Erdogan Overcomes Opposition – and Economy – to Prevail in Presidential Runoff

It’s not the economy, stupid – not in Turkey, anyway, where appeals to passion have trumped pocketbook concerns, at least in this election season. The May 28 runoff presidential election ended roughly 52% to 48%, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan coming out on top over competitor Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP. The results were essentially as expected following the first round of the election, in which Erdogan missed by just a sliver of winning an outright majority. To parry a near-ruinous economy, diminished freedoms, and widespread criticism of his government’s role in the tragic consequences of the February 6 earthquakes, Erdogan relied on:

  • The undying loyalty of Turkey’s sizable religious community, to whom he has brought equal rights, prestige, and a significant measure of prosperity.
  • A nationalist-populist appeal that sought to link his moderate left opponent, Kilicdaroglu, to both Kurdish terrorism and the despised West as well as, almost unfathomably, the LGBTQ+ community.
  • A more positive nationalist appeal based on Turkey’s enhanced diplomatic profile and expansion of its domestic military-industrial sector.
  • Largesse from the state treasury, including multiple increases in the minimum wage and reduction of the retirement age, among other government-bestowed benefits. To mark the extraction of natural gas from a 2020 find in the Black Sea, Erdogan promised every household limitless use of natural gas for one month; the bills indicating “nothing due” arrived just before the election.

Of course, as widely reported, the election took place in the context of a campaign in which the opposition was effectively blocked from significant access to electronic and print media and in which many Erdogan opponents – including hundreds, if not thousands, of leaders and activists from a pro-Kurdish party (the Green Left Party, or YSP, formerly the People’s Democracy Party, or HDP) that backed Kilicdaroglu – were behind bars for nonviolent advocacy.

Polarization Persists

This was Erdogan’s sixth consecutive election to the leadership of the country – three times as prime minister under the previous, parliamentary regime and now three times as president, the last two under a “strengthened presidency” system formalized in 2018. And, in all three presidential contests, he won by virtually the same 52% total. In 2014 and 2018, he won against multiple candidates in the first round by 51.7% and 52.6%, respectively; in 2023, he was held to 49.5% against multiple candidates (although mainly Kilicdaroglu) in the first round but scored 52.1% going mano a mano with Kilicdaroglu on May 28.

Arguably, all three of Erdogan’s presidential elections were widely seen in Turkey as referendums on Erdogan. He has not been able to expand his appeal (though merely holding onto his support in the face of rampant inflation largely of his own making is remarkable); nor have his opponents been able to expand the anti-Erdogan “party.” This time almost the entire opposition united around Kilicdaroglu; in the end, however, the final result looked similar to those in the past.

Cleavages in Turkey remain stubbornly real – economic, social, ideological, ethnic, and religious. Erdogan deepens those cleavages by playing on them, fostering an “us against them” mentality, mainly directed at secular, Western-oriented Turks – the products of “the Ataturk revolution” – whose values previously ruled Turkey. Erdogan extols religious, working-class, Sunni Turks and praises the Ottoman heroes they venerate.

This produces what is often described as “identity politics.” However it is labeled, there clearly is little love lost between the camp that supports Erdogan and that which opposes him – and not much movement of voters between the two camps.

In his victory speech, Erdogan was anything but magnanimous. He gave lip service to wanting to serve “all 85 million Turks”; however, he also spoke scornfully of Kilicdaroglu, chiding him about his defeat and dismissing his backers as “LGBTQ supporters” who spurn Turkey’s mainstream values.

For his part, Kilicdaroglu also shunned the role of gracious loser. He neither congratulated Erdogan nor explicitly conceded defeat, although he did not contest the final results. He called the election “the most unfair in recent years” and promised to continue to lead the fight against “this oppressive system.” His junior coalition partner Meral Aksener, head of the IYI, or Good, Party, did congratulate Erdogan but only while also expressing hope that his greed would “not blind his vision once again.”

Kilicdaroglu’s Failure

Kilicdaroglu lost a desperate, “deal with the devil” gamble to make up a 4.5-percentage-point first-round gap with Erdogan. Following the first round, Kilicdaroglu received the backing of an ultra-nationalist ethnic Turkish party, the Victory Party (VP), which had won slightly more than 2% of the parliamentary vote. In exchange, he agreed to toughen his policies on removing Syrian refugees from Turkey and on removing from office elected Kurdish mayors convicted of association with terrorism related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Using particularly the refugee issue, Kilicdaroglu also vastly toughened his campaign tone, projecting an anger that stood in sharp contrast to the positive, inclusive tone of the first round, with its optimism and finger-formed hearts as central motifs.

Kilicdaroglu’s bet was that he would pick up more votes from a Turkish public fed up with the presence of 4 million Syrian refugees than he would lose from Kurdish voters alienated by his new alignment with the VP. His gap with Erdogan did shrink slightly compared with the first round, from 2.5 million to 2.2 million. However, in an election in which overall voter participation declined (compared with the first round), Kurdish participation appears to have diminished significantly more than the national average.

CHP’s Difficult Choices

Kilicdaroglu’s CHP faces a number of difficult decisions. First, will the Nation Alliance – led by the center-left CHP in partnership with the nationalist IYI Party and four smaller parties – endure in the wake of defeat? An IYI Party congress in late June may go a long way toward determining that. IYI leader Aksener was vocal, but late, in her opposition to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy in early March and never seemed truly at ease in her support of his campaign.

