Erdoğan poll lead prompts soul-searching for Turkey’s opposition

Flush with confidence that victory against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was finally within reach, Turkey’s main opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called on voters to “finish it” in the first round.

But rather than ending Erdoğan’s two-decade long rule, the tally from Sunday’s presidential election has triggered soul searching in the opposition’s camp — with the second round vote only two weeks away.

While the opposition looks likely to have denied Erdoğan a first-round victory, the outcome still presents Kılıçdaroğlu with one of the worst-case scenarios ahead of an election that has been portrayed by both main candidates as a battle for Turkey’s future.

Erdoğan in the early hours of Monday could not resist crowing about his lead and poking fun at his rival Kılıçdaroğlu, whose campaign videos shot from his kitchen table had helped him surge in pre-election opinion polls.

“Some are in the kitchen,” Erdoğan boomed to a crowd of supporters. “We’re on the balcony.”

Turkey’s opposition parties have a history of overestimating popular support against Erdoğan. But Kılıçdaroğlu’s six-party alliance had come into Sunday’s vote with wind in its sails after respected polling surveys indicated he could take half the vote.

But with nearly all the ballot boxes opened, it was actually Erdoğan who was within less than 1 percentage point of the 50 per cent mark needed to win outright, and Kılıçdaroğlu trailing with about 45 per cent.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses supporters at the AK Party headquarters after polls closed © Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

“For Kılıçdaroğlu, it’s going to be a bit of an uphill struggle [going forward],” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of the Teneo consultancy, adding that the 74-year-old opposition leader was “going to be on his back foot” as he campaigns against Erdoğan, 69, ahead of the second round election on May 28.

Erdoğan not only emerged in pole position in the presidential race, but is also set to deliver a win for his parliamentary alliance, with a coalition composed of his Justice and Development party (AKP) and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement party (MHP) poised to hold a majority.

Emre Erdoğan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said that “a run-off greatly complicates things for the opposition”. He said “the lack of a majority in parliament will work against Kiliçdaroğlu” since President Erdoğan will be able to argue voting for him will ensure stability in a country that has a long-held aversion to coalition governments.

The poll-defying performance underlined the enduring appeal of Erdoğan, and the resonance of his political offer to a base of conservative, pious voters with a strong nationalist bent.

Erdoğan also used his full apparatus of the state to knock his opposition off stride, doling out handouts such as public sector wage rises and a month of free gas for households in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s closely contested poll.

Opposition alliance presidential candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu arrives for a press conference in Ankara on Monday © Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

The opposition coalition had been brimming with energy after polls closed on Sunday evening, and was quick to accuse state media of “deceiving” the nation by allegedly reporting the results from Erdoğan strongholds first.

But Kılıçdaroğlu’s team had conceded by early Monday morning that Turkey was most likely set for a second-round contest.

Voter fatigue could now become a serious issue for the opposition. Ercan Erguzel, an analyst at Barclays in London, said: “Opposition voters may lose motivation following worse than expected results both on the parliamentary and presidential elections.” He added that the provisional results suggest Turkey’s “political landscape will remain roughly unchanged”.

Kılıçdaroğlu struggled to forge his six-party alliance, made up of groups with widely divergent views. He also faced serious challenges from within the opposition itself as to whether he was the right candidate to go up against Erdoğan given he had led the Republican People’s party (CHP), Turkey’s leading opposition party, for 13 years without clinching a victory on the national stage.

Meral Akşener, head of the İyi Parti which is the second-biggest group in the “table of six” alliance, publicly rejected his appointment as the coalition’s candidate in March, and only backed down once it was agreed that the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara would be made vice-presidential candidates. Now, some opposition supporters worry that the bond between the parties could fracture. 

The second-round election may come down to which candidate can hoover up the roughly 5 per cent of the vote that was won by Sinan Oğan, a third-party candidate who splintered from the MHP and ran for president under his own banner.

Oğan declined on Sunday to say who he would back in a run-off election, leaving a vacuum that both of the remaining candidates will rush to fill.

Supporters of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Party gather on election night in Istanbul © Dilara Senkaya/Reuters

“Turkish nationalists and Ataturkists will determine the second round’s outcome. I will absolutely not say which side we will support at this time,” Oğan said, making an allusion to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded Turkey as an ultra-secular state a century ago.

Oğan made demands that would be difficult for both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu to meet. His conditions, for example, included “saving Turkey from the nonsense that interest rates cause inflation” — an unconventional stance that is central to Erdoğan’s economic policies. Meanwhile, Oğan told Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper that he would only back Kılıçdaroğlu if he renounced the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) — a group that has backed the opposition leader in the presidential election.

Bilgi University’s Erdoğan said Oğan’s opposition to the HDP made it much harder for him to reach a deal with the opposition. “Kurds were a major factor in Kiliçdaroğlu’s performance, and he will still need them in the second round,” he said.

“Erdoğan is more likely than Kiliçdaroğlu to negotiate with Oğan. He’s the head of a rightwing alliance that can agree to Oğan’s demands and he has a history of very pragmatic dealmaking in order to win an election.”

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