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Erdogan proves unbeatable as Turkey heads for runoff

The latest count from Turkey's Supreme Electoral Board shows Erdogan with 49.40% of ballots cast versus 44.96% for Kilicdaroglu, indicating the country is set for a runoff on May 28.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (R), accompanied by his wife Ermine Erdogan (L), waves to supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey May 15, 2023.

As Turkey heads for a runoff election in two weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proved once again that he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) remain unbeatable, leaving the opposition in a state of shock and disarray and likely granting the country’s strongman his dream of reigning over the republic in its 100th year.

Even the most respected pundits got it wrong, predicting in the final days before yesterday’s parliamentary and presidential elections that the main opposition’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu would win, perhaps even in a first round. The opposition is now left taking credit for denying Erdogan a win in the first round after he failed to secure more than the 50% vote needed to win by a whisker. The Supreme Electoral Board’s latest count shows him with 49.40% of ballots cast versus 44.96% for Kilicdaroglu. Sinan Ogan, a right-wing nationalist contender, trailed in a distant third with 5.2%.

Barring some last-minute twist, Erdogan is widely expected to embark on an unprecedented third decade in power after winning the second round. The 69-year-old leader exuded confidence last night as he addressed crowds gathered outside his AKP headquarters in Ankara. “It is our people and country who won. We are not like those who sought to dupe the people, probably for the last time, by claiming they were miles ahead of us,” Erdogan declared.

The AKP and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party partners also prevailed in the 600-member parliament, bagging 322 seats. Kilicdaroglu’s pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and five other opposition parties united under the Nation’s Alliance came in second with 213 seats and a leftist bloc led by the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party (YSP) pulled in third with 65.

Just how Erdogan managed to pull off another victory in the face of tremendous adversity will be scrutinized for years. The economy is in shambles, with runaway inflation leaving millions of Turks struggling to even afford onions. The massive earthquakes that decimated large swathes of southern Turkey have multiplied their misery. The president and his family, who live in a 1,100-room palace, are tainted by widespread allegations of corruption. Tens of thousands of dissidents are languishing in jail.

Yesterday must have been particularly horrible for civil rights activist Osman Kavala and the country’s most popular Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtas, who remain behind bars on bogus charges in flagrant violation of European Court of Human Rights rulings demanding their release. Erdogan has vowed to keep them in prison.

“The shock is partly as it looks like Erdogan actually won this election, rather than stealing it as some had feared,” observed Timothy Ash, an investment strategist at RBC BlueBay Asset Management, in a note to clients. Love him or loathe him, Erdogan is the most successful if ruthless politician globally in recent times.

Relatively free, utterly unfair

Without question, the election was technically free, if practically unfair. Erdogan has used the one-man-rule system imposed in the wake of a controversial referendum in 2018 to stack the system in his favor, castrating the media and stuffing the judiciary and other key institutions with yes-men. His vast propaganda machine has been pumping out lies about the opposition. In April, Erdogan got 32 hours of air time on state TV compared with 32 minutes for Kilicdaroglu. But none of this suffices to explain the latter’s defeat.

Fears of wide-scale fraud have proved empty so far, though there are multiple complaints pending, and there was little if any violence at the polls where a record portion of voters — 88% — cast their ballots. The elections were “unparalleled” as "Turkey had proved once again that it is one of the leading democracies in the world,” Erdogan boasted.

While the latter claim is demonstrably absurd, the former contains some truth.

“These were competitive but still limited elections, as the criminalization of some political forces, including the detention of several opposition politicians, prevented full political pluralism and impeded individuals’ rights to run in the elections,” Michael Georg Link, special coordinator and leader of the European observer mission, said in a statement. “Political interference in the electoral process is not in line with [Turkey’s] international commitments.”

Frank Schwabe, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation, agrees. “Turkish democracy is proving to be amazingly resilient. This election had a high turnout and offered a real choice. However, [Turkey] does not fulfill the basic principles for holding a democratic election,” he said in a statement. “Key political and social figures are in prison even after judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, media freedom is severely restricted and there is a climate of self-censorship. [Turkey] is a long way from creating fair election campaign conditions.”

“In the end, identity politics trumped all else,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Turkey director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Al-Monitor. “The identity projected by Erdogan and the AKP resonated far more than the vision for Turkey painted by Kilicdaroglu and the opposition,” concurred Can Selcuki, an Istanbul-based consultant. That identity is Sunni, conservative and nationalist, overlaid by a thick coat of patriarchalism. 

Fearmongering and polarization lay at the core of the AKP campaign. Throughout it Erdogan claimed Turkey’s national security hinged on this election, citing Kilicdaroglu’s informal alliance with the Kurdish-led YSP as proof of his links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, the guerrilla group that has been fighting the Turkish army since 1984 initially for Kurdish independence and now for autonomy. It probably didn’t help that veteran PKK commanders openly endorsed the opposition in a slew of statements and television interviews.

Though Erdogan refrained from targeting Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi faith, the message spread by AKP cadres in mosques across Turkey was that Sunni Islam’s very survival was at stake. Kilicdaroglu’s hope that the inclusion of three religiously conservative parties in his Table of Six Alliance would allay such fearmongering proved to be wrong. The end result was that at least 30 candidates from those parties won seats in the parliament. Today, the CHP can no longer depend on their loyalty, as they could easily cut deals with the AKP. On the bright side, the CHP's own numbers in parliament rose 22 seats since the last election, going from 146 to 168.

Erdogan’s other big campaign ace was generous subsidies — debt relief for students, wage hikes for pensioners, cheap loans and the like. His promises to rebuild the earthquake-stricken provinces resonated with victims. Preliminary results showed they had voted in large numbers for Erdogan in AKP strongholds affected by the disaster, prompting a wave of angry comments from opposition supporters on social media.

It clearly did not hurt that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his Turkish ally a boost, deferring natural gas payments and transferring several billion dollars to the Central Bank months ahead of the polls. Fellow autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates followed suit. What concessions, if any, they will demand in exchange remains unclear. In Putin’s case, however, it's crystal clear: to help him skirt Western sanctions.

'Bay Bay Kemal'

Like many, Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, believes the opposition faces a near impossible task in reversing its defeat. “It will be very hard,” Esen told Al-Monitor. The opposition alliance Kilicdaroglu so painstakingly built was already looking fragile when Meral Aksener, the leader of the nationalist Good Party, openly opposed his candidacy, rightly predicting that Erdogan would beat him. It’s probably already collapsed.

Tens of thousands of displaced quake victims bused in by the opposition to their home provinces will likely balk at going back to vote in the second round, especially for a loser. The same goes for millions of absentee voters.

Pro-YSP Kurds may prove as unmotivated if not more, Esen contended. “It is going to be very hard to get Kurds to vote for Kilicdaroglu again,” said Ramazan Tunc, an economist in Diyarbakir. There is widespread anger that many non-Kurdish voters who backed the Kurdish group in previous elections defected to the CHP, pushing its share of the vote down to 8% compared with 10% in the last elections in 2018, Tunc explained.

While some in the opposition entertain hopes of winning over Ogan’s supporters, disaffected youths who oppose Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu alike, the more likely outcome is that they will stay at home in disgust.

Sunday’s outcome does not spell the definitive demise of democracy in Turkey, as some opine. A further battle looms in March next year when nationwide municipal elections are due to be held. The biggest fight will be over Istanbul and prosecutors have already weakened the city’s popular CHP Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, banning him from politics on risible charges and relaunching a corruption probe. Imamoglu was widely seen as the single candidate most likely to unseat Erdogan, the most likely reason the authorities went after him.

An appeals court could bury him for good before the municipal polls.

Whether all this will discourage Imamoglu from vying for the CHP leadership is too early to tell. But the vultures are circling and Kilicdaroglu’s days are numbered, many say. Erdogan’s sneering election slogan, “Bay Bay Kemal” (a play on words for "Bye bye, Mr. Kemal"), may prove accurate in the end.

The opposition can still take heart that the AKP’s share of the parliamentary vote dipped from 42.56% in the 2018 elections to 35.6% as per the latest count, the lowest it's ever scored in any election to date. Erdogan also saw his popularity slide, albeit less sharply, from the 52.54% he garnered in 2018.

The CHP, by contrast, saw a modest increase from the 22.64% it received in 2018 to 25.3% in yesterday’s vote. Another big surprise was the strong showing of the MHP, which with 10% has supplanted the pro-Kurdish bloc as the third largest party in the parliament, a further sign of the hard tilt towards the right. 

Erdogan's biggest challenge remains the economy. "Turkey faces a huge balance of payments gap, with gross external financing needs of close to $220, a current account deficit of $50 and short-term debt of $180," wrote Ash in a brief for the Center for European Analysis, giving figures in the billions. "Central bank reserves are around the $100 mark, but reserves are unable to fill the gap. To close the external financing gap, the Central Bank could hike policy rates to slow domestic demand for imports and cut the current account deficit," Ash said.

Esen agrees that Erdogan's future and that of his party ultimately hinge on the economy. Should Erdogan revert to orthodoxy, raising interest rates, the ensuing pain could hurt the AKP at the polls. By the same token, should he stick to his current policy of keeping them low, he may have to resort to capital controls to hold the lira steady. Foreign investors will take further fright. 

All of this may force Erdogan to de-escalate tensions with the United States and Europe, which remains Turkey’s top trading partner. Doing so will likely include dropping objections to Sweden’s membership in NATO before the alliance’s next summit in July. Pressure from the West for Turkey to join sanctions against Russia can only grow as Ukraine gears up for what many hope will be a final and decisive offensive against Russian forces.

Others maintain that Erdogan will maintain the status quo, at least until the municipal polls. “Given the scope of his success, he can sell anything,” Selcuki said. “With so much pain inflicted and accepted, anything goes,” he concluded.

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