Erdogan stuns Turkey, and the world, with another triumph

The president didn't win the election outright, but forcing a run-off in a difficult year speaks to his political endurance

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan outside the AK Party headquarters in Ankara on Sunday. AFP
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There was a moment, about 10 weeks ago, when Turkey’s opposition had time to reflect and consider its election strategy. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), had made clear to his six-party alliance that he hoped to be its presidential candidate and run against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, both CHP rising stars, had signalled their approval of Mr Kilicdaroglu, the party’s bland but hard-working chief for more than a decade. But the wily, headstrong Meral Aksener, head of the nationalist IYI Party, took a stand.

At an early March press conference, with IYI receiving an impressive 16 per cent support in new polls, she threatened to withdraw from the alliance, saying it was unable to even discuss potential candidates and instead sought to “rubber-stamp” its preferred choice. The opposition, Ms Aksener declared, “has lost its ability to reflect the will of the nation”.

This, understandably, sparked a firestorm. The opposition had splintered and could soon break down completely, Turkish media asserted, viewing Ms Aksener’s challenge as a boon for Mr Erdogan and his governing AKP’s alliance with the far-right MHP.

In reality, Ms Aksener’s challenge gave the opposition a golden opportunity to reassess the electoral landscape and change course. Then, suddenly, that chance was gone. Ms Aksener returned to the fold and Mr Kilicdaroglu was named the candidate before embarking upon a folksy, friendly, West-leaning campaign marked by one particularly viral homemade video.

Here Erdogan is again, if not yet sitting in the winner’s circle, certainly making a reservation

On Sunday, it all came crashing down. In the parliamentary election, the AKP-MHP alliance trounced the opposition. In the presidential election, Mr Erdogan, with 49.5 per cent of votes, topped Mr Kilicdaroglu by just over four points, setting up an unprecedented run-off scheduled for May 28.

These numbers upended most polls and prognostications, and suggest that Ms Aksener was right — the opposition’s choice does seem to have failed to reflect the will of the Turkish people. Meanwhile, western outlets, many of which had been hinting at an Erdogan exit, seemed unable to accept Turkey’s electoral reality.

Late into Monday morning, The New York Times’s lead report made no mention of the AKP’s parliamentary victory, which had been confirmed at 9.30pm New York time the night before, and instead highlighted a “nail-biter”. The Washington Post also ignored the parliamentary result in its main report and talked of a “tight race” on a “knife edge”. Similarly, the Financial Times highlighted how Mr Erdogan had “failed to get 50 per cent”. This is, of course, true. But few pre-election polls had Mr Erdogan getting a majority in the first round, so it’s also a bit of a straw man.

In contrast, a dozen pre-election polls put Mr Kilicdaroglu above or just under 50 per cent. And after Muharram Ince, a former CHP deputy who now leads the Homeland Party, pulled out of the race last week, some saw a clear path for Mr Kilicdaroglu to win in the first round.

Instead, Mr Erdogan extended his 22-year streak of not losing a national vote, again proving himself a singular political performer. Two years ago, I detailed his stunning resilience and wondered how he might bounce back from a politically debilitating economic crisis.

Last month, I expressed near-disbelief that, following Turkey’s devastating earthquakes and extended economic troubles, the race remained tight. Now here Mr Erdogan is again, if not yet sitting in the winner’s circle, certainly making a reservation.

Sure, the deck is stacked in his favour. This election may have been free – and with nearly 90 per cent turnout, impressively so — but the opposition could make a reasonable case that it was not exactly fair to them. Turkey’s media landscape is deeply government-friendly and being president gives Mr Erdogan the tools of the state and the ability to take credit for any significant achievements. And take credit he has done.

Also, late on Sunday night, Turkey’s opposition accused AKP-linked election observers of manipulating votes. There may well have been some chicanery, but it’s hard to imagine poll watchers being able to alter about two million votes (4 per cent to 5 per cent of the total cast).

Thus, this result is something of a stunner, and must be for the opposition a shocking disappointment. As the final results poured in, Mr Kilicdaroglu vowed to win in the second round, but it is hard to see that happening barring a tectonic shift.

He and Mr Erdogan will now vie for the votes of the third presidential candidate, Sinan Ogan, who took a surprising 5 per cent on Sunday. Mr Ogan heads the ultra-nationalist Ancestral Alliance, which includes Turkey’s most vocal nativist, Umit Ozdag, and his Victory Party.

Mr Kilicdaroglu has repeatedly vowed to send the bulk of Turkey’s three million Syrian refugees back home soon after taking office, so he does align with Mr Ozdag and Mr Ogan on their signature issue. Yet the one certainty about Mr Ogan’s 5 per cent is that those voters are deeply nationalist. Mr Kilicdaroglu may have many fine qualities — by all accounts sincere, competent, reliable, honest — but he does not seem to strike many Turks as a robust nationalist.

In a Monday interview, Mr Ogan said he would only back Mr Kilicdaroglu if he agreed to bar the pro-Kurdish HDP, a CHP ally, from parliament. That is not going to happen, which means the absolute best Mr Kilicdaroglu could do is to grab maybe half of Mr Ogan’s votes, which would still leave him shy of 50 per cent.

After the election, more than two thirds of Turkey’s 600-seat parliament is now controlled by right-wing parties. With the centennial looming in October, Turkish drones making their global mark and Turkey tapping into new sources of energy as it desperately seeks an economic lifeline, this feels like a nationalist moment for Turkey.

And lately, the man in the palace has been the most nationalist of all.

Published: May 15, 2023, 4:42 PM