Istanbul, Türkiye – The two weeks between Turkey’s first and second rounds of voting have seen a marked shift in campaign intensity as the country enters the uncharted territory of a presidential runoff.
Sunday will be the first time that Turkish voters will have to go to the polls a second time to choose their next president – and many appear to be struggling to rekindle the enthusiasm from the first round.
“It’s a strange feeling. I feel like the election is over, but I know there will be another on Sunday,” said Soner Ugurlu, 49, sipping tea with friends in Istanbul’s Tophane district.
“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 for another five years, adding to the feeling that the second vote is something of an anticlimax.
Erdogan surprised pollsters and commentators on May 14 when he edged out his two challengers and nearly broke the 50% threshold to win the contest in the first round.
He now faces the second-placed candidate, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who won around 45% of the vote to Erdogan’s 49.2%, according to the latest count. It is only the third time that the Turks have voted directly for their president. Erdogan won the 2014 and 2018 elections in the first round.
Most opinion polls had predicted that Kilicdaroglu would come out on top in the initial ballot, with some even suggesting an outright victory, and the confident message from the opposition reflected this anticipated result.
Many opposition supporters now feel deflated after their hopes of ousting Erdogan from power were dashed. Erdogan was seen as vulnerable as Turks weather an economic crisis and after criticizing his government for a slow initial response to February’s devastating earthquakes.
“I had a lot of hope before May 14 because it looked like we were finally going to get rid of him, but now it looks like he’s unbeatable,” said Olcay, who runs a clothing store in Cihangir, a neighborhood trendy Istanbul.
“Everyone is tired of this struggle,” said the 34-year-old, who declined to give her last name. “It’s hard to regain the enthusiasm to vote again because it looks like a done deal, but of course I will because it’s my duty.”
Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul, said the opposition was to be demoralized.
“Despite the current economic crisis and government neglect during and after the earthquake, Erdogan still got almost 50%,” he said.
“It’s really disappointing for opposition voters that Erdogan can still enjoy such high popularity in the eyes of voters,” he said. “It is also true that opposition leaders and pollsters had excessively raised the expectations of opposition voters.”
Erdogan’s supporters, meanwhile, are confident that next Monday their man will cement his grip on the country’s future.
“I think we will see it start five more 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 banners draped outside party offices hang in the sun, twisted and matted after two weeks of exposure to the elements. Election buses emblazoned with candidates’ faces and slogans and blaring campaign songs seem rarer.
Party campaign kiosks remain in transport hubs, but crowds around them are significantly thinner than a fortnight ago. Many parties that participated in the legislative elections of May 14 and supported the presidential candidates are absent.
In front of the Kadikoy bus and ferry terminal on the Asian side of Istanbul, only Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party are present along with a small tent for the Deva party , which supports Kilicdaroglu.
The campaign of the two remaining candidates has also been more moderate since the first vote.
Instead of mass outdoor rallies featuring tens or hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters, Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have largely limited themselves to smaller public appearances while maintaining a schedule of interviews and statements broadcast via the social networks.
Erdogan was due to attend a women’s meeting and small rally in Istanbul on Friday before a TV interview in the evening. Two weeks earlier, his Friday schedule consisted of three rallies across Istanbul, a youth summit and a television appearance.
Commentators are still expecting a strong turnout on Sunday even though it’s probably not the 89% achieved in the first round. “It will probably hit around 84 or 85 percent,” Esen said.
Vote counts from overseas ballots in 73 countries and at border gates actually showed a slight increase from the first round on Tuesday evening, with polling stations at the border expected to remain open until the end of the national vote on Sunday.
Foreign participation in the first round, however, was much lower, at 54%, than participation in Turkey.
On Sunday, polling stations open at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and close at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT).