Turkey’s 2023 Elections: The Anticipated Happened?

Turkey’s 2023 Elections: The Anticipated Happened?

Expectation management should have guided analysts’ analysis, which unfortunately gave way to them becoming cheerleaders for the political opposition.

There is no other way to say it: the outcome of Turkey’s elections is a huge setback for the country’s political opposition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the “Nation Alliance’s” candidate, seeking to defeat incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gained 45 percent of the vote, coming in second after Erdogan, who achieved 49.3 percent. Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan will now face a runoff election on May 28. Whoever crosses the 50 percent threshold will win the presidency. Many who voted for Kilicdaroglu are understandably demoralized and stunned at the outcome. This was supposed to be the occasion when Erdogan was finally dethroned. Alas. Critics are crying foul play, while others declare that it’s not over yet, and there is still a chance to defeat Erdogan at the runoff. How expected was this outcome and what are the chances for Kilicdaroglu to defeat Erdogan on May 28?

It depends on who you talk to. A variety of established observers of Turkish politics in the media, academia, and policy world predicted for months that Erdogan’s downfall was imminent. This certainty was predicated on the overly-confident claim that the country’s depressed economy, the impact of the earthquake, and Erdogan’s deepening authoritarian slide were all straws that broke the camel’s back and frustrated the citizenry. Therefore, Erdogan would lose. On the other hand, more cautious observers highlighted several red flags, mainly related to the nature of Turkey’s authoritarian regime, arguing that it was too soon to pop the champagne. This latter group of observers was somewhat callously labeled as “pessimists” and ignored. The actual result on election night was that much more stunning, because of the false euphoria generated by Turkey’s mainstream independent media, respected scholars, and policy analysts.

Bottom line: expectation management should have guided analysts’ analysis, which unfortunately gave way to them becoming cheerleaders for team Kilicdaroglu. Within days of the election, allegations started surfacing from across the country, specifically from voting precincts that there may be widespread fraud in the reporting of results. This may or may not be true and should obviously be investigated. That said, one should bear in mind that these objections will likely get tied up in courts and the Supreme Election Council, will likely certify the results anyway. We may never find out the true vote count, but more importantly, it demonstrates that the Nation Alliance was wholly unprepared to mitigate what the so-called “pessimist” camp had been warning about for months.

Even if the results are tainted, it does not change the basic outcome that Erdogan beat Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan’s People’s Alliance gained a majority of seats in parliament. This is not because it is right, but because this is what is likely to be imposed by the YSK. To be fair, both Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party lost votes since the 2018 election, and contrastingly, Kilicdaroglu gained the highest percentage of votes in his Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) history since 1950.

While these are important details, voters only really care about who will win the presidency on May 28. At present, this looks more likely to be Erdogan. Kilicdaroglu’s campaign, in the last few weeks focused exclusively on principles, encapsulated around the slogan “Rights, Rule of Law and Justice!” On stage, Kilicdaroglu and his surrogates promised to free the country from Erdogan’s yolk of injustice and rebuild a more equitable economy that benefited ordinary citizens. This was likely the right strategy, but it underestimated the role of identity. The most plausible explanation that explains why Erdogan received nearly 50 percent is based on the polarizing campaign he ran. In his campaign rallies, Erdogan drove home the point that every vote for Kilicdaroglu and the CHP would be one which would close down mosques, allow same-sex individuals to marry, and undermine Turkey’s family values. Moreover, Erdogan screamed from podiums that voting for the CHP would result in Kurdish terrorists being released into the streets. Ultimately, this seems to have resonated with voters, and in the event that Erdogan succeeds in clinching the presidency in the second round, Turkey’s political landscape is likely to be represented by hyper-nationalism, homophobia, and anti-Westernism.

If Kilicdaroglu has any chance of defeating Erdogan on May 28, he has to look and behave like a winner. This has not been the case since election night. He has barely been seen in public. As the results were becoming increasingly clear in the early hours of May 15, an emboldened President Erdogan confidently stepped outside his party headquarters balcony in Ankara and addressed thousands of his supporters. Moments later, the six leaders of the Nation Alliance assembled on stage in a closed auditorium with only journalists present and whined about how election results were being falsely reported. Supporters of Kilicdaroglu are justifiably frustrated. They have all been aware that serious challenges exist to prevent a free and fair election from taking place. The question they desperately want to be answered is: what are Kilicdaroglu and his alliance going to do about it? Complaining about it is unlikely to satisfy voters, as well as change the outcome of what they fear to be an Erdogan victory in less than two weeks. A serious strategy change must be adopted by the CHP leadership if they want to even contemplate winning.

On the other hand, if Erdogan does clinch the presidency on May 28, he will be in charge of the country for another five years. He will also have a parliamentary majority and many now fear that he will use this opportunity to eradicate the remaining vestiges of democracy. Remaining journalists, independent media outlets, and academics who have been vocal critics of Erdogan fear that they may no longer have room to breathe in a country that has all but stifled freedoms. If Kilicdaroglu does lose, there’ll be immense pressure for him to resign as chairman of the CHP. If that happens, the charismatic mayor of Istanbul, who arguably was the lifeblood of the Nation Alliance’s campaign, is well-positioned to become the next leader of Ataturk’s party. However, he has a lawsuit pending against him, which could see him slapped down with a political ban. In addition to losing his political rights, Erdogan could appoint an unelected caretaker mayor of Istanbul, which he has long desired, since losing the country’s largest city in the 2019 local elections.

Sobering times await Turkey and its brave, yet beleaguered citizens.

Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.

Image: Shutterstock.