Home » Spring Remains on Hold for Turkey’s Opposition
Balkans Europe Politics Turkey

Spring Remains on Hold for Turkey’s Opposition

epa10626900 Turkish President Erdogan greets his supporters before he votes for the general elections, at a polling stsation in Istanbul, Turkey, 14 May 2023, as the country holds simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections. EPA-EFE/ERDEM SAHIN

The ‘springtime’ predicted by the opposition did not arrive in Turkey’s May 14 elections – and in the May 28 presidential run-off, the odds are stacked against them.

“Spring will come again” was the motto of the opposition’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. But Turkey’s twin elections on May 14 for the parliament and presidency turned out to be less than sunshine and rainbows for the opposition.

Official results issued by the Supreme Election Board say that incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received 49.4 per cent of the votes and Kılıçdaroğlu 45 per cent. The wildcard of the presidential race turned out to be Sinan Oğan: the hardline nationalist won 5.28 per cent of the votes and so emerged as kingmaker.

Consequently, the May 28 run-off of the presidential race will decide whether “spring will arrive”, albeit a bit delayed.

But Kılıçdaroğlu faces a higher bar much in the second round. Erdoğan is only short of around 550,000 votes to win, if the turnout remains at around 88.92 per cent, as was the case in the first round. Kılıçdaroğlu needs to acquire at least 2.7 million more votes.

Moreover, the distribution of parliamentary seats favours Erdoğan’s side, a fact that he has already started using as the main driver of his campaign. His People’s Alliance won 321 of the 600 seats, versus 213 seats for the main opposition Nation Alliance. The Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, HDP, which led the Labour and Freedom Alliance, will have 66 seats.

Erdoğan already endorsed his motto for the run-off as “stability and security”. He contends that to ensure harmony between the executive and legislative branches, they must be from the same alliance.

Erdoğan has won the battle of perceptions

Kılıçdaroğlu will resume campaigning in the run-off, but is trailing far behind. Although he still has a chance to outperform Erdoğan, he already lost the race in terms of perceptions. He spent most of election night mute except for a brief appearance for a live statement that lasted mere seconds. The other five leaders of the Nation Alliance were also absent, expect for a silent and fleeting presence around Kılıçdaroğlu.

Erdoğan, on the other hand, rushed to the stage to deliver a jubilant speech to thank the “overwhelming majority supporting him”, affirming victory in the parliamentary elections and kicking off the presidential run-off.

Meanwhile, the Nation Alliance was nowhere to be seen except for the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş.

They kept on claiming that Kılıçdaroğlu was leading in the vote count; official Anatolian Agency figures putting Erdoğan well above the 50 per cent threshold were dismissed as not trustworthy.

As most of the polls showed a clear lead for Kılıçdaroğlu, some even suggested a first-round win; İmamoğlu’s and Yavas’ assurances kept the opposition base hopeful. But then, they also disappeared from the screens.

And, once a beaming Erdoğan declared his unbeatable lead and launched the second-round bid, the opposition electorate sank into a sensation of doom and defeat.

In fact, many analysts, myself included, has predicted a run-off in the presidential race. However, the Nation Alliance’s mismanagement of perceptions created a greater impression of defeat than was the case. All in all, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, AKP, lost more than 2 million votes compared to the 2018 general elections, and Erdoğan was unable to win in the first round of the presidential race despite having mobilized all the media and the power of the state to boost his support.

Expecting the AKP to be crushed was always unrealistic; it has more than 11 million registered members. As its nearest competitor, the main opposition People’s Republican Party, CHP, has only around 1 million, the difference in terms of potential mobilization was obvious.

To that must be added the AKP’s domination of mainstream media, its mobilization of the whole of the state’s power, the clientelist networks it has developed in the past two decades as well as the extra social security benefits either provided or promised by Erdoğan.

Despite that, the AKP vote dipped down to the level where it started off 21 years ago, 15 points below its heyday, hovering at around 50 per cent.

Moreover, Erdoğan has become ever more dependent on the support of his Alliance partners in the hardline Nationalist Action Party, MHP, the ultra-Islamist Free Cause (Hüdapar) and New Welfare, YR.

These parties are all odds with each other, as well as with Erdoğan’s AKP. Hüdapar is Kurdish nationalist as well as being radically conservative, while YP’s religious extremists call for the withdrawal of the legal framework protecting women against domestic violence. The ultra-nationalist MHP meanwhile expressed discontent with Hüdapar’s presence in Erdoğan’s Peoples’ Alliance.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s mastery of perceptions has cost the opposition precious time, and probably even some of its electoral base, simply because of demoralization.

Meanwhile, the Nation Alliance has hard lessons to digest; they were unable to organize an electoral monitoring system. As soon as the initial shock of election night passed, some Nation Alliance electoral monitor volunteers and left-wing HDP and Turkish Workers’ Party supporters started matching the election results they had obtained from polling station with those of the Supreme Election Board. Discrepancies started to pop up. Debates over whether there was systematic vote-rigging energized the opposition base.

Simultaneously, Kılıçdaroğlu, banding together with İmamoğlu and Yavas, tried to gather steam by reassembling the campaign team. Aside from campaigning, the team is tasked also with better monitoring of the ballot boxes.

Nationalism in the ascendant

Ultra-nationalist and anti-migrant ATA Alliance’s Presidential Candidate Sinan Ogan (L) and his wife (R) cast their votes on May 14 elections. Photo: Sinan Ogan’s Facebook page

So far, the general perception according to the official results is that “nationalism” is in the ascendant among the voters. This is valid to an extent, as the economic crisis and a widespread perception of growing deprivation has stimulated discontent with irregular migration and with Syrian refugees.

Sinan Oğan’s star is shining, as the charismatic nationalist leader. To remind, he was among the enthusiastic participants in Hungary’s ultranationalist Turan Kuraltaj event, alongside the far-right Hungarian Jobbik party. Oğan’s decision to endorse one side or the other may be decisive, but his electoral base is volatile.

All in all, Turkey’s politics have slid more towards the right and towards a conservative/nationalist ideology. The general argument is that Kılıçdaroğlu must now align more with Oğan and emphasize nationalism.

However, the pro-Kurdish vote was around 10 per cent, double Oğan’s non-stable vote, and is openly aligned with Kılıçdaroğlu. Hence, if victory in the run-off is to be secured, Kılıçdaroğlu must win over both Kurdish and hardline nationalist votes.

Kılıçdaroğlu and the triumvirate of Yavaş and İmamoğlu have a much harder run-off to compete in – but their political and even personal lives are at stake. İmamoğlu might even be imprisoned over an impending court case for allegedly insulting state officials, when he contested the Supreme Election Board results in the 2019 local elections.

The race is also on to attract Oğan: his relative youth and ability to attract “protest” voters aside may be his real attraction. Nevertheless, he remains a potential kingmaker.

Source: Balkan Insight