To lose or not to win… On the Turkish election

D. Tekingunduz

Summary: Critique of the opposition coalition’s right-opportunism and failure to mobilize the voters – Editors

Presidential elections are held every five years in Turkey, which was previously governed by a parliamentary system and has moved to a presidential system since the 2017 referendum. In this system, it is sufficient that the political parties’ leaders fulfill the conditions specified in the constitution in order to be candidates for the presidency. Elections are held democratically and the first candidate to reach 50% of the votes is accepted as President of the Republic of Turkey. The 50% vote limit shows us how important even a single vote is. The people in Turkey have this awareness, and voter participation in the 2023 elections had a very high rate of 88.92%.

As expected, the presence of more than one party leader in the presidential race makes it difficult for any of the candidates to reach 50% of the vote in the first round. That is why parties often resort to coalitions. As it is known, the ruling party’s (The Justice and Development Party/ AKP) alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) over the past five years has allowed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to retain his presidency for the last two terms. In addition, many laws that have caused controversy in part of society have been passed in parliament thanks to this alliance.

A similar alliance attempt in the 2023 elections was attempted by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.  This new alliance called “The Table of Prophet Abraham”, “Nation Alliance” or “The Table of Six”, consisted of six different parties. This alliance included the main opposition party CHP, which represents the center-left and was founded by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, alongside five other parties representing the center-right and the conservative view. Among these parties, the IYI party (IYIP) attracts attention in particular with its racist speeches. The chairman of the Future Party (GP), which tries to sway right-wing and religious voters with conservative rhetoric, is Ahmet Davutoğlu, the former Prime Minister of the AKP. The leader of the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), another member of the alliance, is former AKP economy minister Ali Babacan. In addition, the Felicity Party (SP) has long provoked reactions by supporting the abolition of the Istanbul Convention, which holds an important place in the prevention of violence against women. Lastly, the Democratic Party (DP) is another center-right party that was in power in the 1950s and does not have an effect today.

After this complex alliance, the election campaigns of the opposition parties were done through the discourse of unity and solidarity. Against Erdogan’s deliberately polarizing policies in Turkey for many years, talking about a unifying and progressive political style that embraces all points of view was an approach desired by Turkish voters, and it was full of hope. Especially after the Kahramanmaraş earthquakes, the bad policies pursued by the government one after another, and its constantly scolding and humiliating style, provoked reactions. This situation gave more meaning to the opposition’s rhetoric of unity and solidarity. The election campaign, which was led by the alliance parties with the slogan “Promise to You”, promised to destroy this divisive language. Moreover, this promise was presented as a guarantee of a return to the increasingly lost ideals of justice, merit, freedom, and the right to life.

In that way, ‘The Table of Six’ drew an inclusive and welcoming image and pointed out the fact that Turkey could only get rid of the chaos in which it found itself with unity and solidarity. The main opposition party, the CHP, continued to present an alliance system called “The Table of Prophet Abraham” as a unifying attitude that welcomes many different viewpoints. Therefore, despite all contradictions, this attitude was seen as a desired Turkish policy and was supported by the public.

However, the alliance parties’ rhetoric about truth, law, justice, and a better Turkey lost its meaning during the presidential candidacy debates. Discussions over who would be the alliance’s presidential candidate had turned into a race for positions and conflicts of interest. After Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy was announced, IYIP leader Meral Akşener had an unexpected reaction and left the alliance. This situation crushed the people’s hopes and beliefs. The insulting statements, bargaining, and concessions that continued thereafter transformed the Table of Six from a union of solidarity into a union of interests. The desire to awaken to a better Turkey lagged behind the desire to ascend to a higher office.

