Try As He Might, Erdoğan Can’t Crush the Left

The struggle continues.

by Eda Seyhan

1 June 2023

A group of women stand beside one another holding flags and banners
A rally of the Kurdish Yesil Sol party, part of the anti-Erdoğan coalition, in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, May 2023. Laurent Perpigna Iban/Hans Lucas/Reuters

The scale of disappointment after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reelection for a third term as president of Turkey on Sunday is hard to convey. I’ve felt and seen post-election heartbreak (after all, I live in England) but never like this. This election was meant to mark the end of a series of never-ending crises in Turkey. The February earthquake and lethal government (non-)response; the 2016 failed coup attempt and subsequent state of emergency; the 2015 bombing and siege of Kurdish-majority cities; the corruption scandals; the social media blackouts; the ousting of local mayors; the routine police raids on newspapers and TV stations; the currency crashes and eye-watering food price inflation – we let ourselves believe that the door was finally closing on this dark era. Little did we know, it was only getting started.

Everything’s going to be great.

Her şey çok güzel olacak – everything’s going to be great. The opposition’s slogan from the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election was reanimated in this campaign and summed up its strategy galvanising the electorate with a vision of inclusivity and optimism. The message: this time it’s going to be different, this time we will win. There were good reasons for believing it: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) had been defeated in Istanbul and Ankara mayoral elections in 2019; meanwhile, the opposition coalesced into an unprecedented coalition of liberals, ultra-nationalists, Islamists, AKP defectors and elements of the left to unseat Erdoğan. Even the leftwing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) did not field its own candidate – here was the Kurdish political movement, so often accused of separatism, making a sacrifice for the future of democracy in Turkey.

What’s more, the polls were in our favour. Cracks had appeared among Erdoğan’s allies. Opposition rallies swelled, to a techno soundtrack. Here in London, opposition voters were bussed into polling stations from local Kurdish and leftist Turkish community centres. As election day in Turkey neared, the opposition switched its slogan to ilk turda bitirelim – let’s finish this in the first round. Yet this confidence deflated as the first-round votes were counted last Sunday.

A gloomy picture.

According to the official tally, Erdoğan won 49.5% of the vote, Kılıçdaroğlu 44.9%, and far-right candidate Sinan Oğan won 5.2%. The opposition had failed to fulfil its slogan’s promise to end this in the first round, while the far-right had done unexpectedly well. The parliamentary election, which happened on the same day, was little better: for the first time, Turkish Hizbullah was to enter parliament.

In the days after the vote, the picture became even gloomier. There were discrepancies, particularly in some Kurdish-majority provinces: the count at the polling booth, signed and witnessed by election observers, did not match what was recorded by the supreme election council. In one polling station in the HDP stronghold of Diyarbakir, 233 votes for the Green Left party (under whose name the HDP entered the election) were officially registered to the fascist Nationalist Action party. The HDP contested the results in at least 1,000 polling stations.

Meanwhile, in an effort to attract people in the second round who voted for Sinan Oğan in the first, the opposition ditched its messages of inclusivity and lurched to the right. Even prior to the first round, Kılıçdaroğlu had promised to send Syrian refugees back across the border; now, he doubled down on the anti-refugee rhetoric. Oğan backed Erdoğan anyway. The stage was set for an Erdoğan victory – he achieved 52% of the vote and won in the second round.

Regardless of Kılıçdaroğlu’s ill-advised rhetoric, the odds were always stacked against him. Kılıçdaroğlu is everything Erdoğan is not: a former bureaucrat who spoke softly to the country from his small kitchen while Erdoğan’s gave bellicose speeches from his palatial balcony. Remarkably, he is also openly Kurdish and Alevi, a minority within a minority in a country where, until recently, Alevis would not out themselves in their workplaces, let alone before the electorate. The leader of the nationalist wing of the opposition coalition had briefly quit over Kılıçdaroğlu selection as candidate – it’s likely that nationalist voters similarly eschewed him at the ballot box.

The opposition’s problems go well beyond its choice of leader. The media is largely under Erdoğan’s control, his supporters stack the major institutions of the state (including the supreme election council) and the corporate world, and his party retains the highest membership of any in Turkey (11.2 million) in large part because of rampant nepotism (join the AKP and your son will get a job from the local business owner, who’s also a party member). Meanwhile, the opposition faced endless obstacles in the campaign – rallies disrupted or violently attacked, activists arrested, limited access to media, and more. Baseless trials have put thousands of HDP activists and politicians in jail or in exile. Even the mayor of Istanbul, who may have otherwise been a popular presidential candidate for the opposition, was convicted in a politically-motivated trial just months before the election. Still, incredibly, the left in Turkey has not lost hope.

Hope against hope.

Here is the paradox for the opposition: the system is rigged, but acknowledging that means demoralising your base. To convince people to go out and vote, you have to give them some hope that their vote can bring about change, but behind the scenes, the opposition should have been better prepared for the AKP’s dirty tactics. Reports from opposition election observers all said the same thing: the AKP observers outnumbered us; they were better trained and more prepared; we needed more boots on the ground. The head of the opposition’s own vote tallying system resigned after the first round. This was all preventable. There’s no evidence to suggest that foul play from the AKP was enough to change the outcome, but a closer result in the first round might have meant fewer opposition voters staying home for the second.

The results are devastating for the thousands of political prisoners and exiles who believed that they would soon be home – for them, the grief is deep and personal. When Erdoğan has come close to losing power in the past, he has responded with repression. His attacks on LGBTQ+ people and the Kurdish movement in his victory speech are a worrying signal of what is to come.

But his grip on power is weakening, albeit slowly. He failed to win the election in the first round. Despite the uneven playing field, 25.4 million people (48% of voters) supported the opposition. Although his personal appeal remains strong, his party has lost seats in parliament.

As always, there is hope in the Kurdish political movement that has survived in the face of party closures, mass arrests and violent attacks. While the pro-Kurdish HDP did not do as well as hoped in the parliamentary election, its supporters remain steadfast. In the vox pops that flooded social media before the election, voters in Kurdish-majority towns repeated the same phrase: “I’m voting for myself, of course.”

Amid constant news of arrests, shutdowns and intimidation, opposition media, civil society struggles on. In response to the earthquake, trade unions, political parties and groups of all kinds mobilised to get goods and volunteers across the country (so effectively that the state tried to shut them down). Turnout for the election was an impressive 87%; in my parents’ small village, there were five election observers for only 117 voters. Despite two decades of Erdoğan’s rule, and an even longer history of state repression, a democratic spirit remains steadfast. On the day after the first-round result, the front page of one leftist newspaper read: “We shook him, we’ll bring him down.” Yes, we will – but when?

Eda Seyhan is a Turkish-Kurdish researcher and lawyer based in London. 

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