Take two: Turkiye’s election circus gets even crazier

Ceyda Karan, The Cradle, May 26, 2023 —

The second round of Turkish presidential elections has drawn global attention for its increasingly bizarre alliances, outrageous propaganda, and personality politics. Ironically, not much is expected to change in its aftermath.

The political landscape in Turkiye has become increasingly convoluted after the 14 May presidential and parliamentary elections left the Turkish presidency up for grabs – with a critical, second round of polls to be held on Sunday.

As the main candidates who failed to secure the presidency in the first round prepare for the 28 May election, Turkiye’s patchwork system of political alliances has become more intricate, marked by polarizing debates on issues such as secularism, nationalism, Syrian refugees, and the Kurdish issue. In the very year that Turkiye celebrates the Republic’s 100th anniversary, the country’s political atmosphere has grown more uncertain than ever.

The official results of the first round of the presidential election saw incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the candidate of the People’s Alliance, obtain 49.5 percent of the vote, while main opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of the National Alliance, received 44.8 percent – both remaining under the 50+ percent threshold required for an outright win.

Muharrem Ince, who withdrew from the race at the last minute, secured 0.43 percent of the vote, and Sinan Ogan, the candidate of the secular nationalist ATA Alliance, received 5.17 percent.

The sequel no one asked for

The second round between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu has essentially transformed the election into a referendum on the former’s 21-year rule. The public’s sentiment and perception have therefore become crucial in this contest.

Despite the parliamentary election’s official results being due on 19 May, the Supreme Election Board (YSK) has not yet released them, leading to some frantic domestic speculation on the reasons for this. Some observers have raised concerns about the possibility of fraudulent voters, as the number of voters is reportedly double the population growth rate. In normal circumstances, parliament should convene on the third day after the official results are published, and elected MPs should be sworn in.

However, Erdogan is purportedly stalling the swearing-in procedure because members of his alliance, the radical Islamist Kurdish movement HUDA PAR, refuse to utter the phrase “Turkish nation” during the ceremonial oath. This leaves Erdogan keen to defer the ceremony – and this drama – until after the 28 May presidential election.

In the lead up to Sunday’s polls, the main topics dominating Turkiye’s political discourse are distrust in the fairness of the election, Turkish citizenships granted to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals in exchange for top-dollar real estate purchases, and the wildly disparate numbers of refugees currently residing in the country (the government says less than 4 million; the opposition claims 13 million).

These highly polarizing issues have triggered a number of realignments within the two main alliances contesting the presidency.

This time it’s personal

Since the country’s 2017 referendum, in which parliamentary democracy was replaced by a Turkish-style presidential system that recognizes unsealed ballots as valid, electoral irregularities have become a recurring concern. And so the opposition is understandably apprehensive about potential “vote theft” and the security of ballots.  

Furthermore, the unusually high voter turnout rate of over 80 percent in Turkiye’s devastated earthquake-affected areas that claimed the lives of tens of thousands and caused mass migration, has raised questions.

In the southeastern region, which has a significant Kurdish population, Erdogan’s far-right, ultra-nationalist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition partner, made significant gains in the polls, sparking allegations of ballot manipulation. Similarly, suspicions arose due to the unchanging 5 percent vote share garnered by the third candidate and kingmaker, Sinan Ogan, throughout the vote count.

However, after an initial week of furious debates, these concerns have now been fully overshadowed by the impending second round of voting.

In fact, the parliamentary elections, where Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 35.6 percent of the vote and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured 25.3 percent – and the subsequent uncertainty regarding the exact representation of the two parties and their allies – have been largely forgotten.

The presidential contest has taken center stage as the sole, focal political point of interest. And last-minute shifts and tweaks in the madcap alliances that make up the two leading coalitions are all the Turkish media talk about.

Switching slogans and alliances

Kilicdaroglu’s Millet (or Nation) Alliance, which leads the narrative for change (essentially, ousting Erdogan), has adopted patriotic slogans such as “Those who love their homeland should come to the ballot box” and “Let the gates of hell be closed.” Although he emphasized “unity” and objected to Erdogan’s polarizing politics in the first round of polls, Kilicdaroglu has adopted a more confrontational discourse in this second phase. Interestingly, he adopted the “hell” slogan from Sinan Ogan, a candidate who was eliminated in the first vote and who has since endorsed Erdogan ahead of the runoff vote.

Before 14 May, Ogan stated, “Maybe we won’t open the gates of heaven, but we will close the gates of hell.” The “hell” he referred to was the Erdogan government. While harshly criticizing Erdogan for his handling of Syrian refugees, Ogan also declared that Turkish nationalists – like himself – would never align themselves with the Islamist HUDA PAR. He even suggested that the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), representing Kurdish politics, would negotiate a deal with Erdogan in the second round.

But, ironically, it was Ogan who ended up striking a deal with Erdogan, announcing his support for the president on the grounds of maintaining “stability” in Turkiye. This, despite the fact that Ogan’s main condition regarding the repatriation of refugees appears not to have been met: Although a popular election issue, Erdogan has ruled out repatriating Syrian asylum seekers.

Winning over the nationalists

It remains uncertain how much of Ogan’s nationalist voter base will take to Erdogan. The ATA Alliance, to which he owes his candidacy, has become heavily divided in advance of the second polls. The foundation of the alliance consists of the far-right Zafer Party, in collaboration with some smaller political parties. Two days after Ogan threw his weight behind Erdogan, Zafer Party Leader Umit Ozdag announced his support for Kilicdaroglu.