Nevertheless, Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy was officially announced amidst all these discussions. Akşener accepted Kılıçdaroğlu’s presidential candidacy on the condition that he be granted the post of Prime Minister upon the return of the parliamentary system. Leaders of other parties in the alliance supported Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy and had taken promised to be vice president. Therefore, Kılıçdaroğlu granted broad privileges to right-wing conservative parties and ignored many tenets of left-wing ideology. Moreover, since this negotiation was open to the public, it overshadowed the earthquake disaster that was the main agenda in Turkey. This political game, which was attempted when people’s suffering was still fresh, turned into a big mistake and the reactions snowballed. This political game, which was planned to gain the votes of the conservative and nationalist people, who are the majority of the voters in Turkey, resulted in a big political failure for the CHP. Starting the presidential race with 350 deputies, the CHP handed 33 deputies to the other parties of the alliance end of the election. Moreover, in a recent statement, it was revealed that the Victory Party (ZP) leader Ümit Özdağ, who is known for his racist and fascist rhetoric and uses threatening expressions towards immigrants, was offered the Ministry of Internal Affairs if he supported Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round.

This protocol with Özdağ was hidden from the public for a long time. It seems that the main reason for this hiding was the possibility that the Kurdish people, who represent 13% of the electorate in Turkey, might protest the elections by not supporting this agreement. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is supported mainly by Kurds and many minority groups, did not field an independent candidate in the elections, citing the ongoing closure case and the imprisonment of its leader. Of course, it couldn’t participate in an alliance that included many right-wing and conservative parties. Nevertheless, the HDP had frequently stated that they continue to support Kılıçdaroğlu and that Turkey must overcome the hopeless situation it is in. The election results supported this rhetoric and the participation of Kurdish voters, the majority in the east and southeast of Turkey, was very high. In cities such as Diyarbakır, Şırnak, and Hakkari, Kılıçdaroğlu reached 70% of the vote. Unfortunately, in exchange for this support, Kılıçdaroğlu saw fit to offer the interior ministry to Özdağ, who has made direct hate speech against migrants, Kurds, and minority peoples living in Turkey.

Of course, the reason for losing the election was not just political games. Another important reason was the deception of enthusiasm felt in major developed cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir during the election process. Economic depression, high inflation, corruption, and incompetence, which have been increasingly felt over the past ten years in Turkey, have turned into an unstoppable crisis in major cities. This crisis, which affects social life in a very negative way, not only reduces people’s quality of life but also exhausts them spiritually. For this reason, the economic promises made by Kılıçdaroğlu during the election were of great importance to the inhabitants of large cities. On the other hand, it’s known that this crisis is not felt with the same intensity in more rural areas, in Anatolia. Moreover, the Anatolian region has been considered the stronghold of the AKP government for 20 years. This region, made up mostly of people with nationalist, religious, and conservative ideas, also constitutes the majority of the electorate in Turkey. Therefore, it was very important for Kılıçdaroğlu’s promises to reach the people of this region to influence their ideas. Another important reason for the loss of the election was that the opinion polls, electoral data, and electoral propaganda carried out by the main opposition party throughout the electoral process were directed toward the major cities, not the Anatolian people. The belief that alliance with right-wing conservative parties would be enough to convince the people of Anatolia was not enough to accept Kılıçdaroğlu as an alternative to Erdoğan. Indeed, the fact that the elections took place in the second round created a shock effect on the CHP. The other parties in the alliance were quite satisfied with their broad concessions and did not need any explanation of the election results. And the process showed us that the main leader of the opposition had not prepared a plan B. In the end, Erdoğan was not the only winner of the election with 52% of the vote, but it was also a victory for the right-conservative movement.

It is very difficult to find solidarity between such different points of view and incompatibility. As a result, Kılıçdaroğlu was unable to achieve the unity he claimed to have sought since the beginning. The CHP lost the election because it could not read the wishes and needs of society correctly. And because it puts individual interests above everything else, it also lost its ideological principles. Instead of turning a blind eye to years of fascist, racist, marginalizing, and divisive discourse in the name of unity, what we needed was to take a stand and fight against it.


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