The opposition chose the wrong candidate and ran a poor campaign. By Sinan Ciddi in The National Interest on May 29, 2023.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s loss against incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be seen as a loss not only for the people of Turkey but for democracy worldwide. It is difficult to see the silver lining from Erdogan’s 52-48 percent victory against Kilicdaroglu, and Turkey is likely to slip further into authoritarian, even autocratic rule. On a systemic level, Erdogan’s victory adds credence to the view that removing authoritarian leaders by elections is less than likely. Expectations that Erdogan would lose the presidency ran high in early 2023. How do we explain this electoral upset, given that Erdogan presided over widespread economic mismanagement, corruption, and undemocratic governance?
For a large part, the uncomfortable truth is that Erdogan won because Kemal Kilicdaroglu was his opponent. The Nation Alliance, the opposition’s political coalition, chose to nominate Kilicdaroglu largely due to his insistence. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), under Kilicdaroglu and since 2010 conducted primaries to select parliamentary candidates. For some reason, Kilicdaroglu’s own nomination as the opposition candidate was not determined by party members. It was not even favored by all members of the Nation Alliance, causing Meral Aksener (leader of the Good Party), to briefly abandon her coalition partners.
Put simply, Kilicdaroglu’s nomination was imposed from the top, with little to no deliberation. Was there a better candidate? Polling suggests as much: ahead of his nomination, these consistently indicated that Kilicdaroglu was not the best candidate to defeat Erdogan, who continuously trailed the more popular candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP’s mayor of Istanbul. This option was railroaded over due to concerns that if Imamoglu had been nominated he would have been banned from running, owing to a lawsuit that was pending against him. This is true, but if had been nominated and banned by the courts, Kilicdaroglu would still have had the opportunity to become the candidate as his successor. It was pure political greed on the part of Kilicdaroglu to insist on his own nomination, and it has cost Turkey dearly.
In addition to not having a say in the candidate nomination process, following the beginning of the election campaign, the anti-Erdogan opposition camp was expected to back the Kilicdaroglu campaign without debate, dissent, or criticism. To not unconditionally back Kilicdaroglu was projected as de-facto giving support to Erdogan. Even publishing polls three days before the election, which predicted an Erdogan win was seen as an immoral act! This level of hubris led the level of debate on Turkish politics to dizzying lows. Voters and analysts had no part to play in the determination of Kilicdaroglu as the candidate and were also expected to fall in line, simply because there was no other alternative. I’m sorry to say that this is not good enough. Impositions are impositions, regardless of whether they come from authoritarian leaders, or their democratic challengers.
Insult was added to injury. Kilicdaroglu ran a lackluster and muddled campaign. Critics of his campaign strategy were once again asked to remain silent.
For example, Kilicdaroglu ran a campaign of inclusion—one that promised the restoration of the rule of law, institutions, and an equitable economy that would benefit the masses, not just cronies as in the case of Erdogan’s rule. But following Kilicdaroglu’s failure to secure victory on May 14, (where he received ~45 percent against Erdogan’s ~49.5 percent), we were asked to not perceive this as an impending Erdogan victory, but an Erdogan loss. Not only that, but instead of taking stock of what needed to be adjusted in his electoral strategy, team Kilicdaroglu went off the rails and abandoned its previous message of inclusivity and temperance. In the final two weeks leading up to May 28, Kilicdaroglu attempted to pander to the nationalist right by promising to deport Syrian refugees. He even signed a pact with the far-right Victory Party of Umit Ozdag, promising him that a Kilicdaroglu presidency would present a tougher stance on the Kurdish question. Why did he depart so radically from his previous election strategy? It was because he was told that Erdogan’s right-wing nationalist campaign had resonated with voters and therefore he must do the same.
Kilicdaroglu’s turn to the political right appeared desperate and inconsistent, and likely turned off some Kurdish voters who voted for him on May 14. Moreover, while he was attempting to rebrand his campaign, Erdogan played dirty: he falsely accused Kilicdaroglu of consorting with Kurdish separatists by releasing fake videos to that effect. Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance took days to try and refute these claims. More importantly, it is incredible that their campaign had not anticipated such tactics on the part of Erdogan and was not prepared. One easy strategy would have been to put together a reel of Erdogan’s greatest hits throughout the years, where he insults women, kicks protestors, and displays videos of shoe boxes of money that his son tries to scuttle. This would have meant that Kilicdaroglu would have run a negative campaign, but it would have had the virtue of at least displaying the truth.
Bottom line: Kilicdaroglu came to a gunfight against Erdogan with a knife and lost.
To Kilicdaroglu’s credit, the presidential race was not a fair fight. From the start, Erdogan utilized the advantages of public and private media that gave him disproportionate media space. For example, TRT, the state broadcaster gave Kilicdaroglu less than thirt-five minutes of coverage in the first round of voting, compared to over thirty-two hours for Erdogan. In both rounds of presidential voting, there were numerous allegations of voter fraud and voter intimidation. However, the vast majority of these have not been substantiated to the point that it would fundamentally change the outcome of the actual result. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which deployed election monitors, while outlining the unfair conditions of the election, did not find any serious subversion of the democratic process.
All this said, there is no excusing the fact that Kilicdaroglu ran a terrible campaign and he was the wrong choice to run against Erdogan. Some suggest that Kilicdaroglu did as well as any candidate could have done against Erdogan. I disagree. If an opposition candidate wanted to run a campaign that handed the election to Erdogan, it would resemble Kilicdaroglu’s campaign. No deliberation over his determination as a candidate; no clear and consistent campaign strategy, a blind cheerleader support network that demanded unconditional support of his ill-conceived veer to the right, and now, followed by “we did the best we could.” This is an undefendable position and the least Kilicdaroglu can do is resign. Turkey’s voters deserved better, much better.
Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power.