A Kilicdaroglu defeat may mark the end of an era in Turkish politics

A new generation of progressive-minded leaders will rise if Erdogan wins the run-off election on Sunday

A billboard of Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul, on May 15. AP
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There’s something heartbreaking about the 11th-hour campaign makeover of Turkish opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu – as if a kindly owl has been told he must act like a vicious wolf.

Prior to the first round of voting on May 14, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) regularly shared folksy videos from his home office surrounded by books. Sitting professorially at an overloaded desk, he stressed democratic values, unity, even love, echoing the 2019 CHP campaign that led to major mayoral victories.

The heart-shaped hand gesture he flashed at his supporters became the defining symbol of his presidential push, and he seemed sincere as he offered personal revelations and talked of pluralism and openness, as in the Alevi video seen by more than 100 million people.

But in the past week, as Mr Kilicdaroglu has begun to vie for the 5 per cent of voters who backed ultranationalist Sinan Ogan in the first round, gone are the books, the desk, and the warmth. With a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey and the CHP, keeping watch over his shoulder, he stands straight, punctuates each point with his hands, and speaks with an urgency bordering on anger.

He said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the governing AKP welcomed 10 million Syrian refugees – which is about three times the real figure and the same total repeated by Mr Ogan and his nativist, far-right partner Umit Ozdag.

The likelier outcome of Sunday’s vote is a victory for the incumbent

He said that a vote for Mr Erdogan – who last week vowed to send a million Syrians back home – would open the door to 10 million more refugees. “This unruly flood of people flowing into our veins [would] threaten our survival,” Mr Kilicdaroglu warned. “Our women won’t be able to walk the streets.”

He linked Mr Erdogan to the outlawed religious group accused of plotting the 2016 failed coup and described AKP partner Huda Par, a Kurdish-Islamist party, as criminals. He even offered a commemoration for Sinan Ates, the recently assassinated former leader of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves, which is linked to the AKP’s far-right partner MHP.

Suddenly disguised in wolf’s clothing, Mr Kilicdaroglu’s shift has a whiff of desperation. Perhaps he hopes his populist pivot will draw much-needed support – a prominent Twitter astrologist recently explained how the stars are in Mr Kilicdaroglu’s favour.

But the likelier outcome of Sunday’s vote is a victory for the incumbent, particularly after Mr Ogan said yesterday that he is backing Mr Erdogan in the run-off. If that is indeed the result, these may well be Mr Kilicdaroglu’s last days on the national stage. If so, his legacy would be of a bland, hard-working party steward who mounted a sustained challenge to Turkey’s longest-reigning leader, but could never get over the hump.

Hope, for Turkey’s opposition, looks set to die with a whimper, possibly marking the end of an era. It went largely unremarked at the time, but May 14, the date of the first round, was also the date of Turkey’s first multi-party elections, back in 1950. Now the run-off is set for May 28 – the date that marks the start, 10 years ago, of the Gezi Park protests.

I lived in Istanbul at the time and regularly braved the tear gas to visit the vibrant, ad-hoc encampment hundreds of demonstrators had set up in the city’s central square. From there, a wave of dissent and disenchantment with the AKP spread like wildfire, spurring about 3 million Turks across the country to take to the streets.

Turkish authorities soon cleared Gezi Park and quelled the protests, but in the months and years that followed Gezi inspired new political parties, urban movements, and activist outfits, and came to shape the opposition’s political strategy.

Turkey is set to hold local elections next year, but those are focused on cities and have little impact on the national government. We might soon look back and say that the Gezi era lasted a decade, bookended by that initial protest wave and this run-off, the apparent capstone to Mr Erdogan’s singular political journey. I've already heard from some CHP-voting friends in Turkey who are now thinking of leaving the country.

This would not mark a new trend: news outlets have been reporting on a Turkish brain drain for years, prompted by economic hardship, few opportunities, and curbs on free speech. But the trickle seems to be building into a steady stream.

The number of Turkish citizens looking to cross into the US over the Mexican border, for instance, has increased more than two-thirds since January. Given the lingering economic crisis, says Imdat Oner, an analyst at the US-based Jack D Gordon Institute for Public Policy, “the number of Turkish people immigrating to the West isn't going to slow down”.

It's hard to know how this might affect Turkey, but it seems clear that the next major challenge mounted by Turkey’s progressive-minded opposition will be led by a new generation of leaders, such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul CHP chief Canan Kaftancioglu, and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas.

Mr Imamoglu, who is currently against appealing a two-year jail sentence and political ban for insulting Turkey’s top election board, may have given us an early glimpse of the future last week. Appearing on a TV news panel, he recounted how a group of 4th graders had recently asked him whether he's a terrorist, then used their query to argue that the government had created a fearful people.

It seemed just the sort of astute political manoeuvring Mr Kilicdaroglu has lacked. In response to Mr Imamoglu’s appearance, political analyst Selim Sazak said he felt that sooner or later the Istanbul mayor would be positioned to “determine the fate of this country".

The AKP may have this same concern. Last week, Istanbul party spokesman Murat Turkyilmaz said he had an expanded file on Mr Imamoglu, who "would be dealt with" after the election. The AKP's leader, meanwhile, is readying major plans for a possible new term, including a huge celebration of the republic’s centennial in October and an overhaul of the Turkish constitution.

Asked during a CNN interview aired on Friday if his vision for Turkey’s constitution included a change that would allow him to remain president for another decade, Mr Erdogan responded, with a grin, that this process would end auspiciously.

Published: May 23, 2023, 4:00 AM