On May 28, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again declared victory as president of Turkey, this time in a run-off election against his longtime rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, by a margin of 52 to 48 percent.
Erdoğan had been trailing in the polls for weeks and the margin only seemed to be growing leading up to election day. Before the results of the initial round of voting, in which neither party cleared the threshold for immediate victory, the opposition was more optimistic than ever. Many commentators had predicted Kılıçdaroğlu would win without the run-off. Erdoğan could not possibly survive the devastating impact of runaway inflation, COVID-19, and devastating earthquakes have had on the country in the last few years. The opposition held large rallies that included participants not only from Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), but also from all the other parties of his Nation Alliance and the leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
Erdoğan’s campaign seemed weaker than his previous runs, which further emboldened the opposition. Rather than major infrastructure projects, which proved very effective at mobilizing his base in previous elections, he focused his entire campaign on fear-mongering over the “terrorism” of Kılıçdaroğlu and the HDP. He spent quite a bit of time talking about the “threat” LGBTQ people posed to Turkish families, mimicking his right-wing populist allies in other parts of the world. The campaign was a more aggressive version of his playbook during the 2019 municipal elections, which turned out to be Erdoğan’s biggest defeat to date.
In the end, however, Erdoğan once again emerged victorious. What could have gone so wrong to allow him this victory?
Opposition as a Two-and-a-Half-Legged Stool
The main opposition party in Turkey is the centrist and nationalist CHP. Despite the party’s self-proclaimed social democratic label, the party has rarely supported social democratic policies and its vision of social democracy is more akin to neo-corporatism. Before Kılıçdaroğlu became the leader of CHP, the party opposed Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), primarily on secularist grounds (supporting the continuation of bans on religious headscarves in public institutions) and nationalism (opposing AKP’s concessions to the Kurds and peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)).
Prior to 2015, CHP was allied with Erdoğan’s current coalition partner, the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). MHP split after party leaders allied with Erdoğan to support him in moving toward a presidential-executive system in exchange for harsher policies on the Kurds and the Left. AKP needed new allies in 2015 after they lost their parliamentary majority. The alliance between the AKP and the movement of followers of Fethullah Gülen collapsed after 2013, as Erdoğan began to compete against Gülenists for the capital and connections abroad in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests. This shift upset the Gülenists, whose financial interests are more aligned with Western capital. Gülenists, in turn, began attacking the AKP initially via a series of leaked tapes, and eventually through a coup attempt in 2016.
The secular “dissidents” of the MHP founded the Good Party (İYİP) and allied with CHP. While İYİP often tried to move away from its fascist roots by presenting itself as center-right, on the Kurdish question their politics were identical to that of the MHP. On the question of Syrian refugees, İYİP were even more fascistic, determined to “Send them all back home!” Leading up to the 2023 elections, CHP and İYİP added some smaller Islamist parties and former AKP allies to their Nation Alliance.
AKP-MHP and CHP-İYİP have made up the two main poles in Turkish politics for the past five years. While the former was able to get roughly 50 percent of the votes by recruiting some smaller allies, the latter had not passed 35 percent in the past two general elections despite recruiting some of their own.
To have a chance at winning the presidency, which matters more than the parliament in the current Turkish political system, the Nation Alliance needed the support of the leftist HDP, which holds around 10 percent of the votes. In the municipal elections of 2019, the HDP did not nominate their own candidates in western cities in Turkey, instead backing the Nation Alliance’s candidates to defeat Erdoğan. This uneasy alliance led to the biggest victory of the opposition in the past twenty years. While the Nation Alliance won, HDP hardly received any credit for the victory, despite the key role it played. This was due to the nationalist elements within the Nation Alliance downplaying the HDP’s role to not alienate the AKP-MHP voters.
Erdoğan’s administration accuses HDP of terrorism due to its connections to the armed PKK. HDP defends a negotiated settlement between the government and the PKK, addressing the demands of recognition of Kurdish identity, the increase of municipal governments’ power and autonomy, and the right to an education in the Kurdish language. However, the Nation Alliance largely agrees with the charge of terrorism as they accept the argument that a Kurdish identity separate from Turkishness implies separatism and therefore terrorism. While some in the CHP often claim to support some of the demands of the HDP, CHP leaders maintained their distance from the HDP as they fear that most Turks identify the HDP with violence.
