Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was almost labeled an underdog before the first round of elections earlier this month, but his unexpected success has reshuffled the cards and reduced the chances of a turnaround. Erdogan, Turkey's strongman for the past two decades, has been riding a wave of religious nationalism that evaded early polls to come within touching distance of victory two weeks ago.
His opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroğlu, the leader of the secular opposition, believed predictions that he might yet oust Erdogan in the first round given the frustration of many Turks with his economic situation and authoritarian rule.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prays at the mausoleum of the late Prime Minister Adnan Menderes in Istanbul, May 27, 2023 (Photo: Reuters)
Erdogan's opponents have rightly accused the regime of playing unfair games in light of the president's unrelentingly sympathetic coverage in the government-controlled official media. Kilicdaroğlu, on the other hand, got zero screen time and turned to social networks, which are also under the supervision of the authorities.
These inferior opening conditions, however, are not enough to explain the gap between the opposition's expectations and reality. It failed to persuade Erdogan's loyal voters to convert their criticism of the leader to another ballot. In the end, they chose the familiar over the unknown.
Another significant factor in the first round was the votes of the nationalists, who propelled the unknown candidate Sinan Owen to third place. He garnered more than 5% of the vote, which was critical for Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu to win. While Kılıçdaroğlu's campaign until the first round was characterized by gestures of appeasement and a promise to return Turkey to the bosom of the West, he has since changed his tune and focused on Turkey's most pressing issue – the millions of refugees from Syria and countries in the region that are weighing on the country's economy.
Kemal Kilicdaroğlu, the opposition candidate in Turkey's presidential election, is photographed with a child at an event in Ankara ahead of the elections, May 27, 2023 (Photo: Reuters)
Although the third-place candidate — supported by two and a half million voters — announced that he would support Erdogan, not the entire nationalist camp rallied behind the president. A smaller nationalist party, which received 1.2 million votes in the first round, announced that it would support Kilicdaroglu in the decisive round.
Kilicdaroğlu, who has promised to expel millions of Syrians who have settled in Turkey since the war began if he wins the election, needs about two and a half million votes to beat Erdogan. Many see this as an impossible task, but the opposition candidate is not giving up and has invested efforts to reach some eight million eligible voters who did not show up to the polls two weeks ago.
To circumvent Erdogan's overwhelming control of the mainstream media, Kilicdaroglu turned to a popular YouTube channel and spent hours answering viewers' questions. The broadcast reached at least 24 million views – more than a quarter of Turkey's total population.
Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a rally in Istanbul ahead of Turkey's presidential elections, May 27, 2023 (Photo: Reuters)
"Being on BaBaLa TV affects a lot of young voters who didn't vote in the first round," said an opposition activist from the Good Party, Turkey's only party led by a woman.
Erdogan, for his part, used the Kurdish minority to bash his opponent. He accused him of supporting "terrorist organizations" in light of the backing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Party, the third-largest faction in parliament. The party denies being linked to the Kurdish underground PKK, but faces dissolution by courts staffed with pro-government judges.
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