Second, who will lead the party? Those who expected the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu to resign after the election instead heard someone who sounds like he expects to continue to lead both the party and, more generally, the opposition to Erdogan.

Third, crucially, what will be the future relationship of the CHP – and, if it endures, the Nation Alliance – with the Kurdish movement and YSP? In 2019 countrywide local elections, unofficial cooperation with the YSP (then the HDP) helped produce CHP victories in several large cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, and Kurdish voters were seen as kingmakers. During that campaign, cooperation between the CHP and HDP was widely assumed but never publicly acknowledged by either party.

This year’s presidential election, however, was different. The YSP, rather than run its own presidential candidate, openly endorsed Kilicdaroglu – an unprecedented decision by a pro-Kurdish party on behalf of a mainstream Turkish party candidate. That created a new dynamic. Many, if not most, Turks see the YSP as something like the civilian face of the PKK – Sinn Fein to the PKK’s Irish Republican Army. The fact that the YSP – and, for that matter, some PKK officials – publicly endorsed Kilicdaroglu gave Erdogan the opening he needed for demagoguery, spurring him repeatedly to denounce Kilicdaroglu as one who supports terrorists, takes his orders from terrorists, etc. This became one of his primary campaign themes.

CHP leaders now must ponder the impact the relationship with the YSP had on the 2023 election and the impact it is likely to have in the future. Some in the CHP, which has its own ethnic Turkish nationalist faction, may conclude that cooperation with the Kurds was a mistake altogether: Kilicdaroglu took a rhetorical beating from Erdogan for his YSP support, yet many Kurds did not even show up at the polls, they may argue. Many in the YSP, too, may question the value of an alliance with a CHP that barely spoke of the Kurdish issue during the campaign, other than to say that it should be “solved in Parliament.”

Foreign Policy: A Look Ahead

Erdogan’s 2023 campaign was his most anti-Western and anti-United States ever. Erdogan is unpredictable, but, if the campaign is any guide, it seems likely that Turkey will continue to tighten its ties with Russia and prove disruptive in the Western alliance.

In a recent CNN International interview, Erdogan praised his “special relationship” with Putin. At another point in the campaign, he rebuked Kilicdaroglu for criticizing Russia, reminding him that “relations with Russia are no less important than those with the United States.”

Meanwhile, regarding the bilateral issue currently of greatest importance to the U.S. administration, it is unclear whether Turkey will ratify Sweden’s NATO bid before the July 11-12 NATO summit in Vilnius. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. made a congratulatory phone call to Erdogan on May 29. Afterward, he said he raised the Sweden/NATO issue with Erdogan and that the Turkish president, in turn, reiterated Turkey’s desire to purchase F-16s from the United States. Some people see a potential trade-off in the making. Ankara has previously insisted the two issues are not linked, but, with a new context – Turkish elections in the rearview mirror – perhaps a deal will become possible. The issue remains complicated because of congressional considerations, Erdogan’s previous extreme demands of Sweden, and possibly the views of Erdogan’s junior alliance partner, the hard-nationalist Nationalist Action Party, or MHP.

Foreign Policy Autonomy?

Erdogan boasts of having made Turkey a more independent power, but Turkey’s financial situation suggests that it is far from independent. With its foreign exchange coffers virtually empty, Erdogan has acknowledged that unnamed Gulf states have provided emergency backing in the recent past. It is presumed that Qatar is one of those states, and some weeks ago Saudi Arabia announced a $5 billion transfer to Turkey. Russia deferred natural gas payments and reportedly provided significant additional aid as well. On the other hand, the European Union and United States absorb the majority of Turkish exports and provide the majority of its foreign direct investment, although the Gulf has become more active in the latter regard.

The Turkish economy will likely travel a rocky road in the months ahead. The Turkish lira has lost 90% of its value against the dollar over the past decade. On May 29, the day after the election, it fell to its lowest level ever, 20.1 to the dollar. It is unlikely that the Gulf and Russia would or even can keep it afloat indefinitely. Turkey still needs its commerce with the West, and that may impose a certain pragmatism on Erdogan’s foreign policy in the months ahead, whatever his anti-Western resentments.

For the most part, Erdogan probably will not seek to create new regional storms in the near term. Calm is what seems to be desired by the Turkish people, Turkey’s potential investors, and Turkey’s Gulf friends and benefactors.

Politics Ahead

In a country where politics almost never stops, the next campaign is already almost upon Turkey: Countrywide local elections are scheduled for March 2024. Erdogan will want to recover the mayoralties he lost to the CHP in Istanbul and Ankara and perhaps flip a couple of other major cities that the CHP took from his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2019; should he succeed in all that, the opposition would have almost no prominent perch left in Turkish politics from which to address the country. Meanwhile, the likelihood is that Erdogan and the Parliament, in which his alliance holds a clear majority, will stay in office a full five-year term. Under Turkey’s presidential regime, it takes a 60% vote of Parliament or a simple presidential decision to declare new elections; neither seems likely.

The elephant in the room will remain inflation and Turkey’s overall economic turmoil. Erdogan has proved he can win a national election without a successful economy. But he may not be able to win back Istanbul and Ankara without it. And he knows he will not be able to begin to realize his vision of Turkish greatness – a “Turkish century,” as his campaign slogan had it – without achieving economic greatness as well.

Originally published in Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.