The HDP has been in an extremely difficult position due to the consistent presence of fascists in the government and the opposition. The AKP-MHP alliance was largely formed to stop the rise of the HDP after the 2015 elections. The Nation Alliance mostly parrots AKP-MHP’s views on the Kurds and the PKK. The political repression in Turkey, which exists disproportionately in Kurdish-majority cities against the HDP, has forced HDP into a much more defensive posture in recent years. HDP was unable to maintain the immunity of its parliamentary representatives and failed to stop the arrests of most of its mayors, as Erdoğan replaced them with his appointees. It is currently facing the risk of being shut down, which is why it participated in the elections under the Green Left Party. While the HDP helped the Nation Alliance mayors in major cities, when HDP mayors were removed from office, solidarity from the Nation Alliance was minimal. Struggling to organize in the workplaces and on the streets due to mass arrests, while being banned from mass media and surveilled on social media, HDP’s capacity as an organization eroded. The party was reduced to symbolic rallies and statements.
HDP also had to deal with the split of the Workers Party of Turkey (TİP) from its ranks. TİP had run on the HDP ballot line in 2018, leading HDP to be the third largest party in some major cities, including Istanbul. If the parties split, there was a chance that they could lose representatives in these cities. The two parties came up with a compromise by forming the Labor and Freedom Alliance and limiting the number of cities in which the two parties would compete against one another. This nevertheless led to prolonged debates and fracturing within the Left over who would run where, just as the Left was coming to unite to become a force on the ground through the solidarity efforts after the devastating earthquake earlier this year.
While HDP was discussing whether to nominate its own presidential candidate, the earthquake in Turkey changed the dynamic entirely. HDP played a key role in the aid efforts but deprioritized the presidential election. Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu began to take more radical positions after the earthquake as the government tried to crackdown on the opposition campaigns to support earthquake survivors. While Kılıçdaroğlu had always criticized Turkish construction monopolies, often referred to as “the gang of five,” he began to lean on some of the calls for the nationalization of these companies. He released videos discussing the questions of Kurdishness and his own Alevi identity. These developments together led to HDP’s call first to “vote against Erdoğan,” and later to its outright support for Kılıçdaroğlu. This meant a continuation of the same strategy HDP used in the 2019 municipal elections.
HDP’s support for Kılıçdaroğlu outraged İYİP. İYİP withdrew from the Nation Alliance once Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy became a certainty, two months before the elections. Before this, İYİP members had spent months covertly campaigning against Kılıçdaroğlu. They argued that İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu or Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş would be better candidates. This was somewhat self-serving as İmamoğlu and Yavaş are closer to İYİP than Kılıçdaroğlu, and Yavaş is a former long-time member of the MHP. İYİP did not end up getting the mass response it desired, returning to the alliance three days after its withdrawal in a weakened position. Kılıçdaroğlu thus managed to reunite the uneasy coalition that was effective in the 2019 municipal elections. His campaign would be centered on a “return to normalcy” and nationalism (one that mainly targeted Syrians, given many Kurds now supported him), while half-heartedly appeasing the Islamists, the Kurds, and the Left.
Far Right Resurgence?
During the campaign period, Erdoğan and his allies, as well as the two candidates who were technically running against Erdoğan, spent the entire campaign talking about Kılıçdaroğlu’s connection to the PKK, despite Kılıçdaroğlu doing everything he could to maintain his distance from the HDP, let alone the PKK. İYİP members often echoed some of these criticisms, further damaging the candidate they claimed to support. Kılıçdaroğlu and his allies faced several lynching attempts by nationalist mobs because of these inflammatory remarks.
The nationalist and anti-terrorism rhetoric against Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have been extremely effective. The biggest surprise of the election night was the success of Sinan Oğan, a fascist candidate who ran on deporting all Syrian refugees and criticizing Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu for their alliances with “terrorists.” In the case of Erdoğan, this criticism was based on his newly formed alliance with the Free Cause Party (HÜDAPAR), a Jihadist party with cadres from the Kurdish Hezbollah, a Jihadist group that organized a series of assassinations and attacks that targeted leftist Kurds and opposition figures. The governments of the 1990s often ignored Hezbollah’s activity because their interests aligned. For Erdoğan, HÜDAPAR was thought of as a pole of attraction for conservative Kurds who did not support HDP. Muharrem İnce, who was the CHP candidate in 2018 but later founded his own party, pursued almost an identical line of attack on Kılıçdaroğlu’s “terror connection,” until his withdrawal from the election three days prior. These two candidates polled around 6 percent in total, and it seems most of İnce’s voters supported Oğan after the former withdrew.
