AKP over two decades of rule. 

“We will increase our votes, and it’s not because people are scared, it is because they genuinely believe that Erdogan is the best choice,” he said.

“They don’t want to go back to the times of coalition governments with the Table of Six opposition coalition.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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