Istanbul, Turkey – The two weeks between Turkey’s first and second round of voting has seen a marked change in campaign intensity as the country enters the uncharted territory of a presidential run-off.
Sunday will be the first time Turkish voters have ever had to go to the ballot box for a second time to select their next president – and many seem to find it hard to resurrect the enthusiasm of the first round.
“It’s a strange feeling. I feel like the election is finished, but I know there’s another one on Sunday,” said Soner Ugurlu, 49, as he sipped tea with friends in Istanbul’s Tophane neighbourhood.
“Of course, I will vote again, but it seems weird because everything is much calmer compared to two weeks ago,” he said.
Many voters see President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the likely winner as he seeks to extend his 20 years in power by a further five years, adding to the sense that the second vote is something of an anticlimax.
Erdogan surprised pollsters and commentators on May 14 when he emerged ahead of his two challengers and came close to surpassing the 50 percent threshold to win the contest in the first round.
He now faces the second-placed candidate, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who secured about 45 percent of the vote to Erdogan’s 49.2 percent, according to the most recent tally. It is only the third time Turks have voted directly for their president. Erdogan won the 2014 and 2018 polls in the first round.
Most opinion polls had predicted Kilicdaroglu coming first in the initial ballot with some even suggesting an outright win, and the opposition’s confident messaging reflected this anticipated result.
Many opposition supporters now feel deflated after their hopes of removing Erdogan from power were dashed. Erdogan was seen as vulnerable as Turks struggle through an economic crisis and after criticism of his government for a slow initial response to devastating earthquakes in February.
“I was very hopeful before May 14 because it looked like we would finally get rid of him, but now it looks like he’s unbeatable,” said Olcay, who runs a clothing store in Cihangir, a fashionable district of Istanbul.
“Everyone is tired of this struggle,” said the 34-year-old, who declined to give her surname. “It’s hard to work up the enthusiasm to vote again because it looks like a done deal, but of course, I will because it’s my duty.”
Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said opposition demoralisation was to be expected.
“Despite the ongoing economic crisis and the negligence of the government during and after the earthquake, Erdogan still got nearly 50 percent,” he said.
“It’s really disappointing for opposition voters that Erdogan can still command such huge popularity in the eyes of the voters,” he said. “It’s also the case that both the opposition leadership and the polling agencies had raised expectations of opposition voters excessively.”
Erdogan supporters, meanwhile, are confident that come Monday, their man will cement his grip on the country’s future.
“I think we will see him starting another five years on the anniversary of 1453,” said Osman Cakir, a 22-year-old student from Istanbul, referring to Monday’s anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city.
A reduced sense of election fever is reflected in the streets.
Political bunting draped outside party offices hangs listless in the sunshine, twisted and tangled after two weeks of exposure to the elements. Election buses featuring the candidates’ faces and slogans and blaring out campaign songs seem a rarer sight.
Party campaign kiosks remain at transport hubs, but the crowds around them are noticeably thinner than they were a fortnight ago. Many of the parties that contested the May 14 parliamentary elections and backed presidential candidates are absent.
In front of the Kadikoy bus and ferry terminal on Istanbul’s Asian shore, only Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party have a presence as well as a small tent for the Kilicdaroglu-supporting Deva Party.
The campaigning of the two remaining candidates has also been more subdued since the first vote.
Instead of mass open-air rallies featuring tens or hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters, Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have largely confined themselves to smaller public appearances while maintaining a programme of broadcast interviews and statements via social media.
Erdogan on Friday was due to attend a women’s meeting and a small rally in Istanbul before a television interview in the evening. Two weeks earlier, his Friday schedule consisted of holding three rallies across Istanbul, hosting a youth summit and making a TV appearance.
Commentators still expect a high turnout on Sunday although probably not the 89 percent reached in the first round. “It will probably reach about 84 or 85 percent,” Esen said.
Voting tallies from overseas ballots in 73 countries and at border gates actually showed a slight increase from the first round by Tuesday evening with polling stations at the border due to stay open until the end of domestic voting on Sunday.
The overseas turnout in the first round, however, was much lower, at 54 percent, than the participation within Turkey.
On Sunday, polls open at 8am (05:00 GMT) and close at 5pm (14:00 GMT).