How president Erdogan defied the odds – again

by | May 16, 2023 | English

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By Daniel Thorpe, The Spectator,

The results of yesterday’s election have come as a sobering shock for many in Turkey. Although president Erdogan fell just short in the first round of the 50 per cent he needed to automatically secure another term, a parliamentary majority remains within his grasp. Erdogan is now expected to comfortably win the run-off. Even before the counting was finished, he delivered a victory speech in Ankara on Sunday night.

If Erdogan surpassed expectations, the opposition significantly underperformed. In the lead-up to the election, numerous polls suggested that the joint presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, held a lead of up to five points over his rival, giving him a good chance of winning in the first round. In the end, the discrepancy between independent polls and the final results was substantial: Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s party (CHP) won around 45 per cent of the vote, compared to Erdogan’s 49 per cent. As seen in the elections of Donald Trump in the United States and Viktor Orban in Hungary, polling companies have again underestimated the support of right-wing populist leaders.

Kilicdaroglu had managed to secure the support of the ultranationalist IYI party, the Islamist Saadet party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), the Communist Turkish Workers party (TIP), among others. Bringing and holding together such a broad alliance was no small feat. The voters of these parties, however, were evidently less impressed with this cooperation.

Erdogan’s aggressive campaign rhetoric primarily aimed to weaken the unity within the opposition alliance. By pointing fingers at HDP’s support for Kilicdaroglu, the state-controlled media incessantly slandered the opposition, accusing them of ‘uniting with terrorists’ in an attempt to dishearten nationalist supporters. There is currently an ongoing case in the constitutional court calling for the closure of HDP over alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The party denies all accusations and entered this election through a proxy, the Green Left party (YSP), to avoid the risk of closure. Whether there is any substance to these allegations or not, Erdogan’s strategy appears to have been successful. Several hundred thousand nationalist opposition supporters, who wanted no association or shared platform with the Kurdish movement, are believed to have voted for the third candidate, the ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan.

Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi and Kurdish background also probably hindered his chances: only in the Kurdish southeast and the less religious west, did he win more votes than Erdogan. Elsewhere, he underperformed. Despite the progressive excitement of electing a person from a persecuted minority and overcoming Turkey’s long-standing sectarianism, Kilicdaroglu’s background seemingly decreased the opposition’s chances, especially in the religious-conservative central Anatolia region.

The IYI party, the second-largest in the opposition alliance, strongly protested Kilicdaroglu’s nomination as the presidential candidate. Some of its members explicitly argued that the Turkish nation would never elect an Alevi as president. Disputes over the candidate became so heated in early March that the party even stormed out of negotiations and temporarily left the alliance. Although they eventually resolved their differences, the IYI party’s contribution and enthusiasm during the campaign remained modest.

This opposition meltdown came as Turkey struggled to pick up the pieces following February’s devastating earthquake which claimed the lives of over 50,000 people. The government’s delayed and disorganised rescue and aid efforts, combined with the failure to enforce building regulations leading to thousands of preventable deaths, were expected to have a detrimental effect on Erdogan’s votes. But instead, voters – even in the hardest hit areas – still backed Erdogan in huge numbers. Out of the eleven provinces affected by the earthquake, Turkey’s president won by a landslide in eight of them. The general sentiment among the electorate in these areas was that only Erdogan, with his track record of accelerating the construction sector and implementing mega projects, had the strength and capacity to rebuild the decimated region. Despite the initial criticism and outrage following the earthquake, it seems that many voters still viewed Erdogan as the most capable leader in times of crisis.

While the elections are not yet over, and the opposition theoretically has a chance of winning in the second round on 28 May, their prospects look far from rosy. Erdogan has already secured the parliament and has a psychological advantage. Due to their ideological proximity, the 5 per cent of Turks who backed Ogan are more likely to shift to Erdogan (of which he only needs a small proportion). To make matters harder for the opposition, Ogan has stated that he will only support Kilicdaroglu if the HDP is excluded from the political system. Exchanging the roughly 10 per cent of Kurdish votes for Ogan’s 5 per cent would make little sense for Kilicdaroglu.

Despite the forced hopeful smile on the opposition’s face, the chances are Erdogan is here to stay for another five-year term.

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