Munich (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the elections in Türkiye. Again. In power for two decades, first as prime minister and then as president, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured a relatively comfortable victory over Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the runoff election held on May 28. Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), had the support of the “The Table of Six.” This opposition platform was born when the CHP joined forces with the right-wing nationalist IYI Parti and four smaller parties. Kılıçdaroğlu garnered 47.8% of the votes in the runoff election, more than four percentage points below Erdoğan and his 52.2% of support. As we will see, Erdoğan went to the polls at a very complicated time for him and his party, but he exploited the advantages of his incumbent status and benefited from the opposition’s numerous strategic mistakes.
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ANKARA, TURKIYE- JUNE 3: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first received his mandate from MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, as the temporary chairman of the Parliament, and then took the oath at the General Assembly on June 3, 2023 in Ankara, Türkiye. Re-elected President once again in the 28 May election, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s duty, which he will continue until 2028, has officially started. The first ceremony was held in the Turkish Grand National Assembly.(Photo by Ugur Yildirim/ dia images via Getty Images).
Türkiye finds itself in a deep economic crisis, which most analysts agree has been worsened by Erdoğan’s unorthodox economic policies and his spending spree before the election. The months before the electoral contest were also marked by the earthquake that shook south-eastern Türkiye and northern Syria, leaving over 50,000 people dead on the Turkish side of the border alone. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, multiple reports showed that the low construction standards condoned by local authorities and the Turkish government resulted in avoidable deaths.
Erdoğan and his center-right AKP have worked over the years to create an institutional and media environment that facilitates their repeated electoral successes. According to an observation mission of the Turkish elections conducted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), “biased media coverage and the lack of a level playing field gave an unjustified advantage to the incumbent.” However, the strategic mistakes of the opposition also need to be considered to understand why they failed to unseat Erdoğan at his moment of maximum weakness. It has been noted that Kılıçdaroğlu’s promises to assign vice presidential positions to the different party leaders of the opposition coalition sent a confusing message to the Turkish population regarding who would be in charge if the opposition won. The contrast with Erdoğan’s personalist platform was certainly stark. Even so, if skillfully communicated along the lines of “unity in diversity”, the collective leadership of the opposition platform could have proven a strength rather than a weakness.
In contrast, it was known long before the election campaign started that Kılıçdaroğlu was not the best presidential candidate for the opposition. Different polls from early 2022 to early 2023 showed that CHP politicians Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara respectively, were far more popular than Kılıçdaroğlu. In December 2022, a judicial ruling banned Imamoğlu from politics (he has been able to stay in office while appealing the decision) for referring to members of the Turkish supreme election council as “fools.” Imamoğlu’s accusations came after the members of the council forced a repetition of the 2019 local elections in Istanbul, which Imamoğlu won by a wider margin than the initial elections that were declared void. Imamoğlu’s legal problems clearly affected his chances of running for president, but Yavaş did not have any obvious impediment.
If Erdoğan was the personification of victory, in discursive terms the triumph went for anti-immigration positions. In fact, the reason Erdoğan failed to win the election in the first round, as he had done in 2014 and 2018, was the strong showing of the ultra-nationalist Sinan Oğan, who received 5.2% of the votes. Oğan’s campaign largely revolved around promises to send back Syrian refugees living in Türkiye – according to the Turkish government, 3.7 million Syrian refugees out of a total of 5.5 million foreigners live in the country. Oğan found fertile ground in a country that has seen the emergence of deadly assaults on refugees and immigrant neighborhoods during the last years. When recently polled on the subject of Syrian refugees, more than 88.5% of Turks demonstrated that they want them to return to their country.
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Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu attends a swearing-in ceremony at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, June 2, 2023. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP) (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The runoff contest had almost become a formality after the first-round results: 49.5% of the vote went for Erdoğan and 44.9% for Kılıçdaroğlu, which put the AKP leader half a point away from victory. The impressively high turnout, at 87.4%, meant that the opposition’s options to mobilize citizens who had not participated in the first round were very limited. To complicate matters further, after the first round the opposition lost a few key days involved in recriminations, the restructuring of the election campaign team, and carving up a new strategy for the runoff. The despair within the opposition camp was closely related to the high expectations generated by the majority of pre-election polls, which suggested Kılıçdaroğlu would emerge on top after the first round.
Once the soul-searching came to an end, the next step was the pursuit of Oğan’s votes to have a slight chance in the runoff. There were rumors that the opposition offered Oğan to head a new migration ministry or even the vice presidency if he were to support Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round. At the end, he sided with Erdoğan although the Turkish President did not appear to make any concession to him. Oğan probably saw Erdoğan was going to win regardless of his decision and preferred to back the strongest force. The opposition had to content itself with the support of Umit Ozdag, the leader of the far-right Victory Party, which had been the main party in the alliance that backed Oğan’s candidacy in the first round.
