The Washington Post didn’t dub the Turkish presidential election as “2023’s most crucial election in the world“ for no reason. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cleverly taken advantage of waning U.S. global influence by pursuing an ever-autonomous foreign policy that promotes his country’s interest, which has often contravened with that of the United States. Erdogan, by a series of military incursions, successfully undermined the American project of establishing Kurdish autonomy in Syria, which Ankara deemed a matter of national security. Citing Washington’s apathy for Turkey’s security, Erdogan, despite relentless U.S. objections, went ahead and acquired the Russian S-400 air defense systems. In the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean, he adopted the concept of “Mavi Vatan” (the Blue Homeland), which draws Turkey’s maritime borders from the land-based perspective, as opposed to Greece’s interpretation based on its 3,000 or so islands. This has prompted Ankara to sign a maritime deal with Libya, which has allowed Ankara to effectively control the marine resources, cutting off Greece’s maritime access from the Greek Cypriots.
However, Erdogan’s opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu is known to be determined to roll back Erdogan’s perceived foreign policy gains. He considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the U.S. proxy in Syria, as “Patriots trying to save their homeland.” He has occasionally questioned Turkey’s North Africa policy asking, “What is Turkey doing in Libya?” Finally, he criticized Erdogan’s decision to buy the S-400 saying, “Who would attack Turkey? Why did we buy them?”
Kilicdaroglu’s high hopes of winning on May 14 turned out to be futile. He lagged about 4 percent behind Erdogan’s 49.5 percent, which prompted a runoff to occur on May 28. With Erdogan being the favorite in the second round, its worth asking why Kilicdaroglu is likely going to be the loser despite Turkey’s economic hardships and refugee problems—issues that have plagued Erdogan’s campaign.
The “Anybody but Erdogan” Coalition
Being the head of the largest opposition party, Kilicdaroglu embarked on the impossible task of assembling a coalition of parties, the Nation Alliance (NA), that have in the past been located on the exact opposite of the ideological spectrum from Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The CHP, with its leftist, secular, pro-Western, and progressive views, has had to strike a coalition with the right-wing, nationalist Good Party (iP), the Islamist Felicity Party, as well as Deva, and Future Parties, whose leaders are former Erdogan cadres who turned against him. The decision by the NA to nominate Kilicdaroglu took so many meetings it calls into question whether the coalition would even be capable of forming a government. Moreover, Meral Aksener, the head of iP—the second-largest party in the NA—walked away from the meeting in an apparent show of anger immediately after Kilicdaroglu was declared the presidential nominee. She is known to have supported Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, to be Erdogan’s opponent. In a sensational manner that was interpreted as having been coerced by “foreign influences,” she later returned to the Nation Alliance.
What is worse for Kilicdaroglu is that he felt compelled to receive the de facto support of the Green Left Party (GLP), which professes that it is the political wing of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the terrorist organization that is responsible for the death of more than 40,000 Turks and Kurds. The move to appeal to GLP’s voters, which has historically stood around 10 percent of the population, alienated the anti-PKK constituents of the NA who are mainly the CHP Kemalists (leftist nationalists) as well as the iP nationalists, who instead voted for the ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan. Ironically, Ogan later announced that he would support Erdogan since the latter eliminated the PKK terrorism in Turkey. Kilicdaroglu was further hurt by his reluctance to denounce the repeated overt support from the PKK’s upper echelon, known in Turkey as “Kandil,” the mountain between Iran and Iraq where those PKK leaders are believed to reside.
To the NA voters’ dismay, the three smallest members of their coalition—the Felicity Party, the Deva, and the Memleket—received only around 1 percent of the combined votes but grabbed a whopping 33 seats out of the CHP’s 167, dragging the CHP’s numbers lower than what they were in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Kilicdaroglu is now regarded as a terrible accountant, harkening back to the 1990s when Turkey’s social security administration went bankrupt under his leadership.
In short, the “anybody but Erdogan” coalition under Kilicdaroglu can be likened to a mechanic trying to build a car using completely incompatible parts. Yes, he built a car, but it didn’t start.
