Turkey elections 2023: Erdogan v Kilicdaroglu, 'charismatic strongman' v 'dependable bureaucrat'

Turkey elections 2023: Erdogan v Kilicdaroglu, 'charismatic strongman' v 'dependable bureaucrat'
A look at where the main challengers for Turkey's presidential elections on Sunday stand on key issues, including the economy, the state response to the February earthquake, Syrian refugees, and Kurdish rights.
5 min read
12 May, 2023
More than 60 million Turkish citizens are eligible to vote in Turkey's presidential elections [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

Citizens of Turkey will head to the polls on Sunday 14th May for presidential and parliamentary elections.

The elections are proving to be a tight race between current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the Republican People's Party (CHP). A third presidential candidate, right-wing Ancestral Alliance candidate Sinan Ogan, is also running.

Erdogan faces a serious challenge to his two-decade rule, with polls putting Kilicdaroglu slightly ahead of the incumbent.

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Here is a look at the two main candidates and their stance on some of the key issues.

Erdogan v Kilicdaroglu

Erdogan, 69, has overseen Turkey's rise into an economic and political powerhouse since coming to power in elections in 2002 – though he has seen some of this unravel in recent years.

He has also orchestrated a crackdown on his political rivals, especially since the breakdown of a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2015 and a failed coup attempt against him a year later.

In recent years, he has tried to reconcile with leaders in other Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel. Reconciliation with the Syrian regime is also on the cards. He has also tried to limit severe damage done to the Turkish economy.

He is seen as a charismatic populist and strongman - in contrast to Kilicdaroglu.

The 74-year-old, who has been CHP leader since 2010, is seen as quiet, soft-spoken, and steady. He came from humble beginnings, working as an accountant who worked his way up to head Turkey's social security agency.

His ethnic and religious background however have been controversial. He is from Tunceli province and of the Alevi Muslim religious minority, something he has addressed via a viral video on Twitter.

He has pledged to "restore democracy" to Turkey to counter Erdogan's rule, widely perceived as authoritarian.

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On the 'Kurdish question'

Relations with Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in the country, have long been a thorn in Ankara's side. Kurds make up roughly 20% of Turkey's population, and mostly live in either the southeast of the country or in Istanbul.

For four decades, Turkey has been fighting the PKK, an armed Kurdish rebel group fighting for greater Kurdish autonomy. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting. A peace process between Ankara and the PKK was in motion for two years before collapsing in 2015.

In recent elections, the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) have taken a sizeable chunk of the vote.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) say the HDP shares ties with the PKK. Since the failed coup of 2016 - blamed by Erdogan on followers of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, not Kurdish groups - Erdogan and he AKP have cracked down on the HDP, arresting its parliamentarians, elected mayors, and eaders on suspicion of aiding the PKK. Former co-leader Selahattin Demiritas has been in prison since 2016 on such charges.

A left-wing coalition led by the HDP also said it was endorsing Kilicdaroglu in Sunday's election, as has Demirtas.

The CHP candidate has even received endorsement from the PKK leadership, with senior member Cemil Bayik backing Kilicdaroglu for president once he announced he was running.

Though Kilicdaroglu has said he and the CHP support resolution of the Kurdish issue, he has refered to the PKK as a "separatist terrorist organisation", in step with the state's line on the group.

Despite this, Erdogan has this week accused the CHP of ties to the PKK.

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On high profile Kurdish prisoners like Demirtas, Kilicdaroglu has said it is down to the judiciary to decide on whether to keep them jailed. A CHP MP had previously said Demirtas would be freed if Kilicdaroglu were to come to power. 


Erdogan had overseen Turkey’s rise to become an economic powerhouse — but Turkey's financial status has deflated quickly in the past few years. He has been accused of economic mismanagement, including irresponsible slashes to interest rates.

Turkey is currently suffering from high levels of inflation, which reached as high as 85 percent last year, making everyday purchases difficult for many. The Turkish lira has crashed multiple times in the past few years, and foreign investors have left in droves.

The government has offered a series of pay rises to public sector workers and raised the minimum wage to help cushion the blow.

Economic growth was at above 5% last year, and the unemployment rate has also improved slightly, from 14% in 2020 to around 10% now.

Kilicdaroglu has accused Erdogan and his government of not being upfront about the state of Turkey’s economy. He has said that if elected, he will create a team to assess the country's finances.

He has attacked Erdogan for his lavish spending on the presidential palace, and said part of the building could be turned into a "museum of squandering".

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Syrian refugees

Polls consistently show that the vast majority of Turks are in support of the expulsion on Syrian and other refugees from the country. Some 3.5 million Syrian refugees have sought sanctuary in Turkey since civil war erupted in their home counry in 2011.

Kilicdaroglu and other CHP politicians have vowed for years to expel Syrian refugees from Turkey, saying the country could no afford to house so many refugees as the economic crisis bites.

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Erodgan has been less consistent, often leaning into popular xenophobia and vowing to return refugees but has most recently said it would be "inhumane" to kick refugees out of the country. 

Earthquake response

Erdogan was criticised for a poor response to the 6 February earthquake, in which some 50,000 people died in Turkey alone.

The criticism was pointed towards the slow delivery of emergency supplies and the lax implementation of construction standards that left buildings were prone to collapse. Kilicdaroglu said these failings were due to "the decay of the state".