by Ahmet Mehmet (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 4, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1444)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan retained the presidency in Turkiye for a third five-year term on May 28. He secured 52.07 percent of the vote to his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party’s 47.88 percent after 98.94 percent of the votes were counted.
Erdogan had already defied the odds by not losing in the first round on May 14. Heading into the second round, both candidates appealed to Turkish ultranationalists but Erdogan also presented a message of “inclusivity” and “positivity”. He assured voters that he was the most suitable candidate to pull Turkiye out of its current economic uncertainty even if he is largely responsible for creating it.
It is not clear whether it was Erdogan’s positive message or disarray in the opposition camp that saw the incumbent cross the 50 percent mark to secure a third term. In poor health, Erdogan, 69, may not run again, according to informed observers in Turkiye.
Crossing the 50 percent threshold was easier for Erdogan than his opponent. He had obtained 49.4 percent of the vote in the first round, just shy of the required 50.1 percent.
His opponent Kilicdaroglu had a much bigger hill to climb. He secured only 44.94 percent in the first round. This was a huge disappointment for him as well as his party. They had clearly swallowed the western propaganda that he would easily defeat Erdogan in the first round. Based on this erroneous assumption, Kilicdaroglu had no plan for the second round.
After overcoming the shock of the first-round loss, it took Kilicdaroglu more than four days to put together a team for the May 28 run-off. He brought in a new crew to manage his campaign.
It was interesting to note that neither candidate held campaign rallies during the two-week period leading to the second-round vote. Instead, they focussed on visiting places, especially the earthquake affected regions to promise support for rebuilding.
Erdogan had the advantage of incumbency. Both candidates courted the third-place candidate Sinan Ogan, an ultranationalist, who had surprisingly secured 5.17 percent of the vote in the first round. Election rules prohibit third-place candidates from the run-off race making it a two-way contest. His public support for either candidate could tip the balance in a tightly contested race.
For a week after the first round on May 14, Ogan was a much sought-out figure. While he could not be force those who voted for him to support the candidate he endorsed, it seems to have influenced enough of them to ensure Erdogan’s win.
Turkish opposition officials were hopeful that Ogan would throw his support behind Kilicdaroglu. They even predicted that he would make a public statement to this effect on May 19. However, after meeting Erdogan the same day, Ogan changed his mind. What did the AKP leader promise his late-entry ultranationalist ally? The next few weeks will tell.
In a televised press conference on May 22, Ogan said: “It is important for the country’s stability that the majority of the parliament and the president are from the same alliance.” He called on his supporters to vote for Erdogan.
Citing “stability” for his decision, he said that Kilicdaroglu’s six-party opposition alliance had failed to secure a parliamentary majority. This was a reference to the opposition six-party Nation’s Alliance that secured 213 seats in the 600-member Turkish parliament to Erdogan’s five-party People’s Alliance grabbing 322 seats, giving it a majority.
Ogan’s endorsement of Erdogan did not automatically translate into his alliance partners following suit.
Umit Ozdag, leader of the ultranationalist Victory Party—the dominant party within the electoral alliance—said Ogan’s endorsement did not reflect his views and that such statements were not binding on his party. Another tiny political party within the alliance also threw its support behind Kilicdaroglu.
After meeting a senior official of Erdogan’s AKP on May 22, Ozdag said there was a significant difference between his party and AKP’s position on the issue of refugees. “They are favoring voluntary and safe return of refugees,” he said. His party wanted to push for the forceful return of some four million refugees in the country. He came out openly in support of Kilicdaroglu on May 24, thereby antagonizing the latter’s Kurdish support base.
Sensing that most Turkish people are riled up by the presence of refugees, Kilicdaroglu became even more strident in his anti-refugee rhetoric. He promised to expel all refugees, as the campaign entered home stretch for the second round vote. Ultranationalism was on steroid.
“Erdogan, you did not protect the borders and honour of the country,” he said. “You have deliberately brought more than 10 million refugees to this country... as soon as I come to power, I will send all the refugees home.” The 10 million figure is a complete lie but that did not deter Kilicdaroglu from plastering major cities with posters that said: ‘Suriyeliler Gi-De-Cek!’ (Syrians will go back).
He even warned Turks of the alleged threat of refugees, saying they “could become a crime machine” if the Turkish lira continues to depreciate under Erdogan’s rule. Kilicdaroglu even resorted to crude propaganda, falsely accusing Syrian refugees of violating the honour of Turkish girls.
Despite the support of ultranationalist parties and his strident rhetoric, Kilicdaroglu was unable to defeat Erdogan in the second round. The 3.7 million Turks living abroad had already voted in large numbers from May 20–24, ahead of the polls in Turkey. Traditionally, Turks living abroad have favoured Erdogan.
With five more years in office, it will be interesting to see what Erdogan will do differently for Turkiye. He faces formidable challenges and given his poor health it will not be easy to solve these problems. The lurch toward ultranationalism is a worrying development.
Did the Turkish electorate for once consider the sentiments of non-Turkish people? The opposition candidate’s name—Kilicdaroglu—is a tongue-twister. It is pronounced ‘Kilich darolu’. In the Turkish language, the letter ‘g’ is silent. Why use it if is not pronounced? Non-Turks had just got used to pronouncing Erdogan’s name correctly (Erdo-aan!). Getting used to Kilicdaroglu would have been a really challenge!
A big ‘Thank you’ is due from non-Turks to their Turkish brothers and sisters for saving them from an embarrassing situation!