Can Turkey’s opposition bridge enthusiasm gap before runoff vote? – THE GUARDIAN

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Rejuvenated Erdoğan is in pole position as Kılıçdaroğlu reckons with lack of belief among supporters. By Ruth Michaelson and Deniz Barış Narlı in The Guardian on May 23, 2023.

After a day spent walking in the sunshine to get to the polls and vote for Turkey’s opposition, 24-year-old Ayten gathered with her friends, excited to watch the results on television and scroll through Twitter. Slowly, as the election count went on, their enthusiasm disappeared.

By 3am on the morning of 15 May, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a triumphant speech to the crowd outside his party’s headquarters in Ankara, extolling his unexpected lead over the opposition and a surprise majority for his coalition in parliament, the young voters were still awake but their hopes for change had been crushed.

“With the election results, our hopes for our country have been shattered. We realised that we shouldn’t put so much trust in anyone,” she said. “I was disappointed on election night, and this feeling only grew over the next day. I thought: I personally defended the future of the younger generation as much as I could.”

Turkey’s opposition, led by the former accountant Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, forced Erdoğan into a second-round runoff, a rare setback for the incumbent leader of two decades. But Erdoğan appears rejuvenated and is in pole position for the ballot on 28 May after taking 49.5% of the vote compared with Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.9% in the first round.

Turkey’s opposition, meanwhile, is reckoning with a lack of enthusiasm among its supporters. “The opposition needs to give confidence to its supporters, but this isn’t happening,” said Ayten. “People are voting not because they are confident but because they feel they have to. I think that a party that has been in power for 20 years should no longer be in power.”

When polled before the first round, the majority of voters said their greatest concern was Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis. The opposition believed this would be enough to convince the public to turn away from Erdoğan after two decades. However, even in pre-election surveys most voters did not believe Kılıçdaroğlu was capable of winning.

Erdoğan has encouraged his supporters to show up at the polls a second time, warning them against being complacent. “Even though they have fallen behind, they are doing everything they can to muddy the waters and put a shadow over the national will,” he said of the opposition.

“Be certain that they will maintain this attitude until 28 May: if we don’t stand firm and continue as we have done, there’s no doubt the other side will fall on to the ballot boxes with their disrespectful and fascist attitude.”

In a further boost to the president, Sinan Oğan, the nationalist candidate who came third in the first round, formally endorsed Erdoğan on Monday.

Most opposition voters said they intended to vote in the runoff, but some said they would stay away, in what could be a potentially lethal loss of votes for Kılıçdaroğlu.

“I don’t intend to vote in the second round, I have no desire to wait in line for hours. I think everyone has accepted that the opposition has failed. People believe Erdoğan has already won,” said Feyyaz, a 41-year-old cafe owner, making espressos while a blues track featuring a singer wailing about “the end of sweet dreams”, played over the speaker system.

He voted for Kılıçdaroğlu and his Republican People’s party (CHP) in the first round, he said, “because there was hope. But now, no one feels hopeful.”

Like Ayten, Feyyaz had rushed home to watch the returns, following attentively when the Istanbul and Ankara mayors, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, declared that the opposition was ahead and that counts shared by the state news agency Anadolu should not be trusted.

“When they said that on television I trusted them. Then I realised this wasn’t the case,” he said. By the morning after the vote, he said, his hopes were dashed and he had lost confidence in the opposition.

As the week drew on, opposition supporters seized on examples of irregularities in the vote count, including data inputted incorrectly into a system run by the supreme election council, or YSK. The CHP official Muharrem Erkek later said the opposition had challenged results in 2,269 ballot boxes for the presidential election and more for the parliamentary vote, but that these discrepancies would not alter their loss. “We follow each vote, even if it does not change the general results,” he said.

Despite CHP officials promising they would keep a parallel tally of the vote count and release their own data to the public, this is yet to surface. Instead, fears and panic about their loss being tied to unspecified election fraud reverberated among opposition voters.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the vote was handled fairly despite being held in an undemocratic political environment. “[Turkey’s] general elections were well-managed and offered voters a choice between genuine political alternatives, but the current president and the ruling parties enjoyed an unjustified advantage,” they said.

Ayten was one of many opposition voters who retained a sense of mistrust about the first-round results, a mirror of fears prior to the vote that the government would not respect the results if it lost. “I did not trust the results,” she said. “Some votes had to be recounted 10 or 11 times. This wasn’t normal. I don’t trust Anadolu, either. There is no free press and the media is manipulating many things.”

In a desperate effort to close the gap on his opponent and garner votes from Turkey’s nationalist right, Kılıçdaroğlu hardened his rhetoric and doubled down on promises to deport millions of refugees. “Let those who love their country come to the ballot box!” he said.

He also called for more electoral observers, sidestepping accusations from Turkish journalists that the CHP had left 20,000 ballot boxes without observers in the first round despite their promises of tight election security.

“This time we need not one, not two, but five observers at each ballot box. We need more brave ballot box observers … who we can rely on under any circumstances,” he said.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactics did little to reassure Ayten, who remained despondent. “My friends and family and I, we will all vote again. They say it’s our duty as citizens to vote. But I don’t know if you should be hopeful about the outcome,” she said.

By Ruth Michaelson and Deniz Barış Narlıin The Guardian on May 23, 2023.

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