The hopes of Turkey’s opposition forces for a victory in the Turkish elections have been dashed. Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly won the second round of the presidential election against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the centrist Cumhuriyeti Halk Partisi (CHP).
The Cumhur İttifakı of the ruling nationalist-religious Adalet ve Kalkınma Parti (AKP), the ultra-nationalist MHP and some small far-right formations narrowly won an absolute majority of seats in parliament.
Within Cumhur Ittifakı, the ultranationalist forces emerged from the elections strengthened. The elections thus mark a further shift to the Turkish nationalist right.
In the first round of the presidential election, Erdoğan won 49.3% of the vote, narrowly missing victory in the first round.
The main opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was supported by a very broad spectrum of opposition forces, won 45.1% of the vote. Sinan Oğan, a secular right-wing extremist, came third with 5.3% of the vote.
Both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu competed for Oğan’s voters. Oğan declared his support for Erdoğan, while his party leader, Ümit Özdağ, declared his support for the opposition candidate.
Kılıçdaroğlu made a 180-degree turn in his election campaign. Not only did he support the mass expulsion of Syrian refugees, but he also promised to remove Kurdish mayors if they were convicted in court. This was the key demand of Turkish nationalist forces – and meant breaking his earlier promise to the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP), with its strong Kurdish constituency, to end the AKP’s practice of deposing elected mayors.
In the end, the HDP and its electoral arm, Yeşil Sol Parti (YSP), backed Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round, seeing it as their only chance to end the “one-man regime”.
Although the turnout in the Kurdish areas was somewhat lower, Kılıçdaroğlu’s support in the Kurdish-dominated southeast was particularly strong in the second round. He also prevailed in the big cities and on the Mediterranean coast, while Erdoğan retained strong support in the traditional AKP and nationalist bulwarks of Inner Anatolia and the Black Sea coast.
Erdoğan won the second round with 52.2% of the vote against Kılıçdaroğlu’s 47.8%. Due to the ultra-presidential nature of the political regime in Turkey, the presidential election is of particular importance.
Shifts in the balance of power in the right-wing camp
Cumhur İttifakı also won the parliamentary elections on 14 May. However, the balance of electoral power within this alliance has shifted significantly.
The AKP lost voters massively. Its share of the vote fell from 42.6 per cent in 2018 to 35.6 per cent in 2023. Its main ally, the ultra-nationalist MHP, retained around 10% of the vote. Some small far-right forces also made it into parliament as part of the Cumhur İttifakı.
These forces include the Kurdish-Islamist Hür Dava Partisi (HÜDA-PAR), which got four deputies as part of the AKP list. HÜDA-PAR has been trying to attract conservative Kurdish voters and this party is seen as part of the tradition of Hizbullah forces, which were responsible for massacres and torture cases in the 1990s. All this points to a further shift to the right within the ruling alliance.
A heterogeneous opposition
Slight electoral shifts can also be observed within the very heterogeneous opposition forces. The largest opposition alliance, Millet Ittikfakı, slightly increased its share in the parliamentary elections from 33.9% in 2018 to 35%.
This was mainly due to a slight strengthening of the CHP’s vote from 22.7% to 25.3%, while the strongly Turkish nationalist İyi Parti retained slightly less than 10% of the vote.
Within the CHP, the result has prompted at least some cautious introspection. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, said that conclusions should be drawn from successive electoral defeats. In his view, there is a strong yearning for ‘fundamental change’ in society and this should be addressed. This could be seen as an implicit admission that the CHP had not put forward a strong enough vision of change and had acted too conservatively.
Critical self-reflection in the Kurdish and left forces
The left-wing and Kurdish forces slightly lost ground – they gained 10.5%, while the HDP gained 11.7% in 2018. These losses affect the YSP in particular (now 8.8%).
The HDP fielded its candidates under the umbrella of the YSP because the HDP itself is under threat of being banned.
The state’s repression particularly targets Kurdish and leftist political forces. These factors obviously played a role in the YSP’s poor showing in the elections.
In an interview with Artı Gerçek after the second round of the elections, former HDP presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been imprisoned since 2016, also highlighted other factors. From his point of view, the process of selecting candidates did not include enough popular participation. He had offered to run again for the presidency from prison, but this offer was not accepted. This could have strengthened the YSP’s position in the run-up to the second round.
In particular, Demirtaş argued for going beyond the formation of political alliances for the elections and for forging political cooperation in concrete social struggles, for example around strikes. Left social movements also strongly emphasise this point.
AKP Mobilizes capacities and clientelist networks
Although the heterogeneous opposition forces rallied behind a common opposition candidate and the demand for a thorough re-democratisation of Turkey, the opposition was (and is) otherwise divided. This was a disadvantage for the opposition itself.
In order to deepen the divisions in the opposition between more Turkish nationalist and Kurdish forces, and to divert attention from the poor economic situation, high inflation and the mismanagement of the earthquake, the AKP relied heavily and successfully on Turkish nationalist mobilisation. It was able to rely on the resources of the state.
The AKP has around 11 million members, which represents a huge mobilisation potential. It has created a broad network of allied civil society and religious organisations. It has built strong clientelist networks.
These structures offer party members opportunities for social mobility. All these networks are particularly effective in the party’s strongholds.
In addition, the media are almost completely aligned with the ruling party. Independent media face massive state repression. International observers highlighted the “unlevel playing field” of the elections.
The new AKP government’s priorities
After being sworn in for a new term, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled an almost entirely new cabinet. Two nominations indicate his priorities.
He appointed Mehmet Şimşek as the new finance minister. Şimşek has a banking background and has held senior government posts before. He is seen as a supporter of a more orthodox economic approach. Observers say he is likely to push for higher interest rates to halt the fall of the Turkish lira and curb inflation.
However, higher interest rates would hurt the often highly indebted households. Many more households took on debt during the Kovid crisis. Many AKP voters are also heavily indebted. Other austerity measures are also on the cards. Austerity would hurt growth – and the AKP’s legitimacy. The AKP faces tough choices. It is not clear how much orthodoxy the new finance minister will be allowed.
Şimşek has close links not only with international business but also with Kurdish businessmen. These links could be important in supporting the conservative upper and middle classes among the Kurdish population.
The second key appointment is Hakan Fidan as the new Foreign Minister. Fidan has a background in the military and security apparatus. He is considered a close confidant of President Erdoğan. He has been involved in the ‘Kurdish question’ and the war in Syria for many years.
Syria is a key foreign policy issue for the AKP government because Kurds live on both sides of the border and left-wing Syrian Kurdish forces have gained significant autonomy in Syria. The Turkish government has accepted that its attempt to bring right-wing religious forces to power in the neighbouring state has failed and that the Assad regime is here to stay.
Turkey is now trying to reduce the autonomy of the Syrian Kurds as much as possible in a new political settlement in Syria. This could be Fidan’s main task. Otherwise, we can expect the continuation of a generally more autonomous foreign policy. The AKP’s foreign policy is subject to the primacy of domestic priorities.
The AKP’s economic room for manoeuvre is shrinking. With this, the AKP’s resources to construct consensual policy elements are also dwindling. This makes it very likely that divide-and-rule tactics and open coercion will play an even greater role in the coming years of AKP rule.