Widespread optimism about changes coming in the Turkish presidential elections gave way — yet again — to disappointment among the country’s opposition. Despite claims of electoral manipulation by opposition groups, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cruised to a comfortable second-round victory in the Turkish presidential elections for a third term in office. It is a familiar sight. Since the 2002 general elections, the AKP has not lost a single parliamentary or presidential election. AKP’s only notable electoral losses came in the 2019 mayoral races in Ankara and Istanbul.
This situation has led to frustration brewing within the opposition, and understandably so. Many public opinion polls leading up to the election showed Kılıçdaroğlu with a lead, in some cases headed to an outright first-round victory. Social media was awash with declarations that Erdoğan’s time was up and that it was the opposition’s moment. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at rallies, encouraging thoughts of a political turnaround for the opposition.
But the election was a sobering reminder of the dynamics of Turkish politics. Fraud allegations notwithstanding, President Erdoğan displayed his command of the Turkish political landscape; he understands how religious and ethnic fault lines shape the country’s politics and deploys these discourses when he needs to mobilize the electorate.
By comparison, the opposition showcased the same utter ineptitude that has plagued it for two decades. Its political discourse failed to resonate with those outside of its core base, its organization failed to mobilize the grassroots and instead relied on mass mobilization, and on election night it showcased a miserable combination of incompetence and weakness as it failed to combat alleged electoral manipulation.
The opposition is in a delusional state, continuing to believe that it is in the majority and righteous in its political battle against Erdoğan. It asserts that if not for electoral fraud, it would easily win elections. This sanctimonious attitude underlies the near-constant disconnect between the opposition and the majority of Turks. Likewise, the opposition’s focus on electoral fraud, in the absence of a systematic effort to hold accountable those responsible for it, misleads voters and deflects from the opposition’s own failures.
Unless and until the opposition makes a genuine effort to win over large segments of the electorate that prefer Erdoğan over other candidates, it has no hope of winning elections. Expecting a different outcome without changing its electoral strategy will never work.
Looking to the future, the opposition in Turkey needs to reflect on the recent elections and use them as a springboard to make real changes if it is serious about gaining electoral success against Erdoğan. Some observations and key takeaways from the 2023 elections:
The opposition did not perform better than in the last presidential election. Collectively, the opposition candidates received 47.5% of the votes in the first round of voting in 2018; Kılıçdaroğlu received 45% of the vote in the first round of the 2023 elections and 47.8% of the votes in the second round.
The socioeconomic conditions were favorable for the opposition. Consider the following:
- Inflation increased from around 10% per year to around 50% per year (with a stint above 80% in 2022);
- The Turkish lira’s value rose from 3.5 liras against the U.S. dollar to almost 20 liras/U.S. dollar between 2018 and 2023, losing more than 80% of its purchasing power;
- A 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the southern part of the country, leading to a death toll of more than 50,000 barely three months prior to the election.
The opposition lost the election under these circumstances. This is political malpractice.
Electoral fairness is a real issue, even if electoral fraud is not. Despite hinting at extensive fraud on election night, the opposition failed to produce tangible and systematic evidence of widespread electoral fraud. The real story is about the many limitations on electoral democracy experienced in Turkey for years. The race between President Erdoğan and the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was distinctly skewed in Erdoğan’s favor, with his AKP involved in:
- imprisonment of opposition politicians (including many Kurdish politicians) weeks before the election,
- monopolizing screen time on national television channels,
- changing electoral laws,
- blocking the path of Erdoğan’s main challenger (Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu) through a court case where İmamoğlu was found guilty for insulting a public official, and
- funneling state funds in service of the AKP campaign.
Despite loud acclamations of the success of Turkish democracy — there was at least a high level of competition — this election certainly failed on fairness grounds, which are vital to an electoral democracy.
Government suppression and lack of a free media. The façade of a competitive election cannot take away from the fact that the Erdoğan-led Turkish government suppresses opposition, represses dissent, and liberally uses the judicial system to ensure acquiescence. Importantly, Turkey lacks a free media; an overwhelming majority of the print and online publications and TV stations are either completely loyal to Erdoğan or avoid criticism of the government and its policies. The repressive media environment facilitates disinformation campaigns aimed at opposition parties and candidates, and creates an echo chamber of sorts, helping to convince significant blocs of voters that Erdoğan is the only viable candidate.
High voter turnout by itself is insufficient. Even for Turkey, where it is normal to have high levels of voter turnout, this election had historically high participation: 87% of the electorate voted. However, this did not yield the favorable outcome the opposition had hoped for in its calls for high turnout before the election. In the Turkish electorate, untapped pockets of voter blocs are hard to come by.
Grassroots mobilization is key. Grassroots mobilization is the key to winning elections. While the opposition in Turkey waged a robust social media and online campaign, it catered to an audience already attuned to its message, and failed to reach the segments of the population that could have made a difference. Besides the scarcity of unaligned voters, elevated levels of social and political polarization in contemporary Turkey mean social media-based voter mobilization efforts are mostly ineffective. Voter mobilization aimed solely at the opposition’s own base is doomed to fail, as we’ve seen time and time again in Turkey. Instead, the opposition must embrace grassroots mobilization that is based on canvassing and targeting the voters who are more likely to vote for the AKP. In an environment of gross disinformation, getting face time with voters is the only viable path forward for an opposition seeking electoral success.
Reform is needed in the main opposition party. The main opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), has failed to win an election since 1977. As well as a wholesale leadership change, it needs to seriously consider changing its name. Its historical association with Kemalist principles and the resulting repression of conservative and Kurdish communities have created a seemingly insurmountable barrier for the party. The electorate evaluates the CHP based on its historical legacy rather than its current policies.
The Turkish opposition is at a crossroads. It needs to decide between two stark choices. The opposition can choose that the challenge of defeating Erdoğan is a nearly impossible task, particularly in view of the common accusations of electoral manipulation by Erdoğan and the AKP. In that case, it can declare the elections a mere formality, withdraw from the electoral process, and stop giving the electorate false hope. Alternatively, the opposition can accept that the challenges posed by Erdoğan and the AKP are manageable; in this case, it must develop effective political strategies to have a real shot at defeating Erdoğan. As it stands, the Turkish opposition wants to have it both ways. On one hand, they want to convince the electorate that Erdoğan is beatable and it has a real chance; on the other hand, every time the opposition faces defeat (which is nearly every election), it is quick to blame electoral manipulation for the defeat. The opposition is unaccountable in Turkey, and that is a major problem for the country’s democracy.
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