Unlike Ogan, Ozdag says he has clinched a deal with his candidate – Kilicdaroglu – to repatriate Syrian refugees on the basis of international law and humanitarianism. Ozdag has also said they agreed that there would be zero compromise in the fight against the Kurdish PKK and terrorism.

A staunch nationalist, Ozdag frequently invokes Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the much-revered founder of the Turkish Republic – rails against Erdogan’s role in accepting millions of Syrian refugees and selling Turkish citizenship in exchange for cash, and constantly warns about Turkiye’s “demographic threat.”

In part, this refers to the Erdogan administration’s distribution of Turkish citizenship to anyone who purchases real estate for $400,000, sharply increased rents caused by the influx of foreigners, and the perceived influence of these people (without any ties to Turkiye or knowledge of the Turkish language) on elections. All these issues feature heavily in the nationalist movement’s narrative and propaganda.

As an example, during the first round of elections, the Turkish public reacted strongly to a live broadcast on the private, pro-government A Haber news channel. In the aired footage, a Kuwaiti individual speaking Arabic into the microphone after casting his vote shocked Turkish viewers. The channel swiftly cut the broadcast and deleted the video.

Unprecedented election propaganda

But if this election can be distilled into a popularity referendum on Erdogan, the sitting Turkish president has some clear advantages over his opponent: He uses every state tool at his disposal and has a mainstream media loyal to him. While TV channels cover Erdogan’s statements and rallies around the clock, Kilicdaroglu has few opportunities to be nationally heard outside of opposition media outlets.

As a result, Erdogan has been particularly sloppy about his political rhetoric, making ludicrous claims and sometimes outright lies – without being duly checked by the media.

In a Trumpian boast during a rally in the earthquake-stricken province of Malatya, Erdogan boasted that the number of people who came to listen to him in the square was higher than the number of deaths caused by the 6 February earthquake.

While victims had cried out for urgent government assistance for days without a response – which Erdogan himself has admitted – he told rally crowds: “We mobilized all means from the first hours of the disaster.” There have been many such gaffes along the campaign trail this year, which finally culminated in a major media scandal over a faked video montage.

Erdogan accidentally admitted that a video montage shown by his team in public squares before the first round of votes had been faked. The edited footage depicted PKK leaders in the Qandil region of Iraq singing along to a song in Kilicdaroglu’s political ad. The intent of the video was clearly to link the latter to the PKK and terrorism.

The opposition reacted strongly to the slander, with Kilicdaroglu calling Erdogan a “montage fraudster” and filing a lawsuit for compensation. But because of the president’s iron grip on mainstream Turkish media, it is not known how many voters at those rallies are aware of the fakery.

The propaganda has progressed well beyond the video scandal. Fake brochures attributed to Kilicdaroglu, including bizarre campaign promises and praise for terrorism, have been detected and prosecuted along the way. There’s no telling how much of an effect these fake-news scandals will affect Sunday’s polls.

‘Unprincipled coalitions’

As the second round vote approaches, Professor Emin Gurses from Sakarya University, highlights the shallow opportunism of these Turkish elections, telling The Cradle:

“In Turkiye, there is an understanding that it is permissible to lie while doing politics. Voters voted for the candidate they know and recognize through trust. They [politicians] act to win the election. They don’t look at friend or foe.”

The last-minute alliance shifts may not even change anything. According to Gurses, Sinan Ogan has little to gain by backing Erdogan, and on the other side, even if a deal is struck with Ozdag, it will be challenging for Kilicdaroglu to close the 2.5 million-vote gap with Erdogan.

Meanwhile, columnist Mehmet Ali Guller from Cumhuriyet has highlighted the consequences of the 50+1 system in Turkiye, which he argues leads to unprincipled coalitions, with ideology, programs, and politics pushed to the background. Guller charges that there are no significant differences in the fundamental policies of both sides:

“There is no fundamental difference between the two options in terms of economic policies, it is in the details. And in terms of foreign policy, there is no fundamental difference between the two options, there are details. Because both options are essentially Atlanticist and NATOist.”

100 years on: It’s looking bleak

Regardless of the election outcome, Guller foresees an ongoing economic crisis that offers no short-term solution. He also notes that both Islamists and nationalists exist in the two main political coalitions, creating an ideological stalemate of sorts, and predicts that Turkiye will be forced to hold another election within the next five years.

If Kilicdaroglu wins, he may find himself governing the country using decrees inherited from his predecessor despite advocating for a return to parliamentary democracy, as his alliance will be in the minority in parliament.

In this “unprincipled” political environment, it is even plausible that Erdodan, the architect of the Turkish-style presidential system, may consider reverting to a “parliamentary system.” On the other hand, if Erdogan emerges victorious, an unprecedented economic crisis is expected, with Turkiye’s CDS rating surpassing 700 and the US dollar projected to reach at least 24 Turkish liras. 

In the upcoming local elections, Erdogan is likely to continue his right-wing populist campaign to reclaim cities like Istanbul, which he lost in 2019.

Because Turkiye requires at least $200 billion in resources, Erdogan’s foreign policy stance will be determined by economic opportunity, as he is not seen as a reliable partner by any country, on either side of the global divide. He is expected to continue his balancing act: putting the “migrant issue” before the EU; Syria and Ukraine before Russia; relations with Russia before the US, and using Turkiye’s presence in Syria as leverage over the Arab world, using these as bargaining chips to maximize his gains.

In any case, the outlook for the Republic of Turkiye, on its 100th anniversary, appears bleak.

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