If Recep Tayyip Erdogan was rattled by the knife-edged nature of Turkey’s pivotal elections, with initial results suggesting that the president will be forced into a run-off for the first time, he did not show it when he addressed fervent supporters in the early hours of Monday morning.
Instead, as he took to the balcony of the headquarters of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, singing with the flag-waving crowds and delivering a fiery speech, he insisted he was in the lead and would seal victory – whether it meant the presidential race going to a second round or not.
His energy and confidence underscored the task facing an opposition that went into Sunday’s election brimming with optimism. While it landed a blow on its nemesis, it appears some distance from delivering the knockout punch against a relentless campaigner who has towered over Turkish politics for two decades.
Preventing the incumbent from securing an outright victory would be a first for the opposition, led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the Republican People’s party, which has never won a national election against Erdogan. But everything points to the momentum being in Erdogan’s favour. With 99 per cent of the ballot boxes counted, the incumbent has 49.4 per cent of the vote to Kilicdaroglu’s 45 per cent, according to state media.
The challenge facing Kilicdaroglu’s six-party opposition coalition is underscored by the fact that Erdogan’s ruling AKP, with its ultranationalist partner, is on course to secure a majority in parliament. That is expected to strengthen Erdogan’s hand in advance of any run-off – all when Turkey is reeling from a cost of living crisis that many blame on a president who is populist and divisive in equal measure.
To some, the results will have worrying echoes of 2018, when an opposition, galvanised in its mission to unseat Erdogan, confidently expected that economic woes would help it bring down the president, only to come a distant second on election day.
This battle will be entering uncharted territory if the race to secure the country’s all-powerful executive presidency does go to a second round, scheduled for May 28th. But Erdogan, who has orchestrated a dozen election victories since first leading his Islamist-rooted AKP to power in 2002, is clearly up for the fight.
Shortly after the charismatic strongman’s late-night balcony appearance, Kilicdaroglu (74), a softly-spoken retired bureaucrat, struck a defiant tone in a brief statement, saying he, too, was confident in securing victory in a run-off. But the setting was far more sober in an auditorium filled with empty seats. And he and his allies know they are competing on an unlevel playing field, with the government in control of much of the media and Erdogan unabashedly willing to deploy state resources to support his cause.
The surprise kingmaker could be Sinan Ogan, a third presidential candidate who unexpectedly garnered about 5 per cent of the vote. Ogan is a former member of the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement party, the AKP’s partner in parliament.
However, Kilicdaroglu’s efforts to lure his supporters could be complicated by Ogan’s loathing of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is backing his bid for the presidency.
Erdogan and his supporters will continue to insist, despite criticism of his economic management, that he is the only man with the experience to fix the ailing economy and rebuild after February’s devastating earthquake. The shrewd and pugnacious 69-year-old, who has served three times as prime minister and is seeking a third term as president, is likely to play on people’s fears of instability in a politically polarised nation.
During the campaign, his speeches were replete with diatribes against Kilicdaroglu, whom he accused of preparing to surrender to the IMF, being a “drunkard”, pro-LBGT and aligning with “terrorists”. More of the same can be expected.
Erdogan will also seek to exploit voters’ aversion to the fractious coalitions that governed in the decade before the AKP came to power. While the opposition has put on its most united front in its years-long bid to topple him, the coalition led by Kılıcdaroglu is made up of disparate parts from across the political spectrum.
Kılıcdaroglu will hammer away at the cost of living crisis, hoping it proves to be Erdogan’s Achilles heel, with soaring inflation above 40 per cent and the lira near record lows. But his challenge will be convincing wavering voters that the president is no longer representing their interests and that his coalition is stable and can deliver.
Even in opposition circles there have been doubts about whether Kilicdaroglu has the charisma to take on Turkey’s political master and questions over whether the coalition would have been wiser to select a younger candidate, notably Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s popular mayor. Depending on the final results, those doubts could resurface, particularly if the opposition’s confidence has been deflated.
There is no doubt Erdogan is in the fight of his political life. But once again he is proving to his critics that he should never be written off. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023