Immigration and Religion in Turkey’s 2023 Presidential Election

In the Turkish presidential election of May 2023, long-term leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decisively defeated his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, taking 52.18 percent of the vote to Kılıçdaroğlu’s 47.82 percent. The results were a surprise to many, as in April most polls had put Kılıçdaroğlu ahead, some by a commanding lead. In this election, Erdoğan’s opposition had finally forged a united front. Pronounced inflation, mounting indebtedness, and a devastating earthquake contributed to a widespread feeling that Erdoğan was headed to defeat. Yet in the end, Erdoğan received a higher percentage of the vote than he had in 2014 and only slightly less than in 2018.

Erdoğan is generally regarded as a strongly nationalist, right-wing populist with somewhat authoritarian inclinations, and for good reasons. Kılıçdaroğlu, in contrast, is a figure of the left, having been vice president of the Socialist International from 2012 to 2014. Yet on the crucial issues of immigration and refugees, Kılıçdaroğlu situated himself to the right of Erdoğan, at least in terms of how the left-right spectrum is conceptualized in the United States and Europe. As the election approached, moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu intensified his anti-immigrant rhetoric, telling his supporters that, “We will not abandon our homeland to this mentality that allowed 10 million irregular migrants to come among us.” (The figure is probably closer to five or six million, which is still a huge number for a country of 85 million.) Kılıçdaroğlu went so far as to seek and gain the support of the far-right anti-immigration politician Ümit Özdağ. A few days before the election the two men signed a seven-point protocol, one line of which stipulated that “All asylum seekers and fugitives, especially Syrians, will be sent back to their countries within one year at the latest.” At roughly the same time, Özdağ released a short film showing “a dystopian Turkey, dangerous for Turks and governed by Syrians, where speaking in Turkish is forbidden.” It quickly went viral on social media.

Did Kılıçdaroğlu’s increasingly harsh immigration stance contribute to his defeat? Some observers think so. According to Sinan Ciddi, “Kilicdaroglu’s turn to the political right appeared desperate and inconsistent, and likely turned off some Kurdish voters.” It is also noteworthy that Kilicdaroglu did not do very well in most areas with concentrated refugee populations (see the paired maps below). But overall, anti-immigrant rhetoric probably cost Kılıçdaroğlu few votes. Turkey’s massive refugee population is widely viewed as placing an intolerable burden on social order and the economy. As noted in a 2019 article, “83 percent of Turks said they view Syrian refugees negatively, while only 17 percent said they viewed them positively.”

Many observers credit Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat instead to his lackluster campaign, a lack of genuine unity in his camp, and his neglect of core economic issues – as well as to the underhanded methods employed by Erdoğan’s campaign. Ciddi, however, claims that “the uncomfortable truth is that Erdogan won because Kemal Kilicdaroglu was his opponent,” arguing that the 74-year-old candidate’s “nomination was imposed from the top, with little to no deliberation.” A more dynamic opposition candidate who had been selected democratically, he implies, probably would have won.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s religious faith also probably contributed to his defeat. He is a member of the minority Alevi sect, a Shia offshoot that is followed by roughly 15 percent of the population of Turkey, otherwise a strongly Sunni country. Alevism is noted for its liberal and cosmopolitan orientation and for its belief that the core tenets of Islam should be interpreted in a decidedly non-literal manner. According to many strict Sunnis, Alevis do not even belong to the Muslim community. By publicly embracing his faith in the campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu took a calculated risk.  As the French political scientist Elise Massicard argues:

He broke a taboo. Until then, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi identity had been seen more as an incriminating campaign argument, as Alevis have a bad and often sulfurous reputation among a predominantly Sunni population. In recent years, they have been largely excluded from the power channels of Turkish President Recep Tayyip [Erdogan]’s AKP [Justice and Development Party] and its associated resources. This “coming out” – when everyone in Turkey knows Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi – is a way of reclaiming that identity and turning the stigma around.

Did such a “coming out” insure Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat? I was told as much by a prominent Turkish intellectual, whose anonymity I respect. What is most clear, however, is that Kılıçdaroğlu performed extremely well in Alevi dominated areas. At the provincial level, his best showing was in Tunceli, the only Turkish province with an Alevi majority. (Although no numbers are provided, this is clear on the Wikipedia map of the election posted below.) The same pattern is more strikingly evident on the Electoral Geography 2.0 district-level map. Yet as this map also shows, Kılıçdaroğlu’s margin of victory was even larger in a few districts located far from Tunceli. Some of these showings, however, are explicable on the same religious grounds. Kılıçdaroğlu scored an overwhelming victory, for example, in Damal in the far northwest, and Damal is a district “populated by Alevi Turkmens.” But at the same time, Kılıçdaroğlu did not do well in many areas in Anatolia with sizable Alevi minorities, which might indicate strong anti-Alevi sentiments among their majority populations.

We shall examine other geographical patterns in the 2023 Turkish election in the next GeoCurrents post.