Hoor Asrar talks about the Turkish impasse
Turkish Elections – It was in the air for quite some time that Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will face difficulty in the Turkish elections and he did. Quite sure of victory Erdogan failed to secure an outright victory in pivotal elections as they ended without any candidate for president taking an clear majority implying that they will compete again in a presidential runoff set for 28 May. The two leading candidates, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will next compete for a majority of votes and the country’s highest seat of power. Erdogan has been in power in Turkey for more than 20 years, first as prime minister and then as president, extending his powers still further after a failed military coup in 2016. Erdogan has remained undefeated in more than a dozen national votes and is considered to be invincible.
The vote was touted to be Erdogan’s biggest electoral challenge with his supporters admiring him as a moderniser who helped Turkey develop economically while advancing his own brand of Islamist populism and championing the role of religious conservatives in public life. Erdogan’s opponents campaigned against his style of one-man rule and crackdowns on civil society, as well as his economic policies which have driven record inflation. They also critiqued the erosion of secularism in Turkish public life under Erdogan’s leadership. Erdogan was also under pressure for his handling of two earthquakes in February that devastated southern Turkey and killed 50,000 people there and in neighboring Syria.
Kilicdaroglu, heading a coalition of six opposition groups — a rare unified front against Erdogan, capitalised over the years on infighting among his opponents but his campaign was effectively shut out of the mainstream, pro-government Turkish media, and had to rely heavily on social media. Erdogan has cracked down on the independent press during his time in power and frequently censors social media as well. Despite Erdogan’s advantages, as some pre-election polls showed Erdogan trailing, the president went on the attack and accused opponents of backing terrorism and disparaged them for supporting LGBT rights. About 60 million of Turkey’s 83.5 million citizens are eligible to vote, a practice that is technically compulsory, though violations go unenforced.
It appeared that the Erdogan’s magic was wearing off fast and it was emphatically proved when he failed to win the elections out rightly and now he will go head to head with his opposition rival in a run-off vote. This is certainly a come down for Erdogan who had a strong grip on Turkish politics and is known to be ambitious enough to go along governing Turkey as long as he could. In the current elections Erdogan led the first round with 49.51% of the vote and though he had a clear lead over his main challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who polled 44.88% but he needed more than half the vote to win the race outright. Interestingly, it was not immediately obvious how the opposition Nation Alliance could narrow a margin of almost five points in just two weeks and though the third candidate, ultranationalist Sinan Ogan, polled 5.17% it seemed unlikely that all his voters would switch to the centre-left-led opposition. A second round will go ahead on 28 May and in this case Erdogan is the clear favourite but how things will turn out is anybody’s guess.
Quite obviously Erdogan was shown ahead in opinion polls but then things changed. With Kilicdaroglu as candidate, the opposition was seen as having its best chance so far at removing him from power as it drew together a broad-based alliance of parties and offered an end to soaring inflation and Erdogan’s fetish of an all-powerful presidency. However, the initial confidence in victory turned to disappointment and the opposition leader did his best to rally supporters by declaring that the second round will be theirs. Though international election monitors were appreciative of the high turnout estimated to be over 88 per cent yet they pointed out that the vote had been limited by an unlevel playing field. They singled out biased media coverage as well as intimidation of the pro-Kurdish party and the jailing of its former joint leader and that of philanthropist Osman Kavala. Another issue they highlighted was the limited help given to survivors of February’s earthquakes to take part in the election.
This election vote was not only for the presidency but for the 600 seats in parliament too. And here too the Erdogan party had a good night, heading for a majority of about 317 seats. Attention has now switched to the 2.79 million ballots cast for Sinan Ogan, who said that without him the presidential race would have been over in one round implying that Erdogan would have won outright. He was remorseless in his criticism of the opposition for failing to win when the ruling party was struggling with so many setbacks from the economy to the earthquakes and the two decades of Erdogan rule. Even if he were to act as a kingmaker by endorsing one candidate or the other, it is far from certain that his first-round voters would follow his suggestion. Erdogan appears to have the upper hand heading into the presidential runoff, which is set for two weeks on 28 May with analysts mentioning that it appeared unlikely that Kilicdaroglu would make up enough ground to prevail in the second round. Supporters of Ogan, the third-party candidate, are expected to be split between the two top contenders.
One key question Turks are asking is why the pre-election polls missed the mark by showing Kilicdaroglu slightly ahead. This could be because analysts underestimated the support Erdogan and the AKP have after two decades in power. Erdogan has steered the country of 85 million through one of its most transformative and divisive eras. Turkiye has grown into a military and geopolitical heavyweight that plays roles in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member’s (NATO) footprint in both Europe and the Middle East made the election’s outcome as critical for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow. Still, many Turks are angry with Erdogan and want change, a fact that Turkey’s opposition coalition, which ranges from centrist-leftists to Turkish nationalists, has struggled to harness. The opposition did well in major cities such as Istanbul but failed to gain ground in Turkey’s more rural and Sunni heartlands. Kilicdaroglu is also from a long-persecuted religious minority, the Alevis, which probably lessened his appeal among Erdogan’s base of religiously conservative voters.
The election, moreover, underscored how deeply Erdogan’s one-man rule has penetrated Turkey’s democratic institutions. Even with a technically fair election, the opposition struggled to gain ground on the AKP and its reliable base of voters. By controlling the media and reshaping the judicial system, Erdogan has additionally drained the pool of opponents. Over the years, many would-be political challengers have been arrested, disqualified or silenced. Istanbul’s popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, had been a favoured possible candidate among the opposition but he is temporarily barred from running for elected office after being found guilty of defamation over comments he made criticising Erdogan and his party. A runoff in two weeks could give Erdogan time to regroup and reframe the debate but he would still be hounded by Turkiye’s most dire economic crisis since the 1990s. The Weekender