Sunday elections trigger harsh debates within Turkiye’s flailing opposition

Analysis Sunday elections trigger harsh debates within Turkiye’s flailing opposition
People walk past a newsagents a day after the presidential election, in Istanbul, Turkiye, Monday, May 15, 2023. (AP Photo)
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Updated 15 May 2023

Sunday elections trigger harsh debates within Turkiye’s flailing opposition

Sunday elections trigger harsh debates within Turkiye’s flailing opposition
  • Outcome is best-case scenario for Erdogan, analysts say
  • President’s alliance gains absolute majority in parliament

ANKARA: After neither side passed the threshold required for an outright win in Sunday’s elections, Turkiye’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a second runoff vote on May 28. So the longest two weeks in Turkish political history has just begun.

Receiving about 26.7 million votes, Erdogan obtained about 49.4 percent of the ballot, while his rival’s 24.4 million votes counted for 44.9 percent.

Erdogan’s electoral alliance secured an absolute majority in the parliament, getting around 325 seats out of 600.

With a stronger-than-expected showing, Erdogan’s party, however, got its lowest share of votes for 20 years, mainly linked to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

Far rightwing parties also entered parliament, including Islamist-Kurdish Huda-Par, as part of the ruling government’s coalition. Turkish nationalism showed strength across Anatolia — triggering fears among some that there would be a considerable decline in democracy if Erdogan wins another term.

The opposition bloc was not able to secure the 360 seats needed to bring about a referendum for ending the current executive presidency and switching to a strengthened parliamentary system.

The outcome represents a best-case scenario for Erdogan, said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of London-based Teneo Intelligence.

The president “has now a clear psychological lead against the opposition. Getting to a second round was Erdogan’s main electoral strategy and is now well-positioned to prevail in the runoff on May 28,” said Piccoli.

Erdogan is now expected to focus his electoral strategy on issues including the threat of political instability, national security requirements and potential governance problems in case the holder of the parliamentary majority does not overlap with the president’s party.

The areas Kilicdaroglu received his highest percentage of votes came from Kurdish-majority cities, especially Tunceli (80 percent), Sirnak (75 percent), Hakkari (72 percent) and Diyarbakir (71.8 percent).

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, argued that Kilicdaroglu has always faced an uphill battle against Erdogan.

Erdogan controls many Turkish institutions from courts to electoral boards, he told Arab News.

He said 90 percent of Turkish media “is under the control of pro-Erdogan businesses in a country where 80 percent of citizens cannot read a foreign language.”

Cagaptay said Erdogan “can create a post-truth narrative for the electorate. All of these were part of advantages for Erdogan and it helped him to close the gap with Kilicdaroglu since last year and deliver a competitive race.”

Cagaptay argued that elections has not been “fair in Turkiye for a long time. But the race and the vote are still free.”

In terms of the economy, Cagaptay thinks that in national elections, Erdogan knew that he would have to deliver a sense of prosperity and growth.

“Erdogan has never won national elections while not delivering growth,” Cagaptay added.

He said the president “delivered a remarkable growth for 15 years at a time when Turkiye’s neighbors were failing economically, which helped him build a strong base of devoted supporters and he lifted them out of poverty.”

“That is one of the reasons he reset ties with the Gulf that drew huge investment flows from those countries, together with money coming from Russia,” said Cagaptay.

“These funds, which were generously handed out for social security benefits and for huge wage increases, stabilized Erdogan’s public support and helped his popularity,” he said.

It is still unclear whether the opposition alliance can recover from Sunday’s electoral failure and regain the public trust. With the opposition’s self-confidence in total ruin after Sunday’s vote, the second round results look to favor Erdogan.

Some experts even drew attention to the possibility of breakaways within the opposition camp, especially the right-wing Good Party, having lost votes to the ultra-nationalistic camp, which may leave the Nation Alliance after the second runoff.

On Sunday night, Kilicdaroglu talked on the phone with the ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan, the third presidential candidate, who got 5.2 percent of the votes, and who may be a kingmaker.

Whoever Ogan endorses will likely have the upper hand in the second runoff.

Ogan is a keen critic of the opposition leader for his indirect alliance with the pro-Kurdish bloc. The Kurdish political movement strongly supported Kilicdaroglu in Turkiye’s Kurdish heartland in the southeast and eastern cities.

Dr. Berk Esen, a political scientist from Sabanci University in Istanbul, thinks the most conservative Turkish parliament was formed following Sunday’s elections, which will be a “distorted” parliament composition that does not reflect voter behavior.

Esen blamed Kilicdaroglu for the opposition’s electoral failure because the opposition candidate had to honor the deal he made with the minor rightwing parties to become a candidate of the opposition bloc.

“These minor parties, which showed a poor performance during the election campaign process, concentrated their attention on the presidential elections to such an extent that they ignored the parliamentary elections,” he told Arab News.

Esen thinks that Sunday’s results was the worst-ever performance for the opposition in Turkiye and it made the main opposition party’s voters demoralized because their parliamentary share was lower than they had in 2011.

“Had Erdogan won by a slight majority, at least the election will be over,” said Esen.

“With the opposition being in a demoralized state to such an extent that they will not be able to probably campaign, they will end up in a very distorted result because the opposition voters will not necessarily be going to vote. Abroad vote rates may go down,” he said.

Esen added: “These elections could have been won by the opposition if they had followed different strategies and if they picked different candidates.”

Esen said his prediction for the second runoff was rather pessimistic.

“Erdogan will retain his margin because the opposition camp will not be able to energize and motivate its voters.”

Cagaptay, meanwhile, thinks that if Erdogan wins in the second runoff, he will completely consolidate power and this will be Turkiye’s last free and fair election while he remains on the scene.

“Although he has term limits constitutionally, he will probably rebrand his job and get for himself (an) indefinite number of terms,” he said.