By Hakan Yavuzyılmaz (Başkent University)
On May 28th Turkish voters once again headed to polls to cast their votes for runoff presidential elections. The results of the first round and results of the legislative elections significantly demoralized the opposition camp. Contrary to the expectations, People’s Alliance’s candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received 49.5% of the votes and finished the first round a head of the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who received 44.8%. Moreover, the opposition parties failed to secure a legislative majority against Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance. Within this context Turkey conducted its first presidential runoff elections on May 28th which resulted in a 3rd landslide for Erdoğan (Table 1).
Table 1. Results of the 2023 Presidential Elections
*Withdrew from the race
Although the heavily skewed electoral playing field to the benefit of People’s Alliance’s candidate negatively affected the prospects of opposition candidate’s success, there other important factors that are in play which led to another landslide for Erdoğan in the runoff elections.
A U-turn in campaign discourse of the opposition
During the campaign process Erdoğan heavily instrumentalized his control over the mainstream media to disseminate fake videos of the opposition candidate. More interestingly during the 15-day period between May 14th and runoff elections he admitted that the video he showed during the campaign rallies for the first round is fake. The results of the first round shows that Erdoğan’s campaign which heavily rested on securitization and demonization of the opposition on cultural and nationalistic lines worked effectively. Moreover, %5.2 received by Sinan Oğan, the candidate of ultra-nationalist Ata Alliance surprisingly revealed the prominence of nationalism for the runoff presidential elections. Against these dynamics, the Nation’s Alliance’s joint candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu significantly altered his campaign along nationalist themes such as ‘sending back the refugees’ and ‘fighting with terrorism’. Nevertheless, such a nationalistic U-turn came with a price and the price was decreasing turnout among Kurdish voters which pulled down opposition candidate’s vote share (Map 1).
Map 1. The rate of change in turnout between the first round and the runoff presidential elections
Dynamics of opposition coordination
The results of the general elections and runoff presidential elections show that opposition coordination in the form of pre-electoral alliance is not a sufficient condition for ousting incumbents through elections in competitive authoritarian regimes. Although the electoral playing field was heavily skewed to the benefit of People’s Alliance, this round of elections was the most challenging for Erdoğan due to the ongoing economic crisis and faltering government response to deadly earthquakes.
There were important factors that decreased the effectiveness of the opposition coordination which led to another landslide for the incumbent: (1) the decision-making structure of the opposition alliance gave significant weight to minor parties which lead to crisis between two largest alliance partners. Such a crisis not only led to the nomination of the least popular candidate for presidential race but also revealed the fragility of the opposition alliance in the eyes of the electorate. (2) The opposition alliance could not effectively prepared joint candidate lists which led to the loss of legislature majority for the opposition. In fact, instead of being a strategic move for increasing the number of opposition seats, the joint candidate lists was mostly used by CHP as a bargaining chip for gaining support from minor parties for the nomination of the party’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as presidential candidate. (2) The pre-electoral alliance did not reveal its cabinet and even its cadre. Instead, it designed a highly fragile decision-making mechanism which completely disregarded the asymmetry between the coalition partners. (3) Although the opposition succinctly engaged in positive campaigning, it could not effectively counter the demonizing campaign of People’s Alliance along ultra- nationalist and conservative lines. (4) While the results show an increase in votes for Kılıçdaroğlu, the quick nationalistic U-turn and bargaining with ultra-nationalist Victory Party led to voter defections in Eastern and South-eastern Provinces (Map 1). (5) Instead of being on the field and engage in door-to door canvassing, the opposition alliance significantly centered its campaign on social media and multiple rallies. Under severe polarization and significant partisan control over the media such a strategy failed to grasp undecided voters.
Where to go from here?
The outcome of 2023 elections reveal that Turkey will remain a competitive authoritarian regime. However, the results also shows that there is a strong societal democratic resilience in the country. There is a very narrow room for manoeuvre for Erdoğan to fix the economy and engage in effective reconstruction in the provinces which were hard hit by the earthquakes. Under these circumstances, it is highly probable that the government will toughen its stance on the opposition through maintaining the polarizing discourse and policies that will deepen the existing social cleavages (secular-İslamist, Kurdish-Turkish) in Turkey. Over the upcoming period, electoral defeat of the opposition will probably initiate intra-party debates which may lead to leadership change especially in the main opposition party CHP. The opposition needs to take necessary lessons from this defeat and moralize the disenchanted voters for the upcoming local elections on March 2024.
Photo source: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/28/turkey-presidential-election-results-3