Too much politics of fear from Kilicdaroglu?
The results of the first round of the presidential election came as a big surprise to many. Why were the predictions so off the mark, in your view?
Berk Esen: There are several reasons. On the one hand, opinion polls regularly get it wrong, not just in Turkey, but also in other nations with authoritarian, populist candidates. In the case of Donald Trump in the U.S. for example, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orban in Hungary. And even in the case of the 2016 Brexit vote. So there's an overall trend. Another reason is that polls either don't take proper account of rural voters' views or many people who support these leaders prefer to keep their preferences to themselves. Turkey is not an isolated case.
What is a problem in Turkey, however, is that many polling agencies are doing shoddy work. Many of their operators make daily TV appearances. Rather than conducting opinion polls as they're supposed to, they deliver political strategies for particular parties instead.
A third point is that shortly before the election some 10% of voters were still undecided. Many of them were probably wavering AKP voters who ultimately ended up voting for Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the last moment. Not because they supported his policies, but because they reject Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Elections neither free, nor fair
Was the opposition's election strategy wrong and what made the AKP's strategy so successful?
Esen: We need to bear in mind that Turkey is controlled by an authoritarian system and that these elections were neither free, nor fair. The government used the media, which it controls, to spread its message throughout the nation; it used public money to further its own interests and received support from most of the nation's bureaucratic apparatus. So it wasn't a level playing field, regardless of whom the opposition might field as its candidate.
At the same time, the opposition's rhetoric was confident of victory, and this was wrong. You can't enter a race with inflated expectations and then be downcast by a result that actually wasn't that bad. I also think that the opposition, in particular Kilicdaroglu and his team, didn't read the government's strategy properly. They thought that because of the lingering economic crisis and failures in the state's post-earthquake response, anyone standing against the government was certain to win – a political expectation that was to prove wrong.
President Erdogan continues to enjoy considerable popularity. What's more, he has undertaken strategic steps to win back lost voters. With the TOKI housing development campaign, for example; by raising pensions and the minimum wage; recruiting 100,000 civil servants; not to mention tax relief for small businesses. To a degree, he has thus been able to cushion the impact of the economic crisis on his voters. These measures, underpinned by his defamation campaign against the opposition, consolidated support for Erdogan in rural areas.
There was no problem with the opposition peddling a unifying message. But they would have had more success with a different candidate. They also conducted their election campaign primarily through social media, meaning they didn’t reach any AKP or MHP voters, let alone swing voters. Nor did they make much of an effort to get their message out to the streets, neighbourhoods and villages. But you know, if you've got a football match where one team has nine players and the other 11, the bigger team is likely to win.
Protest voters fed up
The third presidential candidate Sinan Ogan of the ATA election alliance won five percent of the vote. Now he's thrown his weight behind Erdogan. Who voted for Ogan and what'll happen to those votes now?
Esen: Around two percent of those votes came from ultranationalists. The rest were from voters who reject both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Voters who are fed up with the endless discussions concerning the two and who are punishing the opposition for not producing a new name. A protest vote, if you like. So this group will divide into three. Many of them probably won't vote again. The others divide themselves more or less evenly between the two candidates. I don't think the opposition can expect any significant support here.
The Green Left Party (YSP) umbrella, under which the pro-Kurdish HDP took part in the election, lost many votes, even in majority-Kurdish regions. Why?
Esen: Let us not forget that since the June 2015 election, the HDP has been systematically undermined and attacked by the government. It's not surprising that a party weakened to such an extent, with many of its politicians in prison – take Selahattin Demirtas, for example, has forfeited support. We should take a closer look at the reasons for the loss of votes. It seems likely that some may have gone to the Workers' Party of Turkey (TIP). Middle-class Kurds presumably voted for the CHP in these elections. And security force interventions in these regions may have resulted in manipulation when casting and counting votes.
Better luck next time
Kilicdaroglu has sharpened his nationalist rhetoric ahead of the run-off. What's behind this sudden swing to the right and will it pay off?
Esen: It's highly unfortunate. I don't think this last-minute U-turn will have much of an impact on voters. Both candidates have been in Turkish politics for a long time and most voters made up their minds about them long ago. At most, this rhetoric might result in even fewer YSP voters going to the ballot box in southeast Anatolia, where voter turnout was lowest anyway. If Kilicdaroglu loses the elections, he'll also forfeit his moral stance, with which he initially aimed to foster a healthy climate and unite the opposition against an authoritarian regime. Now he's peddling the politics of fear.
Refugees are doubtless a big issue in Turkey. But dealing with them requires a rational political plan. And the opposition doesn't have one. The discrepancies are manifold. It's the same with Erdogan, maybe even more so. But to voters, the refugees seem like the winners. In my view, the Kilicdaroglu team's strategy is that he emerges from the elections a strong second and continues as a stronger opposition leader after the poll.
It's only another 10 months until local elections in March 2024. If the opposition loses these elections, that'll initially usher in an intense phase of debate and conflict and then the next election campaign will commence. I think they stand a better chance then.
There's been much discussion recently about the possibility that Erdogan will pursue a more moderate political course should he be re-elected. What's your view?
Esen: I believe that is totally incorrect. It's impossible that this government, with the undemocratic path that it has taken, will suddenly become democratic, without a change in leadership and a fundamental change in its politics. The far more pertinent question is whether it will adopt an even more hardline stance.
If there is any political change, then perhaps in the economic sphere. After all, the current economic policy cannot be allowed to continue. Economic analysts are forecasting a serious, imminent economic crisis. Erdogan's handling of the crisis will show whether he's taking a tougher line.
What are your expectations for the future?
Esen: I think this authoritarian regime is much weaker structurally than appearances would suggest. President Erdogan isn't getting any younger. Already, we're seeing that he no longer has the same influence and energy that he used to. The same goes for his alliance partner Devlet Bahceli.
Moreover, there is no way the government can keep the promises Erdogan made regarding reconstruction in the earthquake region. Bearing in mind all this, I don't actually believe the government could take a tougher course.
What the opposition does is crucial. If all the points of criticism I have listed aren't addressed, we won't merely be dealing with a structurally very weakened government post-election, we will also have an opposition in terminal decline. This is a very worrying prospect. Turkey is experiencing an alarming brain drain. Successful people are leaving the country and those who remain are not getting involved in politics. That feeds corruption. The government is up to its neck in it, but the opposition isn't totally clean either. It is high time these structures were overhauled.
Interview conducted by Ceyda Nurtsch
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Nina Coon