Oğan’s success pushed many commentators to argue that the results showed a resurgence of Turkish nationalism. This argument was further strengthened by MHP winning 10 percent of the vote, despite polling around or below 7 percent previously. It appears those who broke with Erdoğan largely ended up supporting Oğan, while those who broke with the AKP largely went to the MHP, as well as other smaller AKP allies. The anti-terror rhetoric that echoed through all mass media, which is controlled by AKP, and throughout many opposition channels that are close with the CHP and İYİP, seems to have pushed the question of the Kurds to the forefront despite the earthquake and inflation.
The hold of the nationalist rhetoric was exacerbated by the lack of a positive vision from opposition politicians about how they would govern. Besides the return to normalcy and shifting back to a parliamentary regime over a presidential one, the opposition failed to highlight any major economic reforms or to explain how they would establish democratic rights without repression. Despite this, Kılıçdaroğlu performed extremely well in all Kurdish-majority cities, winning as much as 70 percent of the vote in cities like Diyarbakir due to HDP’s support. He also often outperformed Erdoğan in some urban slums in western parts of Turkey that were in CHP-controlled cities. Nevertheless, Kılıçdaroğlu was almost completely unable to weaken Erdoğan in central and northern parts of Turkey, where Erdoğan won by enormous margins that allowed him to finish the first round of voting in such a strong position.
Kılıçdaroğlu changed his campaign significantly after the results of the first round, seeking to appease the nationalist supporters of Sinan Oğan. While Oğan ended up endorsing Erdoğan for the run-off, the nationalist Victory Party, which supported Oğan’s candidacy and won 2.3 percent of the vote as a party, supported Kılıçdaroğlu in exchange for a protocol they signed. In this protocol, Kılıçdaroğlu promised deportations of Syrians within one year and the continuation of the policy of replacing Kurdish mayors with party appointees. While the HDP criticized the protocol on the question of appointees, they said they would continue to “oppose Erdoğan” in the run-off. Despite the concessions made to the Victory Party, Kılıçdaroğlu failed to win enough support to defeat Erdoğan in the run-off, however.
The Election Night Disaster
The opposition was in a euphoric mood in the days leading to the first round of the election. Kılıçdaroğlu held massive rallies and led in the polls by 5 to 6 percentage points. When the results began to be reported, everyone expected Erdoğan to start with a lead. The government’s Anadolu Agency, which reports results, begins sharing results from pro-Erdoğan regions first to allow themselves room to cheat if needed. Then, as expected, Erdoğan’s lead shrunk as more of the results were reported. While Erdoğan’s lead persisted, the opposition kept announcing they were ahead and anticipated finishing the election ahead of Erdoğan.
While the lead shrunk, Kılıçdaroğlu never even came close to taking over Erdoğan. After a few hours, opposition leaders stopped making any announcements on the results and left their supporters in the dark. The euphoric energy was replaced by the devastation of what seemed like another defeat.
Kılıçdaroğlu would not be seen for another two days, except for two short videos—one announcing there would be a run-off, and one where he slammed his fist on the table. Kılıçdaroğlu, who was distinguished from Erdoğan by his mild manners and calmness, came back as a shouty gray wolf who would spew hatred of refugees and “terrorists” for the next two weeks until the run-off election.
The rapid shift in mood on May 14 almost fully sealed Erdoğan’s victory. Kılıçdaroğlu’s aggressive nationalism did not win him enough new supporters to defeat Erdoğan on May 28. While weaker than ever, Erdoğan managed to win five more years as president.
