Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s failure in the first round of Turkey’s presidential election is a testimony to the waning appeal of liberalism in the face of ethnic conflict and refugee flows. The Turkish nationalism on which Kılıçdaroğlu has fatefully stumbled is fuelled by the Kurdish challenge and the Syrian refugees. But it is also fed by a heightened sense of national insecurity in a global context of escalating geopolitical confrontation. The virulently nationalist rhetoric against the Syrian refugees that Kılıçdaroğlu has adopted in order to make himself a palatable choice to right wing Turkish nationalists does not necessarily offer him a path to victory. Tarnishing his image as a liberal and social democrat, he risks forfeiting the support of the Kurdish voters as well as the support of Turkish liberals and leftists.
BACKGROUND: The outcome of the first round of Turkey’s presidential election – and of the parliamentary election that was held simultaneously – on May 14 was a major disappointment for the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) whom the polls had put as the winner. As it were, Kılıçdaroğlu came second, with 45 percent of the votes. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is also the leader of the Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 49.24 percent of the votes. Since none of the candidates received more than 50 percent of the votes, a second round will be held on May 28.
To win, Kılıçdaroğlu will need to close the gap to Erdoğan – 2.5 million votes in the first round – and win additional votes, assuming that Erdoğan succeeds in holding on to his votes. Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu must succeed in re-mobilizing his demoralized supporters who may not turn in the same numbers as they did in the first round. Erdoğan meanwhile faces the opposite challenge. His reelection can be endangered if his supporters reason that he will win anyway and demobilize.
However, there is no doubt that Erdoğan is in an advantageous position and that he will most likely be reelected. The president very nearly carried the election in the first round, and his party coalition – the alliance of the AKP and the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) increased its majority in the Turkish parliament. And while the MHP did unexpectedly well, receiving 10 percent of the votes and becoming the third biggest party in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, the election was a major setback for the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party whose support eroded to 8.8 percent. The Turkish Labor Party (TIP) – Turkey’s biggest socialist party – that entered the election in alliance with the Green Left Party received 1.76 percent of the votes, underscoring that the socialist left remains politically insignificant in Turkish politics.
Overall, it was the nationalist right that emerged as the winner of the Turkish election. The far right candidate Sinan Oğan received 5.28 percent of the votes in the presidential election despite a lack of country-wide party organization to sustain his campaign and almost no media coverage. On May 23, Oğan declared that he will be supporting Erdoğan in the second round, saying that this is in line with “Atatürkist and nationalist values.”
The surge of the nationalist right presages a shift in Turkish politics, signaling that it is set to become the new hegemonic force after two decades of Islamic conservatism. Indeed, Erdoğan has already assumed the right wing nationalism of his partner Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP. Meanwhile, his challenger Kılıçdaroğlu – who leads an alliance in which the right wing nationalist Good Party is the second biggest party – has responded to the outcome of the first round by moving further to the far right and embracing its fiery, anti-immigrant stance.
Kılıçdaroğlu has slammed the Syrian refugees who he purports amount to 10 million, and renewed his electoral vow that he will rid Turkey of them, albeit in a significantly more aggressive language. Yet while Kılıçdaroğlu is desperate to establish his credentials as a reliable Turkish nationalist, this may not offer him a path to victory. Tarnishing his image as a liberal and social democrat, he risks forfeiting the support of the Kurdish voters who massively turned out in his favor, as well as the support of Turkish liberals and leftists.
IMPLICATIONS: Kılıçdaroğlu needed to succeed in striking the right balance between Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, offering liberties to Kurds without appearing to be endangering national unity. That was a near-impossible challenge to start with, and it did not help Kılıçdaroğlu that leading representatives of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, as well as the leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, endorsed his candidacy in terms that made it clear that they were expecting Kılıçdaroğlu to make major concessions to them, including setting Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, free.
Fatally for his chances, Kılıçdaroğlu abstained from distancing himself from Kurdish radicalism. He did not attempt to dispel the suspicion that he would show leniency toward the PKK, meekly stating that the “fatherland and the flag are our red lines.” Moreover, Erdoğan supporters could credibly cultivate the image of Kılıçdaroğlu as being in cahoots with Kurdish separatists, as Kılıçdaroğlu opposes cross-border Turkish military interventions in Syria and Iraq against the PKK and its affiliates.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s inability to fashion a discourse that combined the promise of democratic reform at home with a firm commitment to the preservation of national security interests proved – as could be expected – fatal for his electoral prospects. Turkish nationalist voters in conservative Anatolia, the Turkish heartland, turned out massively in favor of Erdoğan. In the province of Kahramanmaraş, the epicenter of the cataclysmic earthquakes in February, where popular discontent with Erdoğan was supposedly widespread 72 percent voted for the president. Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu – while winning the Kurds – failed to mobilize the urban secular-nationalist vote. A significant number of CHP voters and a third of the voters of the right wing nationalist Good Party are estimated to have abstained from voting for Kılıçdaroğlu.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s failure is a testimony to the waning appeal of liberalism in the face of ethnic conflict and refugee flows. Ultimately, though, his failure and the surge of nationalism that has undermined his bid are expressions of the global zeitgeist.
What Kılıçdaroğlu, in alliance with conservative parties (two of which are led by former lieutenants of Erdoğan) offered is a restoration in all but name of the original AKP, which, like the opposition alliance that he leads, was a pro-Western alliance of free market conservatives and Kurds. That, however, was an alliance and a reform agenda that was aligned with the imperatives of the global context two decades ago, when globalization and the needs and interests of the Turkish business class and of the Turkish state converged to drive liberal change. The attempt to resurrect it in a global context of escalating geopolitical confrontation is, perhaps unsurprisingly, proving futile.
The Turkish nationalism on which Kılıçdaroğlu has fatefully stumbled is fuelled not only by the Kurdish challenge and the Syrian refugees. It is also fed by a heightened sense of national insecurity in a geopolitically volatile environment. But this fraught context simultaneously offers opportunities for projecting power, which in turn stimulates nationalism.
Erdoğan ascended to power speaking for the interests of a Turkish business class that wanted to enjoy the benefits of globalization. The new Turkish nationalism that underpins Erdoğan’s power today is ultimately a reflection of changes in the economic base, with the growth of a military-industrial sector that has become increasingly important both in strategic and economic terms. Two decades ago, Turkey prided itself on selling refrigerators and television sets to foreign markets. Today, the nation prides itself on having made important strides toward achieving self-sufficiency in military technology and hardware. Kılıçdaroğlu committed yet another mistake in the campaign when he conveyed the impression that he would not protect the interests of the domestic military industry and that he would invite U.S. defense corporations to compete with it. He subsequently sought to reassure that the promotion of the domestic defense industry is indeed a national interest, but the damage to his image was already done.
CONCLUSIONS: Erdoğan, who has a secure grip on the conservative nationalist electorate can also – as his endorsement by the secular right wing nationalist candidate Sinan Oğan underscores – count on being supported by enough secularist nationalists to tip the balance in his favor in the second round of the election.
Kılıçdaroğlu meanwhile, endowed with the endorsement of the Kurdish movement, faces the difficult, if not impossible challenge of winning over some of the conservative nationalists while keeping the secular nationalists lined up on his side.
The virulently nationalist rhetoric against the Syrian refugees that Kılıçdaroğlu has adopted in order to make himself a palatable choice to right wing Turkish nationalists does not necessarily offer him a path to victory. It does however impair his pretentions of being a democratic reformer.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and the Editor of the Turkey Analyst. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdogan (Pluto Press).
This article was originally published on The Turkey Analyst. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.