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What role might Turkish voters in Europe play in May's presidential election?

FILE - In this March 6, 2017 file photo women wave a Turkish flag and a flag showing President Erdogan, near Frankfurt
FILE - In this March 6, 2017 file photo women wave a Turkish flag and a flag showing President Erdogan, near Frankfurt Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Servet Yanatma
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An estimated 5.3% of all Turkish voters are registered to cast their ballots abroad - mostly in Europe.

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Turkish citizens will vote on the country’s presidential elections on 14 May, but with an estimated 5.3% of the electorate registered to cast their ballots abroad, the role of Turkish expats might be crucial in deciding the outcome of a tight race between incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the main unified opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

The polls show the two men almost neck-and-neck, but the polling doesn't factor in the possible intentions of Turkish voters overseas -- predominantly in Europe and especially in Germany -- and their preferences could be decisive for the top two candidates if they want to get more than 50% support in the first round of voting, and avoid a second round vote at the end of the month. 

Could Turkish voters in Europe have the final say in the upcoming presidential election? What do the figures suggest about the role of voters abroad? How many Turkish voters will vote abroad on 14 May? In which European countries did Erdoğan have the highest support in the last presidential election?

This presidential election is widely seen as the most important to occur in Turkey in decades, and 60.7 million citizens are eligible to vote in Turkey while 3.42 million are registered abroad. Thus, voters abroad correspond to 5.3% of the total electorate. In the presidential election of 2018, this figure was 5.1% or 3.04 million.

Erdoğan received 1.3 million more votes than needed to claim the presidency in 2018

To win the presidency in Turkey, a candidate must receive a simple majority of the votes, or, in other words, more than 50%. In the 2018 elections, Erdoğan won 52.6% of all votes in the first round and was thus elected president. Out of 50.07 million valid votes, he received 26.33 million. 

This was 1.3 million more votes than a candidate would have needed to cross the threshold of 50% and be elected in the first round. All of these figures include votes cast abroad.

2018 election results: The difference between votes in Turkey and abroad

In the 2018 elections, 3.04 million Turkish citizens were registered to vote abroad. They could also vote at the Turkish border gates. Half of these eligible people (1.53 million) ended up voting.

Comparing the votes cast in Turkey in the 2018 elections and those cast abroad, the chart below shows that Erdoğan largely had the support of Turkish citizens living abroad.

While Erdoğan received 52.4% of the votes cast in Turkey, he received 59.4% of votes cast abroad including those at border gates, or nearly 895,000 votes.

The results were quite the opposite for his main rival, Muharrem Ince, who received a lower percentage of votes from Turks living abroad (25.8%) compared to Turks at home (30.8%).

Turkish voters in Europe have largely supported Erdoğan

In the 2018 elections, 87% (2.63 million) of the Turkish voters registered abroad were residents of 19 EU Member States, the UK, Norway or Switzerland. Almost half of all expat voters in 2018 (47%) were living in Germany.

Turkish voters in Europe overwhelmingly supported Erdoğan in the 2018 presidential election. He received 64% of votes in Germany, 63% in France, 72% in the Netherlands, 74% in Belgium and 71% in Austria. These were respectively the countries that had the highest numbers of Turkish voters. Germany had 1.44 million registered Turkish voters, followed by 341,000 in France and 260,000 in the Netherlands.

On the other hand, Erdoğan had very low support in some European countries in 2018. He received just 11% of the votes in Czechia, 16% in Ireland and 18% in Spain. However, the numbers of voters in these countries were very low compared to those where Erdoğan had support above 60%.

Expat voters: Turnout rate increased considerably in 2018

Turkish expats were able to cast votes abroad for the first time in the 2014 elections. That year, the voter turnout rate abroad, including votes at border gates, was just 18.9%. This increased to 50.1% in 2018.

There is no poll predicting what the turnout rate of voters abroad will be on May 14 or their preferences at the ballot box. However, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party expects the votes to be in its favour and aims to increase the turnout rate abroad.

Why do these numbers matter?

Do all these figures really matter? Istanbul’s mayoral election in 2019 suggests that they do. Ekrem Imamoğlu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party, won that election in March 2019 by a margin of just 13,000 votes, out of 10.5 million voters.

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However, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council called for a re-vote upon the request of Erdoğan’s party that the March results be annulled based on claims of “organised unlawfulness” and “election fraud.” In June, Imamoğlu increased his lead of 13,000 votes in March to a lead of 806,000, thus seizing 54% of the total votes. This marked the first time in 25 years that Erdogan’s party or its Islamist predecessors failed to win control of Istanbul.

With opinion polls indicating a very close race between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu in 2023, the case of the Istanbul mayoral election confirms the significance of every vote.

Is there any reason for Turkish expats to change their minds?

Could a dramatic change in the preferences of Turkish expats happen in this election? The cost-of-living crisis and increasing inflation rate may have a role in shifting the votes of some people in Turkey away from Erdoğan. However, those are not major concerns for Turkish expats as they are not directly exposed to them.

More importantly, Erdoğan addresses their emotions. For example, his supporters can be proud that he oversaw the delivery of Turkey’s first electric car, TOGG, in early April, the first vehicle to be produced by Turkey’s automotive industry in decades. 

It was no coincidence that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuşoğlu brought Turkey’s domestic and national TOGG to Vienna in his recent visit to Austria. He used the car to attend meetings with his counterpart there and announced that the car will be exported to Europe while he addressed Turkish expats.

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Therefore, there seems to be no reason for Erdoğan’s supporters in Europe to change their minds. The opposition has also failed to launch well-organized political campaigns in Europe to increase the voter turnout rate abroad.

Who are Erdoğan’s rivals in 2023?

Four candidates are running for the presidency in 2023, but the polls predict a close race between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu.

Muharrem Ince, leader of the right-wing nationalist Homeland Party, will be running against Erdoğan for the second time following the presidential election in 2018. He was a member of the Republican People’s Party and main opposition candidate at that time, but he left the party in 2021 to form his own. The opposition wing has been calling for him to withdraw his 2023 candidacy. They hope to win the election in the first run if that happens.

Sinan Oğan, nominated by the Ancestral Alliance, was previously a member of the Nationalist Movement Party and is running as an independent this year.

Based on the latest reports by poll companies, Kılıçdaroğlu is ahead of Erdoğan by a single-digit margin. However, these polls also suggest the inevitability of a final run-off. See Euronew’s “Everything you need to know about Turkish elections” for more comprehensive background on the candidates and alliances.

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