Since the run-off, the opposition has fractured rapidly. Within the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu is facing pressure to resign, yet still appears to be resisting the calls, supposedly due to the upcoming municipal elections next year. He could face a leadership challenge by Ekrem İmamoğlu, who is currently facing a lawsuit that might lead to him being banned from politics. In addition, an İYİP spokesperson announced the end of the Nation Alliance, which would further shake up the CHP. More recently, İYİP president Meral Akşener blasted CHP and Kılıçdaroğlu for the defeat and said the alliance was one of his biggest regrets. Meanwhile, former HDP leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş wrote a long essay criticizing HDP’s election strategy, class composition, and political practice, as well as announcing his retirement from political life.
Despite the crisis of the opposition, the election results could still be seen as an accomplishment under the circumstances. Turkey is not a liberal democracy and Erdoğan’s regime has complete control over the state’s resources, the streets, and the media. Turkish prisons are full of opposition figures and activists of all kinds, but disproportionately of leftists and Kurds. Posting online could lead to arrest. Femicide has gotten worse. Public schools became more religious. Millions have fled the country in the past few years because of these oppressive circumstances.
The opposition has been complicit in narrowing the political arena to the ballot box. Until the earthquake, Kılıçdaroğlu spent years demobilizing his supporters at every critical point, saying protest would only provoke more repression from the government. For years, HDP and its allies, potentially carrying the largest independent capacity for extra-electoral mobilization, have seen the worst of state repression, while CHP and İYİP looked the other way. HDP and TİP also hurt the popularity they gained in the aftermath of the earthquake by running on separate ballot lines.
Despite the efforts of both the government and sections of the opposition to demobilize the people of Turkey, the election witnessed the highest level of coordinated mobilization the opposition had displayed up to this point. Kılıçdaroğlu won more votes than CHP ever won in the history of Turkey, despite his political conservatism and inconsistency. Nearly half of the voters wanted change to the point that they did not care about Kılıçdaroğlu being an Alevi “social democrat” who was painted as being “allied with the PKK” and “pro-LGBTQ.” Millions of people volunteered to prevent Erdoğan from stealing the election. Part of the reason why the defeat was so devastating was because of how close the election was this time.
Erdoğan, while publicly declaring victory, seems much clearer-eyed about the opposition’s potential and his own problems. While his campaign was effective in keeping him in power, he and his party are weaker than ever. He now needs to rely on not just the MHP, but also the ultra-Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP), which is led by the son of one of Erdoğan’s former mentors, Necmettin Erbakan, and HÜDA PAR. These two parties are especially aggressive in targeting women’s rights and would like religious law to govern families. One polygamous YRP member was elected to the parliament despite polygamy being illegal. The policies of these parties already faced criticism from AKP’s women members, who have always played an important role within the AKP.
Erdoğan could also be forced to shift gears on the economy prior to the municipal elections of next year because of inflation. Between May 14 and June 26, the Turkish lira depreciated by 23.5 percent against the dollar. Lira depreciation had been the main driver of Turkey’s high inflation since 2018. As Erdoğan began to move closer to Russia and invaded Rojava, he was punished by international financial institutions through currency shocks. His refusal to increase interest rates to keep unemployment low further exacerbated inflation. By reappointing his former finance minister, Mehmet Şimşek, to his cabinet, he is signaling a more Western-friendly political economy, at least until the municipal elections. Şimşek is a hardened neoliberal who has continued the privatization schemes of the AKP after the International Monetary Fund program of the early 2000s, while signaling business confidence to Western investors until his departure in 2018. While the new administration already raised interest rates, so far it failed to help with currency shocks and inflation. The interest rate hikes are very likely to lead to higher unemployment, which will pose another crisis for Erdoğan.
Nevertheless, for Erdoğan, the problem is remaining in power in a system of his own creation, which seems far simpler than trying to overturn that system. Kılıçdaroğlu promised the possibility of “a return” to a liberal democracy that never existed to begin with via the ballot box in a rigged system. The results show the unfeasibility of such a transition under the current circumstances. Erdoğan mostly maintains his popularity in wide sections of the lower classes. Many, if not most, secular and religious workers continue to view each other, Kurds, and Syrians as threats. The ethnic and cultural divides within the working classes continue to sharpen. While the Left continues to persist, it has little to no room to mobilize. Erdoğan’s reign continues as a death spiral for all who oppose him and sucks up more of those who have supported him every day.
Featured image credit: HD Wallpaper; modified by Tempest.
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Hakan Yilmaz is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Professional Staff Congress.