This is a sequel to my recent post Turkish Elections: Some Hope, so is best read after reading its predecessor.
In the last post, I covered the National Assembly elections on the 24th June. The first round of the presidential elections will take place on the same day and there will be a run-off between the two main candidates on the 8th July, if no candidate gets more than 50% on the first round.
As by far the strongest personality in Turkish politics over the last 15 years, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan was no doubt expecting to win in the first round easily. He did so in 2014 when he was first elected to the presidency at a time when the president’s powers were much smaller. The two largest opposition parties of the time (CHP and MHP) put up a joint presidential candidate little known to the public and who did become much better known during the campaign. The campaign was in fact a surrender to Erdoğan who went on to ignore the constitutional limits on the presidency and push through plans for a presidential republic with little of the checks and balances known in other presidential republics, at least those in established democracies.
This presidential campaign has been an unpleasant surprise for Erdoğan. He has turned the MHP into a satellite party which supports him for the presidency. The cost of that, however, is that he has tied himself to a declining party in an attempt to compensate for a weakening of AKP (Erdoğan’s party) support since the days when it got 50% and over of the electorate.
The opposition has now found an energy unprecedented during the Erdoğan-AKP years (since 2002). It has turned the first round of the presidential election into a run-off to decide who will face Erdoğan in the second round, maximising opposition strength as its candidates enthuse different sectors of Turkish society against the current regime. It now looks impossible for Erdoğan to win the first round (without the help of rigging which is a real danger).
Some thought the opposition had already failed the presidential election when Abdullah Gül, who was President before Erdoğan, declined to run as a candidate of the small opposition religious conservative party SP. The idea around was that the two main opposition parties would accept him as a joint candidate. It is not clear this would have ever happened, and anyway Gül declined to run. He had been a founder of the AKP, but has not re-joined since leaving the office of President in 2014. At that time the President was required to resign from any political party. Gül has made indirect criticisms of the AKP under Erdoğan, but is a non-confrontational politician who has not put himself in clear opposition to Erdoğan and few expected he ever would. Some had the attitude that Gül was the only chance of the opposition winning the presidential election. I was never convinced myself. Adopting an AKP politician central to the AKP’s colonisation of the state and parts of civil society, particularly the main media companies, would have been a defeatist gesture, particularly given Gül’s own lack of energy in very stark contrast with Erdoğan.
The four largest opposition parties will all run presidential candidates, though three of these parties have formed a joint list for the National Assembly elections. Two of these candidates have a real chance to win. That is Meral Akşener and Muharrem İnce. Akşener is the leader of the second opposition party, İYİ, which broke away from the MHP. It has overtaken the MHP as the largest nationalist party. Though it has a clearly nationalist orientation, mixing Atatürk republicanism with nostalgia for the Ottomans and pre-Ottoman Turkish leaders, it has a a milder version of this than the MHP. İnce is a centre-left secularist CHP politician who previously tried to replace Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as leader of the CHP.
Kılıçdaroğlu is not a strong public personality and has often been dismissed even by CHP sympathisers. However, he did a good job of keeping the CHP relevant in the period after the coup attempt of July 2016, when Erdoğan seemed to be achieving even more complete domination of Turkish public life. Kılıçdaroglu most famously led a Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul last summer, usefully turning his anti-charisma reputation into an image of quiet decency and endurance, marching for many days under a hot Turkish sun, though he is in his late 60s and there were constant fears of state promoted violence against the march.
Kılıçdaroğlu was again dismissed as too passive at the time Gül declined to run, and Kılicdaroğlu ruled himself out of the Presidential contest. It has turned out that he has maximised his strengths and weaknesses, by showing the inner self-confidence to allow his rival İnce to run for the most powerful office in Turkey. İnce has been a great campaigner so far and is doing better than I expected.
I thought Akşener would easily be the strongest opposition candidate, and she is doing well, but is very close to İnce, both for getting through to the second round and defeating Erdoğan. The latest opinion polls suggest Erdoğan would beat both but by a very small margin, meaning that a strong campaign by İnce or Akşener could win in the end, particularly if supporters of rival parties turn out in a spirit of unity for change.
The general thinking in Turkey now is that the opposition is likely to win the National Assembly but not the Presidency. Nevertheless the presidential contest is going far better than expected for the opposition and Erdoğan could look very diminished running in the second round after the AKP-MHP electoral list loses the National Assembly (where it currently has a two-thirds majority). İnce represents the most leftist and most nationalist element of the CHP. This combination is not unusual in Turkey, though left-nationalists prefer to identify themselves through the Turkish word for patriot rather than nationalist. I thought this would be a problem for İnce, in that he might be a negative both for Kurdish and centrist voters, but he has shown a capacity to reach out and make gestures to these sectors. Since the CHP National Assembly list has reduced the number of left-nationalists, his presidency would not be the unconstrained triumph of that particular point of view.