Although both the government and the opposition coalition promised to send refugees back to Syria, the anti-refugee discourse has been “much more prominent” in the opposition camp, explains Chatham House Associate Fellow Galip Dalay. During the two weeks between the first round and the runoff election, Kılıçdaroğlu stepped up his anti-refugee messages. Six days before the second round, in a rally in the province of Hatay, which borders Syria, Kılıçdaroğlu exhorted his audience to “make up your mind before refugees take over the country.” Hatay would go on to become the only province in Türkiye where there was a shift of winner: Kılıçdaroğlu won the first round, Erdoğan the second.
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ISTANBUL, TURKEY – MAY 29: Members of the public are seen near the Hagia Sophia the day after Erdogan was re-elected to presidency on May 29, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey. On Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won another 5-year term after he was forced into a runoff election with the opposition politician Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan prevailed despite criticism of his management of the country’s economy and the government’s response to the devastating earthquakes earlier this year. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images).
The roadmap to gain Oğan’s vote was not a complete failure, but the opposition needed around 90% of Oğan’s votes to win the election if turnout had remained constant – a possibility that became even more distant as turnout fell by 3.1% in the second round. This meant Erdoğan needed a lesser number of votes to overcome the 50% mark in the runoff election. In fact, the 27.13 million votes Erdoğan received in the first round (as compared to 27.83 million votes in the second) would have been enough to win the second round with over 51% of the valid votes.
Three different provinces illustrate the limited success of the opposition in winning over Oğan voters. In both Kayseri and Bilecik, Oğan received more than 8% of the vote, far above the national average of 5.2%. In the second round, the share of the vote for Kılıçdaroğlu increased at the same rate as Erdoğan’s in Kayseri while Kılıçdaroğlu’s gains in Bilecik were only slightly bigger – 1.6% more than Erdoğan. Something similar happened in Bursa, a far more important province in electoral terms as it is Türkiye’s fourth in number of population. In this western region, Oğan received 7.4% of the vote in the first round. In the second round, Kılıçdaroğlu’s share of the vote increased by 4.5% and Erdoğan’s by 3%.
The opposition did a better job in Istanbul and Ankara, the two largest metropolitan areas, where its margin of victory doubled, but the differences remained too small to compensate for Erdoğan’s overwhelming wins in Central Anatolia and the Black Sea region. Furthermore, Ozdag’s Victory Party support for the opposition proved to have negative consequences in the Kurdish-majority areas of Türkiye. This is something several analysts had expected given the Victory party’s strong anti-Kurdish views. In Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin, the most populated Kurdish provinces won by Kılıçdaroğlu in the first round, the opposition’s candidate lost between 0.3 and 1% of the vote in the runoff election. The number of votes for Erdoğan in these provinces hardly increased, but the fall in the turnout rate was higher than the national average of 3.1% – 6% in Diyarbakır and Van, 4% in Mardin – suggesting the opposition failed to re-mobilize some of the voters who had previously voted for Kılıçdaroğlu.
Part of the problem for Kılıçdaroğlu was that most of the support he received in the Kurdish areas in the first round consisted of tactical voting. The first round of the presidential election was held together with the parliamentary elections, which the opposition lost to the AKP and its ultra-nationalist ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The pro-Kurdish and left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) called for HDP supporters to back Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential election, forgoing putting up their own presidential candidate as they had done in the past. In the parliamentary elections, however, the HDP put forward its candidates under the umbrella of the Green Left Party (YSP), which gained close to 9% of the vote and was the strongest political force in 13 south-eastern provinces. It is reasonable to assume that a significant number of Kurdish voters who had split their vote for Kılıçdaroğlu and the YSP in the first round decided to stay at home for the second round, especially considering Kılıçdaroğlu’s reach-out to the anti-Kurdish Victory Party.
Erdoğan and his AKP had probably never been weaker than they were in the run-up to these recent parliamentary and presidential elections. Consequently, the opposition has strong reasons to believe it has missed an incomparable opportunity. Under the new presidential system, Erdoğan will not be allowed to run for president again in 2028 due to a two-term limit. Even so, the difficulties for the opposition arising from “the lack of a level playing field” in Turkish elections will likely only have increased by 2028. Considering the results of the second round of the presidential election, the CHP is in a good position to maintain the mayorships of Istanbul and Ankara in the 2024 local elections. But even if these good prospects for the opposition materialize, these wins will have a sour taste with four more years to go until the next presidential and parliamentary elections.