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Turkish election could spell end to Erdogan era

The powerful president has been looking uncharacteristically frail — physically and politically — days ahead of the May contest.

Reporting | Middle East

The banner behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu reads “This We Promise You, Spring Will Be Here Again” in his most recent TV ad. It is a well-known lyric to a popular Turkish song from the 1990s. It is also the main campaign slogan for the Nation’s Alliance, the six-party opposition coalition spearheaded by Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

The opposition’s unity candidate in Turkey’s upcoming May 14 presidential election promises a clean break from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 21-year rule. In what is most certainly an uphill battle, Kilicdaroglu might just be a few weeks away from delivering spring to the Turkish people. 

The stakes are truly historic in this Turkish election. The incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is facing his toughest political challenge since 2019, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost local election bids to opposition candidates in Turkey’s two largest cities, which had been AKP strongholds for the preceding two decades. Today, allegations of rampant corruption and nepotism, skyrocketing inflation, soaring unemployment, and an unmitigated refugee crisis at home make it near impossible for candidate Erdogan to champion a convincing narrative of change. 

In fact, his campaign offers low-key promises of more of the same: “Onward with the right steps,” an uninspiring AKP billboard announces as folks line up to get subsidized bread. A health scare last week further cast shadows on Erdogan’s fitness for office, when he briefly suspended his election campaign due to a stomach flu after he fell ill during a live television interview. He looked frail as he went on the podium a few days later to speak to his supporters. The man, arguably the best campaigner in Turkey’s modern history, still looks uncharacteristically out of shape in this pivotal election season. 

Meanwhile, this is perhaps the opposition coalition’s best chance yet to replace a highly corrupt regime that has eroded Turkey’s democracy, economy, and social fabric in the last two decades. Kemal Kilicdaroglu campaigns on a platform of change. He pledges to establish the rule of law, rebuild Turkey’s economy, slash inflation and unemployment, and dismantle nepotist and corrupt practices in government, while introducing greater checks and balances through strengthening the parliament. Most importantly, he is promising a less polarized, more peaceful society that can celebrate its cultural diversity rather than vilifying it. 

In contrast with Erdogan’s aggressive and divisive rhetoric, Kilicdaroglu comes across as a sincere and soft-spoken man with good intentions. And in response to those who might think these qualities may serve against his bid to become the most powerful person in Turkey, he is joined on the campaign trail by the country’s two most popular politicians after Erdogan himself. Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the two firecracker politicians who snatched Istanbul and Ankara away from AKP in 2019, now campaign with Kilicdaroglu and are set to become vice presidents if he wins. 

Kilicdaroglu came into the spotlight in the early 2000s as an uncharismatic technocrat who would expose corrupt AKP officials on live television debates. His first trophy was a man called Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, an AKP heavyweight, who was ousted from the party’s leadership shortly after one of Kilicdaroglu’s exposés in 2008. These debate performances, along with a sex tape scandal that led to the resignation of his predecessor Deniz Baykal, catapulted Kilicdaroglu to CHP leadership in 2010 and to mainstream politics since. 

This has not been an easy ride for him, however. In fact, he has long been a divisive figure among Turkey’s opposition voters. His party’s repeated disappointments at the ballot box over the years and major strategic blunders such as supporting the government’s 2016 bill to remove parliamentary immunity accrued bad marks on Kilicdaroglu’s political acumen. Indeed, his candidacy for president received quite the backlash earlier this year from many who highlighted these episodes to raise concerns about his electability. 

The tide turned in favor of Kilicdaroglu’s presidential bid only in the past couple of months. After facing intense pressure from one of his Nation’s Alliance partners, Iyi Party (Good Party) leader and veteran politician Meral Aksener, Kilicdaroglu agreed to add Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas on the ticket as his vice-presidential candidates and amplify his campaign. Both current mayors come from a center-right political tradition, the center of gravity in Turkish politics, while emphasizing their aspirations to bring back the rule of law, respect for rights and liberties, and a renewed commitment to social justice.

These messages resonate strongly not just with opposition voters but quite possibly with many of Turkey’s undecided voters, who make about 10 percent of the country’s electorate and will determine the outcome on May 14. With these two men on his side, Kilicdaroglu is now closer than ever to realistically unseating Erdogan. Many polls show him tied with Erdogan at 44 percent, and some others even show him slightly ahead.

To be clear, none of this suggests that the election is a done deal for the opposition. As many analysts have argued for years, Turkey’s competitive authoritarian practices create a highly skewed playing field in favor of Erdogan and his government. Well-known intimidation tactics — ranging from arbitrarily detaining ordinary citizens as well as popular figures for criticizing the government, to banning television shows and charging networks astronomical tax fines — are just some of the ways in which the regime muzzles free speech and the media. 

In 2017, Turkey’s Higher Election Board, the top office that organizes and oversees the country’s elections, decided on election day that ballots without its stamp — an indicator of ballot authenticity — would still be counted, practically green-lighting fraud. Several AKP officials, including President Erdogan and his interior minister Suleyman Soylu, have adopted a dangerous tone in the last few days, arguing that the upcoming election is a coup attempt orchestrated by the West or that voting for Kilicdaroglu would mean voting for Kurdish terrorism

The latter is a nod to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, which declared its support for Kilicdaroglu. Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former co-leader of HDP, had famously retorted “We won’t make you president” to Erdogan back in 2015 before he was arrested on terrorism charges in 2016. Today, Demirtas continues to connect with his supporters from his prison cell. He frequently tweets messages of hope and has recently expressed his open support for Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy. 

But this doesn’t mean that Turkish elections are farcical either. The local elections in 2019 showed that the AKP can lose at the ballot box despite all the hurdles it may plant in the opposition’s way. When the Higher Election Board decided to re-run the election in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, who had beat AKP’s Binali Yildirim the first time by a margin of less than 14,000 votes, beat him again at the repeat election by a margin of 800,000. The opposition’s victories in 2019 showed that elections still matter in Turkey and that Turkish voters care about their ballots enough to thwart any attempts to steal.

Undoing Erdogan’s rule is nothing short of a Herculean task. But it is not impossible. Springtime might just be upon Turkey. 

People walk past a campaign vehicle carrying a picture of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and a slogan that reads "Turkey century is starting. Istanbul is ready" ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul, Turkey, May 2, 2023. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Reporting | Middle East
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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