Kilicdaroglu Is No Match for Erdogan
Before his nomination, Kilicdaroglu was regarded by many in the Nation Alliance as incompetent; someone who is prone to faux pas. He has referred to Turkey’s provinces as “countries” with which Turkey should engage in trade. He couldn’t recite the first two lines of the Turkish National Anthem. He proposed assigning an assistant to 50,000 local authorities (muhtar) to reduce unemployment. He made an official announcement that he is an Alevi, a minority Shiite sect—perhaps an unwise declaration to make, given Turkey’s overwhelming Sunni identity. More famously, he has lost eleven times against Erdogan in the last thirteen years and yet insists on remaining the head of the CHP despite criticism to the contrary. So bad is his reputation that anti-Erdogan celebrities, as well as young voters, staged “Please Kilicdaroglu. Don’t become a candidate” rallies. One man’s tattoo, “K.K. Don’t become a candidate,” went viral.
On the other hand, Erdogan’s supporters have repeatedly emphasized Erdogan’s charisma and qualities—aspects that make him a world-class leader who has dealt with principals such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Joe Biden.
This contrast impacted undecided voters’ views. Kilicdaroglu has given the impression of being an unconditionally pro-Western politician who is ready to fulfill everything Europe and the United States dictate. This doesn’t bode well with nationalist constituents who believe Washington and Brussels are the cause of Turkey’s problems, particularly regarding PKK terrorism.
The Disaster of the Century: The Twin Earthquakes
Having repeatedly lost to Erdogan, the opposition argued that “a major disaster or a war” would weaken him, precipitating a political regime change moment. Their wish came true when, in February, two major 7.6- and 7.4-magnitude earthquakes struck south-central Anatolia, leaving more than 50,000 dead and causing monumental havoc in eleven provinces. The calamity gave the opposition a chance to undermine Erdogan’s legacy and defeat him in the election.
The first round of elections proved otherwise. In all but one of the eleven earthquake-stricken provinces, Erdogan came out overwhelmingly on top. It turns out that the citizens in the earthquake zone have been convinced that only Erdogan can address the situation by providing financial assistance, rebuilding the cities, and compensating them for their losses. Opposition CHP supporters reacted to Erdogan’s overwhelming victory in the earthquake zone by openly displaying their regret that they had even helped victims. The mayor of the city of Tekirdag (a CHP member) went so far as to evict the quake victims from their temporary residences because they were from Kahraman Maras, where Erdogan received more than 60 percent of the votes. This created a public uproar, further jeopardizing the opposition’s election chances in the runoff.
Erdogan Has Already Won the Parliamentary Majority
The May 14 election gave Erdogan and his political coalition a clear majority (323/600) in the Turkish parliament. This makes a hypothetical Kilicdaroglu victory on May 28 less meaningful for the opposition as he would thus become a lame-duck president, discouraging NA supporters from going to polls. The Kurdish supporters of the Green Left Party are particularly prone to skipping the election day as their party has dropped from receiving 11 percent to 8 percent of the votes since the 2018 elections. Aware of this situation, the PKK’s upper echelon has repeatedly and publicly encouraged their supporters to go to the polls, further drawing the ire of Turkish nationalists.
Despite the country’s ongoing economic crisis, the majority of Turkish citizens have considered Kilicdaroglu’s courtship with the Green Left Party to be an existential threat to the republic, as the party is widely seen as the political extension of the PKK. This perhaps is the most significant reason why Kilicdaroglu lagged about 5 percent behind Erdogan in the first leg of the elections and will likely cost him the presidency. Kilicdaroglu’s attempts to appeal to the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, who was behind Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, only further hurt Kilicdaroglu’s chances.
Assembling five right-wing parties under the leftist CHP’s leadership to oust Erdogan was a daunting task and gave constituents the impression that the resulting dysfunctional coalition government would cost the country its relative stability—particularly given the already contentious climate among the coalition members.
The first round of election results jolted the Turkish opposition, and herald a major defeat in the runoff. An Erdogan victory will have serious repercussions not just for the Turkish opposition, but also likely lead to a more assertive foreign policy.