How the Favored Turkish Opposition Failed
By Nart Shalqini and Carl Parkin | Summer 2023
Turkey’s 2023 election has been decided: while polls initially predicted a firm victory for the opposition under Kemal Kilicdaroglu, sitting president Recep Tayyip Erdogan came out as the lead in the first round of voting. Erdogan has now won re-election in the second round, with 52% of the vote to Kilicdaroglu’s 48%.
Erdogan achieved this impressive result despite criticism for his handling of Turkey’s massive earthquake in February — which incurred a high death toll in the southeast of the country — and the recent rise of living costs amid an inflation and currency crisis. There are a variety of factors that explain the failure of Kilicdaroglu’s opposition coalition to capitalize on this unique political moment.
While the opposition suffered defeat, it was not due to the people’s love of Erdogan. Despite coming out on top in the presidential elections himself, Erdogan’s party, the AKP, shrank to 35% of the popular vote; this represented a 7-point loss compared to their performance in Turkey’s 2018 elections. Erdogan’s re-election was mainly fueled by the other parties that supported him, not his own declining AKP. Neither nationalist parties allied with Erdogan, such as the Nationalist Action Party, nor the similarly nationalist opposition party, the IYIP, faced any decline in voter share. This relatively strong performance from nationalist parties can be attributed to the increased visibility and political weight they have gained since 2018. Their red lines on security and foreign policy, in particular with the Kurdish issue, have determined the space of action and rhetoric for both the government and the opposition. While the AKP lost votes due to the strength of nationalist parties, those voters generally swapped to other parties in the People’s Alliance — the coalition led by Erdogan — rather than the Nation Alliance, led by Kilicdaroglu. In other words, Erdogan’s opponents had a strong theoretical chance for victory, as shown by the large-scale rejection of the AKP. However, this chance was squandered, thanks to the fractured ideological composition of the Nation Alliance, as well as the weak and ineffectual promises they made to Turkey’s people.
The fractured alliance was in part caused by its incorporation of two political parties, Deva and Gelecek, which emerged as spillovers from the AKP between the 2018 elections and now. Deva in particular seemed to have carried momentum initially, garnering up to 5% in national polls. With Kilicdaroglu’s encouragement, these two parties joined the previous opposition alliance of 2018, which subsequently won Istanbul and Ankara among other metropoles in the local elections of 2019. While this initial victory would have bolstered the opposition’s strength, it instead led to major difficulties. The alliance’s ideological diversity limited the space of action for all the parties participating in it. Now allied with Kilicdaroglu’s CHP, the two conservative parties could not appeal to conservative voters, who exhibited a collective allergy toward the CHP’s center-left nature. The coalition did not only alienate the right, but the staunchly secular left as well, who had reservations about Erdogan’s former allies — Deva and Gelecek — joining.
In addition to this, the table of six — the Nation Alliance’s leadership of six parties — pursued an faulty strategy to win the elections. Each of their meetings was closed to the press and followed by a two-paged joint statement outlining the common goal of democracy and a return to the parliamentary system; they were devoid of any concrete steps towards the election goals, such as the joint nominee or parliamentary lists. The coalition did eventually release a 2000-paged manifesto in a joint conference, but was ineffective in utilizing it in the common campaign, where almost none of the pledges were mentioned by Kilicdaroglu during his presidential bid. In effect, the coalition depoliticized both the participating political elite and their respective constituencies.
The coalition’s internal splinter came to a head in the debate over who would be named its joint nominee. The nationalist parties, led by IYIP, supported the mayors of Istanbul or Ankara — both of whom had nationalist sympathies — for candidacy, arguing that appealing to secular nationalists was a priority. Other parties, led by the CHP, advocated for Kilicdaroglu, arguing that Kurdish voters would favor him. This division was difficult to overcome; the Kurdish people were never included in Turkey’s nationalist project, which created a deep division between Kurdish and nationalist elements in Turkish politics. Essentially, the debate over the nominee was a debate over which of the two mutually hostile groups, nationalists or Kurds, would decide the next head of Turkey. This debate dichotomized the opposition, allowing Erdogan to exploit the divided Alliance and expose the bitter power struggle between the two major parties of the opposition alliance, IYIP and CHP.
