Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised many observers yet again by nearly winning the Turkish presidential election in Sunday’s first round, defying the polls putting opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu ahead. So the stage is set for the May 28 second round – but analysts say Kilicdaroglu’s route to victory is very narrow indeed.
Kilicdaroglu’s rallying cry in the final stretch said it all, as far as the campaign was concerned. After bringing together six divergent parties under his banner, having established himself as Erdogan’s antithesis in both style and substance, Kilicdaroglu told his supporters to “finish it” in the first round.
But Erdogan very nearly finished it, winning 49.51 percent of the vote, compared to 44.8 percent for Kilicdaroglu.
In light of that, the challenger’s message for the second round was markedly different, as he told his supporters on Twitter on Monday: “Do not fall into despair”.
The shrewd operator Erdogan has form when it comes to dashing the expectations of Turkey’s opposition. At the last presidential elections in 2018, Muharrem Ince ran an energetic campaign for Kilicdaroglu’s party, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), leading some Western observers to rate his chances of unseating Erdogan. But the president swept to victory in the first round.
Erdogan was ‘very skilful’
Even though Erdogan has been forced into a runoff, a similar dynamic played out this time – despite Kilicdaroglu’s polling lead, and despite the inflation and currency crisis racking Turkey for five years.
Erdogan’s appeal to his millions of supporters was not just based on the bounteous economic growth he oversaw in the first part of his rule in the 2000s. Erdogan owes much of his support to the many socially conservative Muslim voters in the Anatolian heartlands who see him as their champion in the culture wars that have characterised Turkish politics ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk broke the Ottoman Empire’s profound links between Islam and politics upon his creation of the Turkish nation-state in 1923.
During the first half of his rule, Erdogan also defined himself against the axiomatic nationalism of his Kemalist antagonists, notably by reaching out to Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. But Erdogan has also embraced nationalism since 2015, when the ceasefire with Kurdish militant group the PKK ended, and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) aligned itself with his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In these elections playing the nationalist card has gone swimmingly for Erdogan, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau.
“There was an assumption that Kilicdaroglu’s conciliatory politics would be a remedy for polarisation, but polarising tactics are a very strong force in Erdogan’s hands,” he put it.
In particular, Unluhisarcikli continued, Erdogan was “very skilful” when it came to “repeating over and over” the “baseless message” that Kilicdaroglu was “partnering with the PKK” and is a “puppet of the West”.
“The opposition ran a good campaign,” added Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. That said, he continued, “they couldn’t overcome Erdogan’s built-in advantages in controlling the media and state institutions and they couldn’t combat Erdogan’s effective use of nationalist rhetoric on terror”.
‘Not really realistic’
Indeed, Erdogan’s presidential power has been helpful during his re-election campaign, as the government controls 90 percent of the national media and has effectively curtailed the power of the independent press, seeing Turkey fall to 165 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index.
Erdogan has “built-in advantages” because of his “co-option of key institutions, the press, the electoral boards, the security services, the courts”, Eissenstat said. “This isn’t merely the advantages of incumbency; it is precisely why the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] described the first round of elections as ‘unfair.’”
All of these factors are still at play as Erdogan goes for the extra 0.49 percent of the vote he needs to clinch re-election.
“Kilicdaroglu’s team has good people running it, but they are facing a real uphill battle,” Eissenstat said. “Their base is demoralised, not only from the win, but also because of the irrational exuberance that they were voicing in advance of the May 14 election.”
Unluhisarcikli had a similar analysis: “Kilicdaroglu does have a path to victory on paper, but it’s not really realistic. Of course, Erdogan came just a fraction short of the votes he needs to win this election. And the first round had a very high participation rate, so there are not too many people out there who didn’t vote then who will vote in the second round.”
In theory, Kilicdaroglu has a route to victory that consists of winning over a huge majority of the voters who went for a third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who won a surprise 5.5 percent vote share in the first round.
Given the electoral arithmetic, it is evident that Kilicdaroglu needs those voters an awful lot more than Erdogan does – and Ogan wants to exact a steep price for any support he might give Kilicdaroglu, saying he must first cut his ties to the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). This pro-Kurdish party backed Kilicdaroglu – and Kurdish voters formed a major part of Kilicdaroglu’s electoral coalition.
“If Kilicdaroglu made a nationalist turn, that could make him lose Kurdish voters,” Unluhisarcikli said. “And getting Ogan on board would be no guarantee at all that this 5.5 percent of the vote would go along with him.”
‘Kilicdaroglu is not going to yield’
All that said, Kilicdaroglu looks determined to do his utmost to rally support ahead of the second round.
“Kilicdaroglu is not going to yield, and the second round will not just be a technical formality,” Unluhisarcikli said
He added that Kilicdaroglu will likely try to make use of Turkey’s cost-of-living crisis caused by rampant inflation, which experts blame on Erdogan’s belief – contrary to all economic evidence – that higher interest rates fuel price rises.
“Kilicdaroglu still has a few cards that he’s not yet played. One such card could be announcing the council of ministers he would appoint if elected; he could announce a new central bank governor and other people to run the economy – that could make a bit of a difference,” he said.
This story originally appeared on France24