Erdogan no winner, despite opposition defeat
In Turkey’s first-ever presidential run-off, incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 52.16% of the votes, while joint opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu lost by a small margin, at 47.84%, failing to oust the long-time ruler who has led the country for 21 years.
It was never going to be easy for Kilidaroglu. Erdogan was leading by a healthy margin after the first round on 14 May, with 49.5 percent, while Kilicdaroglu was behind on 44.8 percent.
The main challenge facing Kilicdaroglu was the unfair election process: Erdogan's government controls much of the media and a chunk of the state budget was ploughed into his election campaign from the state budget. "Free elections do not mean fair elections. These elections were not fair. The government used all the facilities and resources of the state. The rules disappeared," said independent journalist Murat Yetkin, recalling some of the obstacles Kilicdaroglu had to overcome.
One of those was a ban on SMS messages sent out by the opposition presidential candidate to the entire country appealing for votes just prior to the run-off. On 26 May Turkey's Information and Communication Technologies Authority announced a ban on politicians disseminating propaganda via text message. Yet the ban appeared only to apply to Kilidaroglu, while government ministers and President Erdogan remained unaffected.
After Kılıçdaroğlu sent a message to voters via SMS, like is normally done in Turkey, IT and Communications Directorate banned this kind of messages. https://t.co/U1VdofNAFc
— Piero Castellano (@PieroCastellano) May 26, 2023
Kilidaroglu stood as presidential candidate for a broad coalition of six opposition parties as part of the Nation Alliance, including the moderately religious Felicity Party, the centre right-wing Future Party and Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), as well as the secular nationalist Good (IYI) Party, in an attempt to unseat President Erdogan.
He also enjoyed the support of the Labour and Freedom Alliance, which was led by the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was running on the Green Left Party’s ticket as it risked being banned ahead of the elections. In the first round, however, some 800,000 nationalist Good Party voters from Kilicdaroglu's Nation Alliance failed to vote for him.
Besides that, ultra-nationalist ATA alliance presidential candidate Sinan Ogan received over five percent of the votes, preventing both frontrunners from getting the 50%+1 majority they needed to declare victory in the first round. Ogan, a joint candidate of the far-right alliance, decided to endorse Erdogan in the run-off elections, but the backbone of his alliance, the anti-migrant Victory Party, which got 2.23% of the vote share in the parliamentary election, endorsed Kilidaroglu.
The backing came after Kilicdaroglu held several meetings with Victory Party leader Umit Ozdag, a far-right politician known for his racist comments about Syrian refugees and Kurds, as well as discriminatory remarks toward the Green Left Party.
In a bid for votes, Kilidaroglu quickly adopted anti-refugee rhetoric and promised to send migrants back within a year. This, however, proved a risky stance, since he also faced the stark possibility of losing considerable support from Kurdish voters.
Right after Ozdag's endorsement, debate stirred over whether the Green Left Party's largely Kurdish voters would vote for Kilicdaroglu. Discomfort grew over his intention to continue a system that oversaw the appointment of trustees in mostly Kurdish-populated provinces, following the ousting of democratically appointed mayors on "terror-related" charges.
Three days before the second round, the Green Left Party expressed their dismay at this about-turn and Kilidaroglu's cooperation with the Victory Party, yet still vowed to support Kilicdaroglu in order to "change the one-man regime".
This did not stop some Kurdish voters from staying away from the ballot box, however. Compared to the first round, voter turnout in Kurdish-populated areas dropped by around 4-5 percent. Kilidaroglu had hoped his cooperation with the Victory Party would counter Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric that the opposition candidate was "cooperating with terrorist organisations".
At a huge rally in Istanbul on 7 May, Erdogan screened a doctored video that showed Kilidaroglu allegedly being supported by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the international community. Erdogan later acknowledged that the video had been doctored. "Fake or not, PKK members supported [the opposition] with videos," he said in a televised interview. Kilidaroglu denied the allegations and filed a lawsuit against Erdogan.
Vahap Coskun, an academic at Dicle University, based in the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir, said Kilicdaroglu’s cooperation with Ozdag and the Victory Party had a negative impact on the opposition. "In my opinion, the collaboration with Ozdag was wrong. Because Ozdag was not the person capable of bringing in the nationalist votes. Moreover, the trustee issue was a red line for Kurdish voters," Coskun said.
According to Coskun, the government built its entire election campaign around security issues, something the opposition was unable to overcome. Nor did the opposition manage to explain to voters the pressing issues needing to be addressed, such as Turkey's economic woes and its urgent need for better governance. Coskun added that, despite everything, the election results do show that Turkish society wants change, but the opposition failed to convince voters that it would be capable of delivering.
Research company Panaromatr director Osman Sert agreed with Coskun about the desire for change among voters, but he thinks this will not come about with the current teams leading the opposition. "The opposition lost the elections – despite the economic crisis and democracy problems. On the other hand, however, you can't really say that Erdogan won. The opposition lost because of the wrong coalitions and the wrong candidate," he concluded.
Months before the elections, the opposition parties held lengthy discussions as to whether Kilidaroglu should be their candidate. The second biggest party of the opposition coalition, the Good Party and its leader Meral Aksener, briefly left the Nation Alliance in early March, when Kilidaroglu's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) insisted on their leader’s candidacy, demonstrating a lack of unity at a critical moment.
At the time Aksener suggested that Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu from CHP should be joint candidates, claiming their chances of being elected were higher than those of 74-year-old Kilidaroglu, an Alevi in Turkey's majority Sunni society. She returned to the Nation's Alliance a few days later, once it was agreed that Imamoglu and Yavas should be given vice-presidential roles.
It is expected that Turkey's opposition parties will evaluate the election results and may even propose changes in leadership at their congresses, meaning the country is likely to see leadership challenges among the opposition prior to the upcoming local election in March 2014. Turkey will therefore remain in election fever for a good while longer.
"Turkish politics are based on polarisation. This time, however, no-one won by a huge margin, nor did anyone lose by a huge margin. The difference between the two camps is just two million – a clear indication that polarisation is no longer sustainable," said Ahmet Kasim Han, a political scientist from Istanbul Beykoz University. "The time ahead is not going to be easy. Turkey faces very, very difficult days in the weeks and months to come," he added.
© Qantara.de 2023