The incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat his opponent, the Nation Alliance candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, by an approximately five point lead in the second round of the Turkish presidential elections on Sunday. By evening the provisional results, excluding the Turkish expatriate vote, was 52.14 to 47.86 according to Ahmet Yener, chairman of the Supreme Election Board (YSK).
Kilicdaroglu’s defeat came as a blow to the opposition alliance which had been upbeat about its prospects for defeating Erdogan this time round. It also came as a personal blow to Kilicdaroglu, the long-serving head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who had hoped to crown his nearly 50-year-long political career as president of the 100-year-old Turkish Republic.
Although the opposition has conceded its defeat, it has stressed that, in this as in all previous electoral rounds, it was competing on an uneven playing field. The president and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had the advantage of all the resources, agencies and instruments of the state from the Interior Ministry to the state-run media. There have also been widespread allegations of electoral tampering as well.
“We have just come through the most unfair election process in recent years,” Kilicdaroglu said in his first address after the results were announced. “I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the leaders of the political parties in the Nation Alliance, to their political organisations, to all who voted for us, and to all the citizens who have withstood all these immoral and unlawful pressures and refused to succumb to the climate of fear that has been spread as they struggled to safeguard [the integrity of] the ballot box and continue to do so.” Vowing that his party and the Nation Alliance would continue to pioneer the struggle to change an authoritarian government and usher in genuine democracy, he concluded: “Our march continues. We are here.”
Among the reasons the opposition lost in the second round was Kilicdaroglu’s failure to win over the ultra-nationalist vote during the interval between the first and second rounds. The third presidential contestant, the Ancestral Alliance (ATA) candidate Sinan Ogan, had garnered 5.3 per cent of the vote in the first round. In an attempt to court that bloc of voters, Kilicdaroglu notched up the anti-refugee rhetoric, promising to repatriate ten million Syrians within a year. However, despite his vows to “never negotiate with terrorists” and to keep up the fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey lists as a terrorist organisation, the Nation Alliance candidate could not shake the association with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which the members of the ATA Alliance, along with large segments of the AKP and its electoral allies, see as an extension of the PKK.
Kilicdaroglu was apparently unable to come up to scratch on the anti-Kurdish rhetoric and it also seems to have made no difference that the Nation Alliance included members, such as the IYI (Good) Party, that see eye-to-eye with the ultra-nationalists when it comes to Kurds. After enjoying being courted for several days, Ogan came out in support of Erdogan, bringing with him a large portion of those who had voted for him. Amazingly, despite all the Kurdish bashing, the HDP which had come out in full force behind Kilicdaroglu in the first round, continued to do so in the second round.
The Nation Alliance also included three Islamist-oriented parties: the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), the Future Party (GP) and the Felicity Party (SAADET). Although they are all breakaways from the ruling AKP, they failed to bring with them sufficient support from Islamist quarters. Judging by their performance in the parliamentary elections on 14 May, it is doubtful they were able to mobilise considerable support for the Nation Alliance’s joint candidate during the second round on 28 May.
One weakness of the opposition’s campaign was that it was overly focused on the person of Erdogan, which tended to make the campaign about personality rather than issues. The members of the “Table of Six,” as the leaders of the parties in the Nation Alliance have been referred to, have frequently lashed out against Erdogan’s authoritarianism and corruption, as epitomised by his connections with the so-called “Gang of Five,” a sobriquet that refers to the leading businessmen whose companies have garnered many of the major government tenders and that has become a byword for the nepotism that has run rampant under the AKP. However, as much as this subject may resonate among the Turkish electorate, it is no substitute for a clear and effective electoral platform, which the Table of Six failed to produce. In addition, in terms of the charisma factor, Kilicdaroglu has generally been seen as “weak” when compared to the Erdogan “strongman” image.
Another possible weakness in the opposition’s campaign strategy was that it was mainly conducted online, through social networking platforms. Perhaps it was felt that this was the best way to reach the country’s youth, especially given the government’s control of the state media. Broad segments of young people are disaffected by the ruling party’s conservative and repressive policies, the deteriorating state of the economy and standards of living, and high unemployment. However, studies have shown that a large portion of the Turkish population does not use social media which the Nation Alliance relied on for its campaign. Other studies have shown that certain demographic groups have the power to settle an electoral contest one way or the other. These include religious conservatives, nationalists, housewives, and the 46-60 year old age bracket. These tend to vote almost as a bloc, yet the opposition candidate did very little to address them and their concerns, unlike Erdogan who evidently managed to win them to his side.
Some observers believe that, in the lead-up to the second round, Kilicdaroglu seemed overly confident in his ability to defeat his rival. They argue that his statements regarding his prospects and the way he would run government and distribute cabinet posts among his fellow alliance members may have rubbed voters the wrong way.
Others argue that he did himself little favour in his sudden shift, after 14 May, from the mild-mannered “Pierrot” addressing audiences from his kitchen, forming a heart with his fingertips and appealing to voters to overcome divisions in order to rebuild national unity, to a table-thumping firebrand railing against Syrian refugees. Many were offended by his rhetoric, to the extent that members of the Future Party and the DEVA Party, members of the Nation Alliance, protested the hate-mongering language. In the opinion of some, this shift in discourse was the main reason for Kilicdaroglu’s failure in the polls precisely because it played into the hands of the dominant discourse of the ultranationalists in the Erdogan camp.
Regardless of his actual foreign policies, Erdogan has famously built much of his political capital on his anti-Western, “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, which appeals to broad segments of Turkish public opinion. Kilicdaroglu, in his campaign, has reflected a more Westward-looking vision and has suggested that, if he came to power, he would reorient Turkey in a direction more consistent with Western cultural values. Such stances galvanised much of the religiously conservative and far-right segments of the population to rally more closely around Erdogan who frequently harped on issues related to “family values.”
There is no denying that this was a close race which, in itself, is remarkable given the challenges. But whether or not Kilicdaroglu’s defeat was inevitable, it will most likely precipitate the disintegration of the Nation Alliance and perhaps lead to a shake-up within Kilicdaroglu’s party as well. As the members of the Table of Six meet together or with their own parties’ central committees to assess the situation, there is likely to be a fair amount of mutual recrimination and finger pointing. Some, such as the IYI Party leader Meral Aksener, may assume an “I told you so” position. She had been an ardent advocate of fielding the young and charismatic CHP mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, as the Nation Alliance’s joint candidate. Whatever the outcome of their deliberations, a new opposition map will emerge, and it will be one in which Kilicdaroglu will not be at the head of the table.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly