What you need to know about the 2023 Turkish elections

By: emincan yüksel&
May 12 2023

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What you need to know about the 2023 Turkish elections

By Emincan Yüksel

How do Türkiye’s elections work?

The Turkish Republic, recently rebranded as Türkiye, is holding presidential and parliamentary elections in its centennial year. On May 14, 2023, Turkish people will head to the polls to elect the president and members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (GNA). So, how do Turkish elections work? A lot of misinformation about the election is circulating on social media, which can reach voters and cause them to make wrong inferences. Much of the mis- and disinformation has revolved around the manipulation of candidate discourse, doctored images and videos, false claims concerning price increases, and false statements about election regulations.

Elections for the presidency and GNA are held on the same day every five years. The candidate with more than 50 percent of the votes in the presidential election is declared the winner; however, if no candidate passes the vote threshold in the first round, the two candidates with the highest votes go to a second round.

In 2022, parliament passed a law reducing the electoral threshold from 10 percent to 7 percent, allowing political parties to enter the national assembly with a lower percentage of votes, in a move likely to mean the ruling party gains more seats. However, for political parties to gain representation in the parliament, their votes must still reach the 7 percent threshold either on their own or in coalition with other parties.

The Turkish political parties frequently form alliances and endorse presidential candidates from other parties. The main opposition to incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two-decade rule is a coalition known as "The Nation Alliance" or the "Table of Six," with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as its presidential nominee. 

Who is running for the presidency?

Alongside Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan, two further candidates were originally contesting the presidency on 14 May. Muharrem İnce, the former presidential candidate for the CHP in the 2018 general elections, was standing for the Homeland Party as a candidate, but he withdrew on May 11. The final candidate, Sinan Oğan, a former MHP deputy, is running as a joint candidate for the ATA Alliance. The race is considered to be tight between two of the three candidates, Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. 

Experts predict that both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu will receive over 40 percent of the votes in the initial round of the election, meaning Erdoğan stands a real chance of losing, since the threshold is 50 percent. If the election proceeds to the second round, it remains uncertain which candidate the supporters of the remaining two candidates will choose to vote for.

The race between the leading candidates has been characterized by hostility. Take, for example, the "terrorism" speech against Kılıçdaroğlu and alliance officials. During a campaign rally in Istanbul on May 7, Erdoğan's team released a manipulated video that portrayed the PKK leader as being associated with the Table of Six. 

In contrast, the Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu – a CHP politician who stands to become vice president if his party enters parliament – has not escaped controversy, as evidenced by the recent stone-throwing incident during a rally in Erzurum, which resulted in injuries to several voters. Following the incident, members of the AK Party, including the Minister of Interior, blamed Imamoglu for the incident and claimed that it was a deliberate act of provocation. However, the footage of the incident clearly shows that the young protestors threw stones at the Nation Alliance's rally bus and voters, even though the police were with them. 

İmamoğlu, Kılıçdaroğlu, and other officials have condemned the incident on social media, emphasizing the importance of peaceful dialogue and cooperation in the political process.

Against the backdrop of these events, it is apparent that Erdoğan has adopted aggressive rhetoric toward voters, while Kılıçdaroğlu has favored a more sympathetic and peaceful approach toward voters, yet remaining critical of the government.

Issues concerning voters 

Inflation and the cost of living are among the most pressing economic issues facing the country in recent years; Erdoğan has frequently denied that inflation is an issue, and critics are skeptical of the official figures. 

In addition to economic challenges, criticisms of the ruling party also include issues related to the justice system, freedom of the press, democratic rights and freedoms, education system, immigration policies, healthcare services, violence against women, environmental concerns, foreign policy, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Furthermore, following the earthquake that struck Türkiye’s southeastern Anatolia region on February 6, 2023, causing more than 50,000 deaths, many have pointed to factors that could have prevented the disaster, in another blow to Erdoğan’s rule. Erdoğan still retains a high level of support among voters, however. Survey results indicate that voters often cite improvements in healthcare, transportation, political stability, the defense industry, and national security as evidence of the government's success. 

Mis/disinformation and the Turkish elections 

With the elections approaching, misinformation quickly began to spread in Türkiye. In 2022, a "disinformation law" was adopted in the National Assembly. The law, which consists of 40 articles – the harshest being Article 29 – defines disinformation as a new crime. It defines disinformation as "to publicly disseminate information that misleads the public." Individuals who spread inaccurate information on the internet regarding Türkiye's security with the aim of causing fear and disrupting public order will now face a prison sentence of one to three years.

Critics, including the opposition, have dubbed it "the censorship law."  Following the recent earthquake, the law was used as a pretense to arrest misinformation spreaders on social media. While there are a few days left until the elections in Türkiye, and restrictions on the internet have yet to transpire, misinformation continues to increase and spread. 

Claims circulating in the run-up to the election


One of the more significant accusations made by Erdoğan against Kılıçdaroğlu relates to terrorism; Erdoğan alleges that Kılıçdaroğlu featured the leader of the terrorist organization Murat Karayılan in a campaign video and even waved with him. Erdoğan also made the same claim in an interview with young people. Erdoğan’s implication is that Kılıçdaroğlu co-operates and enables terrorists. However, when examining the original video, it is evident that it is a montage that has been edited and cut together to give this impression. Neither Kılıçdaroğlu’s social media accounts nor the Nation Alliance officials shared any such video.

Misrepresentation of speeches

Some accounts on social media claim Kılıçdaroğlu said that if he lost the election, it would mean the country would slide into chaos. These sentences of Kılıçdaroğlu are from 2015, and video footage has been cropped and mixed with manipulated sentences. Kılıçdaroğlu’s "slide into chaos" phrase was directed at Erdoğan after the 2015 elections.

One video features MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, from the People’s Alliance, making an announcement next to Erdoğan. Bahçeli allegedly states that he will hold Erdoğan and his family accountable when they come to power, either alone or as a coalition leader in the future. But the video is from the earthquake in February, while the audio is from Bahceli’s announcement in 2014; these have been doctored together to take aim at the People’s Alliance.

Falsifying levels of support

Erdoğan claimed that 1.7 million people attended his Istanbul rally on May 7. According to scientific modeling, an upper limit of safe crowd density is around five people per square meter – any more and the situation becomes dangerous. Under this formula, the maximum number of people that would have fit in the rally area is 865,000, around half of what Erdoğan claimed. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and misrepresented images and videos

One video claims to depict Kılıçdaroğlu making an announcement in English. But, the video was created using artificial intelligence tools and it is from Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech the night he announced his candidacy. While this may be the first use of AI to spread misinformation in Türkiye, AI – particularly deepfakes and image generators – stands to pose a problem in future elections as it becomes more sophisticated.

Aside from AI, traditional photoshopping and doctored images are still in play when spreading misinformation. An image shared with the title "police and young people with stones in the Imamoglu's Erzurum rally" has circulated widely on social media. Young people throwing stones are seen at the back of Imamoglu's rally bus next to the police. But, the image in the claim is not from this rally. It is from the HDP's Erzurum rally in 2015.

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Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before