The xenophobia from the social-democratic leader since his first-round defeat is unlikely to win him the second.
The outcome of the first round of Turkey’s presidential election on May 14th—and of the parliamentary election held simultaneously—was a major disappointment for the opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) whom the polls had tipped as the winner. As it was, Kılıçdaroğlu came second, with 45 per cent of the votes. The incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), received 49.2 per cent. Since none of the candidates received more than 50 per cent, a second round will be held on Sunday.
To win, Kılıçdaroğlu will need to close the gap with Erdoğan—2.5 million votes in the first round—and win additional votes, assuming that Erdoğan succeeds in holding on to his tally. Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu must remobilise demoralised supporters who may not turn out in the same numbers. Erdoğan meanwhile faces the opposite challenge: his re-election can be endangered if his supporters reason he will win anyway.
There is no doubt that Erdoğan is in an advantageous position and will most likely be re-elected. He very nearly carried the election in the first round and the alliance of the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) increased its majority in the parliament.
The MHP did unexpectedly well, receiving 10 per cent of the votes and becoming the third biggest party in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, whereas the election was a major setback for the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party, whose support eroded to 8.8 per cent. The Turkish Labour Party (TIP)—Turkey’s biggest socialist group—which entered the election in alliance with the Green Left Party, received just 1.8 per cent, underscoring the insignificance of the socialist left in Turkish politics.
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New hegemonic force
Overall, the nationalist right emerged as the winner. The far-right presidential candidate, Sinan Oğan, received 5.3 per cent, despite lacking a country-wide organisation and almost any media coverage. Oğan declared he would be supporting Erdoğan in the second round, in line with ‘Atatürkist and nationalist values’.
The nationalist right is set to become the new hegemonic force in Turkish politics after two decades of Islamic conservatism. Indeed, Erdoğan has already assumed the right-wing nationalism of his partner, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the MHP.
His challenger, Kılıçdaroğlu—who leads an alliance in which the right-wing-nationalist Good Party is the second biggest—responded to the outcome of the first round by moving further towards the far right and embracing its fiery, anti-immigrant stance. Kılıçdaroğlu slammed the Syrian refugees in Turkey (whom he purports amount to ten million) and renewed his electoral vow that he would rid the country of them, albeit in significantly more aggressive language.
Yet while Kılıçdaroğlu is desperate to establish his credentials as a reliable Turkish nationalist, this may not offer him a path to victory. Tarnishing his image as a liberal and social democrat, he risks forfeiting the support of the Kurdish voters who massively turned out in his favour, as well as those of Turkish liberals and leftists.
Kılıçdaroğlu needed to strike the right balance between Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, offering liberties to Kurds without appearing to endanger national unity. That was a near-impossible challenge to start with and he was not helped by representatives of the Kurdish movement in Turkey or the leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. They made it clear in endorsing his candidacy that they expected major concessions from Kılıçdaroğlu if elected—including freeing Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK imprisoned since 1999.
Fatally for his chances, Kılıçdaroğlu abstained from distancing himself from Kurdish radicalism. He did not attempt to dispel the suspicion that he would show leniency toward the PKK, meekly stating that the ‘fatherland and the flag are our red lines’. Moreover, Erdoğan supporters could credibly cultivate the image of Kılıçdaroğlu as in cahoots with Kurdish separatists, as Kılıçdaroğlu opposes cross-border Turkish military interventions in Syria and Iraq against the PKK and its affiliates.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s inability to fashion a discourse that combined the promise of democratic reform at home with a firm commitment to the preservation of national-security interests proved predictably fatal for his electoral prospects. Turkish-nationalist voters in conservative Anatolia, the Turkish heartland, turned out massively in favor of Erdoğan. In the province of Kahramanmaraş, epicentre of the cataclysmic earthquakes in February—where popular discontent with Erdoğan was supposedly widespread—72 per cent voted for the outgoing president.
While winning the Kurds, Kılıçdaroğlu failed to mobilise the urban, secular-nationalist vote. A significant number of CHP voters and a third of the voters of the Good Party are estimated to have abstained.
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Kılıçdaroğlu’s failure is testament to the waning appeal of liberalism in the face of ethnic conflict and refugee flows. Ultimately, though, along with the surge of nationalism that has undermined his campaign, it is an expression of the global Zeitgeist.
In alliance with conservative parties, two led by former lieutenants of Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu offered a restoration in all but name of the original AKP—as with the opposition coalition he leads, a pro-western coming together of ‘free-market’ conservatives and Kurds. That alliance and reform agenda was aligned with the global context two decades ago, when globalisation, the interests of the Turkish business class and the needs of the state converged to drive liberal change. The attempt to resurrect it in a context of escalating geopolitical confrontation is, perhaps unsurprisingly, proving futile.
The Turkish nationalism on which Kılıçdaroğlu has fatefully stumbled is fuelled not only by the Kurdish challenge and the Syrian refugees. It is also fed by a heightened sense of national insecurity in a geopolitically volatile environment. But this fraught context simultaneously offers opportunities for projecting power, which in turn stimulates nationalism.
Erdoğan ascended to power speaking for a Turkish business class that wanted to enjoy the benefits of globalisation. The new Turkish nationalism underpinning his power today is ultimately a reflection of changes in the economic base, with the growth of a military-industrial sector which is increasingly important in strategic and economic terms.
Two decades ago, Turkey prided itself on exporting refrigerators and television sets. Today, it claims important strides toward self-sufficiency in military technology and hardware. Kılıçdaroğlu committed yet another mistake when he conveyed the impression that he would not protect the domestic military industry and would invite US defence corporations to compete. He subsequently tacked to declare promotion of Turkey’s defence industry a national interest but the damage was done.
Erdoğan, who has a secure grip on the conservative-nationalist electorate, can count on being supported by enough secular nationalists to tip the balance in the second round. The virulently nationalist rhetoric Kılıçdaroğlu has adopted to make himself a palatable choice to right-wing Turkish nationalists does not necessarily offer him a path to victory. It does however impair his pretensions to be a democratic reformer.
This piece also appears on the Turkey Analyst
Halil Karaveli is senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Programme Joint Centre. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press).