The narrative that Erdogan perpetuated of Kilicdaroglu as the “Kurdish candidate” stained the opposition nominee’s campaign from the very start, alienating nationalist voters who saw Kilicdaroglu as a compromise with the enemy. A temporary breakup of the coalition caused further turmoil: for three days, the nationalist IYI party abandoned the Nation Alliance, spurred on by the broad nationalist opposition against Kilicdaroglu. The picture of Kilicdaroglu as a Kurdish puppet was worsened by the People’s Democratic Party or HDP — one of Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish parties. They chose not to put forward their own candidate, effectively stating that they already had one in Kilicdaroglu. Meanwhile, Erdogan was publicizing faked videos of Kilicdaroglu with Kurdish militants, further undermining Kilicdaroglu’s credibility and deepening the Kurdish-nationalist divide. Through exploiting tensions within opposition, Erdogan was able to bring more and more fringe and radical parties into his own coalition through their shared perception of the opposition’s weakness.
Some of these groups could have alienated Erdogan’s more moderate supporters, since he allied with parties which supported the restriction of women’s rights by codifying male guardianship and gender-based segregation in workplaces. Credible pollsters indicate that women, in particular housewives, overwhelmingly supported Erdogan, while youth largely boycotted the elections or supported more fringe candidates. The “Kurdish vs. nationalist” dichotomy narrative prevented the opposition from focusing on these target groups. As an example, the opposition started targeting the youth through social media campaigning, such as on TikTok, only after the alarm bells began ringing about a third-party candidate becoming overwhelmingly popular with this group of voters. However, by then, it was far too late. Looking carefully at the polls conducted before the June 2019 elections in Istanbul, it is clear that young voters that previously did not vote were the ones that sealed the opposition’s victory. In addition, the charismatic mayor of Istanbul had great appeal with women; in particular middle class, educated, conservative women who had traditionally formed Erdogan’s constituency in larger cities. While the National Alliance could have capitalized on these ripe demographics with targeted, issue-focused campaigning, their public profile was instead dominated by the superficial nationalist-Kurdish dichotomy debate. This caused young voters to turn to third-party candidates, rather than the Nation Alliance.
However, women and youth were not the only groups that the Nation Alliance found trouble reaching in its campaign. The protracted nature of its nomination process gave Erodgan a head-start in campaigning; he had been doing so for over a year when the Nation Alliance finally began. This initial disadvantage led to fatal miscalculations for the Alliance. Rather than galvanizing their base in metropoles such as Ankara and Istanbul, the Alliance instead focused on Erdogan’s strongholds in Anatolia and the Black Sea regions. The economic crisis that Erdogan had presided over was not as damaging in smaller Anatolian towns as it was in bigger cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, where the skyrocketing rent prices and increasing transportation costs heavily burdened people who had to travel for work and live on rent. Anatolian towns, by contrast, did not face such high prices for property ownership and transportation, because they are less densely populated.
Erdogan succeeded in consolidating his base by instilling distrust in the opposition, while the Nation Alliance was too occupied with the power-sharing process of a hypothetical post-election victory that never materialized. The biggest weakness of the opposition was turning a blind eye on the needs and demands of civil society, while negotiating at the level of political elites. The pressure for change from the civil society was high, as evidenced by the polls, but the opposition neglected such demands and failed to respond to the needs of their constituencies. This allowed for a polarized election, which Erdogan eventually exploited in his favor, leading ultimately to his unsettling victory.
Pounding a final nail into the coffin, the Nation Alliance may have squandered their last chance at defeating Erdogan on a democratic battleground. The president is now taking aim at unseating local opposition leaders in cities like Ankara and Istanbul, aiming for the very strongholds from which the Nation Alliance was able to mount their ill-fated campaign. The only bright side? Perhaps their election defeat will have successfully extracted their heads from the clouds, ceased their preoccupation with who would run a post-Erdogan Turkey, and awakened them to the real campaigning work they must engage in for the upcoming political battle. If not, Turkish democracy faces an existential threat.