Kemal Kilicdaroglu on May 11 took a real shot in the arm in his bid to unseat Recep Tayyip Erdogan in this weekend’s May 14 presidential election – and Erdogan a proper kick in the teeth – when small-party contender Muharrem Ince abruptly withdrew from the race, citing the release of a purported sex tape as one reason for his decision.
The former school headteacher said an alleged sex tape circulating online was a deepfake, using footage taken from “an Israeli porn site”. He added: “If I had such images of myself, they were taken secretly in the past. But I do not have such an image, no such sound recording. This is not my private life, it’s slander. It’s not real.”
Even before the withdrawal, an opinion poll closely watched by Turks put Erdogan more than five percentage points behind six-party coalition candidate Kilicdaroglu, whose support measured 49.3%, just 0.7 pp from the 50%+one vote threshold that would make him president, with no need for a second-round run-off against the incumbent.
Turkey's main stock index on the Borsa Istanbul jumped 6% after Ince made the shock announcement that he was quitting the contest in front of his party's headquarters in Ankara. Financial markets have taken on board Kilicdaroglu’s pledge to reverse the unorthodox economic policies that have driven away foreign capital over the past several years, though most analysts only see a gradual return to economic health as possible for Turkey should Kilicdaroglu triumph, such is the economic damage the country has suffered.
The opinion survey, carried out by pollster Konda on May 6-7, before Ince's announcement, gave Erdogan 43.7% and Ince 2.2%. Most of Ince’s supporters are now expected to vote for Kilicdaroglu. During the campaign there has been speculation that Erdogan was only too happy to have Ince – who was previously a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) led by Kilicdaroglu – in the contest as his percentage of the first-round vote would perhaps deny his main challenger the chance of reaching more than 50% support, thus triggering the need for a second-round election day on May 28. There has even been speculation that Erdogan’s fellow strongman, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was attempting to boost Ince’s campaign by ploughing resources into promoting him on social media.
Announcing that he was quitting the contest, Ince reiterated that he was the target of a smear campaign featuring both fake videos and documents circulated on social media. He accused the media and prosecutors of not doing their jobs.
"I am not afraid of plots, fake video edits, invoices and non-existent jeeps. I have been resisting these for 45 days already," Ince said, as quoted by Reuters, also referring to claims that he had been working with Erdogan to prevent Kilicdaroglu's election.
"I am withdrawing from the candidacy. I am doing this for my country," he added, denying any attempt to collaborate with Erdogan.
On May 10, a fact-check by German public media outlet DW exposed how a video shown at an election campaign rally by Erdogan that seemed to link Kilicdaroglu to a Kurdish group designated as terrorist was fake, though it was not technically a deepfake, more a stitching together of two videos.
Ince, who was the CHP candidate convincingly beaten by Erdogan in the 2018 presidential election, did not announce any backing for another candidate and asked people to vote for his party in the parliamentary election that runs in parallel with the presidential vote.
The Konda survey put support for the fourth presidential candidate, Sinan Ogan, at 4.8%. Konda also noted that the majority of Ogan's and Ince's voters were leaning towards voting for Kilicdaroglu if there were a second-round contest.
"There is no doubt that Erdogan is facing a majority that wants change – and that includes younger people," Asli Aydintasbas, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow was quoted as saying by Reuters, adding: "The only question is whether folks believe Kilicdaroglu is that agent of change."
"Whether he barely wins or not, I feel like the Erdogan era is over," continued Aydintasbas. "Turkish society is ready to move on. And sadly President Erdogan is not leaving behind an institutional governance model."
In early April, bne IntelliNews ran excerpts from Aydintasbas’ “Letter from Istanbul”, in which she described how “in interviews with journalists, opposition officials, and even bureaucrats, there was almost a blind conviction that this was Erdogan’s last stand… “So over-confident were they about the possibility of an opposition victory that of the dozens of friends and acquaintances I met in Istanbul, only two – one journalist and one media executive – said they believed Erdogan would win it in the end.”
A big problem for Erdogan is that he is not doing at all well with the young generation first-time voters, and there are around 5mn of them in this election.
In seeking a re-election that would extend his two decades as Turkey’s leader, Erdogan must fend off claims that his economic mismanagement has led to a dire cost-of-living crisis in Turkey that began several years ago, driven away foreign investors, caused a collapse in the value of the Turkish lira and triggered rampant inflation.
He also faces accusations that much of the official data released on Turkey’s economy is misleading.
His re-election prospects also took a big blow in early February, when two devastating earthquakes struck 11 southern Turkish provinces, “pancaking” buildings and killing at least 51,000 people. The Erdogan administration had for years faced accusations of corruption, incompetence and negligence leading to the construction of thousands of flimsy buildings across vast areas known to be at high risk of a major earthquake calamity.
The Konda survey put support for Erdogan's ruling alliance on 44.0% in the parliamentary vote, ahead of 39.9% for the coalition bloc led by Kilicdaroglu. It also found that 12.3% of voters would back the pro-Kurdish minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP has formally endorsed the presidential candidacy of Kilicdaroglu. Its voters could play the kingmaker role in the presidential vote and ensure Erdogan and his allies are left in the minority in parliament.
Konda is known for publicly releasing only one poll ahead of Turkey’s presidential election. It conducted face-to-face interviews with 3,480 people across 35 provincial centres. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 2.2% at a 99% confidence level, Konda said.