Turkey’s Opposition Has Loosened Erdoğan’s Grip on Power. Now They Must Unite to Break It.

Last week, Turkey’s opposition deprived autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of a first-round victory. But in order to win, the opposition will need to unify liberals and leftists around secularism and economic justice.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan casts his ballot at a polling station to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 14, 2023. (Umit Bektas / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

Commentators from across the political spectrum have deemed the presidential and parliamentary elections that took place in Turkey on May 14 the most significant in the country’s recent history. The elections can be seen as a double referendum on the current political system and its architect. Last week, voters mobilized in large numbers to express a “yes, but” sentiment toward Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power for two decades. By voting him into the second round, they approved the continuation of the hyper-presidential and autocratic government, known as “Erdoğanism,” that the incumbent president has gradually established since 2014. Despite receiving significant electoral support, Erdoğan’s opponent Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, a candidate advocating for power sharing, an end to autocracy, and a return to the rule of law and a parliamentary regime, fell short.

The assessment of these elections is quite clear. Even though Erdoğan was not reelected in the first round, he outperformed Kiliçdaroglu, with 49.5 percent of the votes compared to Kiliçdaroglu’s 44.9. This puts Erdoğan in a favorable position for the second round. Furthermore, the People’s Alliance, a coalition consisting of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and far-right nationalist and religious parties, secured a parliamentary majority.

While Turkey remains deeply divided between Erdoğan’s supporters and those who desire a change in leadership, the May 14 results demonstrate a further shift of the country’s political center of gravity toward the nationalist far right. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which had been projected to receive 6 to 7 percent of the vote in opinion polls, exceeded expectations. At the recent poll it obtained over 10 percent in the parliamentary elections.

Additionally, the emergence of the ultrareligious New Welfare Party (YRP), founded by the son of Necmettin Erbakan, the pioneer of political Islam in Turkey, compensated for the decline in support for the AKP, which garnered 35 percent of the votes in the legislative elections.

The pressing question at hand is why and how Erdoğan managed to maintain the confidence of half the voters, despite a severe economic crisis characterized by high inflation, a steep depreciation of the Turkish lira, increased poverty and inequality, and a system of government marred by corruption and nepotism. Although Erdoğan’s alliance with the far-right MHP since 2016 and the inclusion of small far-right Islamo-nationalist parties in this alliance prior to the elections partly explain his resilience, his control over the media and the extensive exposure he receives, surpassing that of all his competitors, play a significant role. Employing all the resources available to the party-state, Erdoğan ran a defensive campaign with an impressive budget that would make populist leaders in other countries envious. The AKP’s networks of financial patronage likely shielded Erdoğan’s voters from the impact of the serious economic crisis.

Beyond these factors that are unique to populist regimes, Erdoğan continues to appeal to a social aspiration deeply ingrained in Turkish society. He represents an authoritarian figure capable of allaying fears concerning the dissolution of national and religious identity in the face of demands for recognition and equality from the Kurdish population; from Alevis, followers of a heterodox variant of Islam drawing mostly on Shi’a traditions; and from women, as well as a certain anxiety about the West. Erdoğan’s success is owed in part to his ability to alloy these fears to a broader nostalgia for the country’s lost greatness.

However, the opposition managed to unite under the leadership of Kiliçdaroglu from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The Alliance of the Nation, comprising six political parties representing diverse sociopolitical tendencies ranging from social democracy to the nationalist and liberal right, along with an anti-corruption Islamist faction, aimed to obstruct Erdoğan’s conventional strategy of polarizing society along ethnic, religious, and cultural lines. Their objective was to force Erdoğan into a position where he would have to represent the sociological majority of Turkey — Sunni conservatives.

With the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)’s decision to endorse Kemal Kiliçdaroglu in the first round, Turkey witnessed a broad and diverse rally for democracy, unprecedented in its contemporary history. This transformed the elections into a referendum of sorts. However, the high voter turnout of 88.9 percent, two points higher than the previous election in 2018, appears to have been driven primarily by a surge in far-right Islamo-nationalist sentiment. This ultimately enabled Erdoğan, who has been ruling the country for two decades, to emerge victorious in the second round.

Taking a broader view, when considering the votes from the nationalist right within the opposition alliance, as well as those of a third nationalist candidate whose supporters are likely to sway the majority toward Erdoğan in the second round, it becomes evident that the prospects for democratization are entangled within the grasp of Sunni nationalist sentiments deeply rooted in Turkey. This faction is concerned about the presence of the left-wing pro-Kurdish party in Parliament, which the government’s propaganda equates with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and terrorism. Moreover, there is unease regarding the potential of an Alevi candidate assuming the presidency.

For the anti-Erdoğan alliance, which achieved a historically high albeit insufficient score, the second round presents the challenge of demonstrating resilience. It will serve as a signal of the capacity of the “other Turkey” to continue organizing itself and resisting Islamo-nationalist autocracy. If Erdoğan is elected in the second round, he will not only have to confront the dire state of the economy, for which he is partly responsible, but also contend with the deep-seated mistrust of the other half of the Turkish population.