How an eleventh hour promise showed the game was up for Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu

How an eleventh hour promise showed the game was up for Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu
Kilicdaroglu giving a speech to his party following his election defeat on Sunday night. / CNN Turk, screengrab.
By Michael Daventry May 29, 2023

This time, defeat wasn’t a devastating blow.

A fortnight ago, when the results of the presidential election’s first round began to roll in, a sense of despondency had swept through Turkish opposition households, WhatsApp groups and Twitter feeds.

Their candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu had not only failed to win the election outright; he’d come a clear second behind Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

They knew, despite the shows of bravado and the scramble to draw third-party candidates to their side, that it was all over. Erdogan’s lead was too great, and the second-round campaign too short, for their man to snatch victory.

That is why the May 28 presidential run-off result was not a surprise for opposition supporters. When at the eleventh hour Kilicdaroglu made an uncosted promise to air Turkish football league matches for free on state television, it was clear the game was up. It smacked of desperation.

Kilicdaroglu did not immediately resign after the polls closed on Sunday night, but it is clear that he has fought his last election as leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Kilicdaroglu has led his party in eight national elections and referendums since he became its leader in 2010  and lost all of them.

In the 2011 election, the year after he became leader, the CHP took 26% of the vote and was the only party to increase its tally of parliamentary seats. In this month’s election, it took 25% and – as President Erdogan gloated in his victory speech last night – saw its number of seats in parliament reduced.

For years, Kilicdaroglu’s detractors have argued he was the wrong man to lead the party. He is too mild-mannered and reserved, they say, to give voters something to be excited about. Those critics are already using this week’s defeat to call loudly for him to go.

In a scripted statement on Sunday night, before the election’s provisional result was declared, the CHP leader gave no hint of a departure.

He spoke of his dismay for people having to live under Erdogan’s rule and declared his struggle would continue – yet he did not explicitly say he would do so as CHP leader.

It is plausible that he will step down after designating a preferred successor, someone who will continue the Kilicdaroglu policy of appealing to people beyond the CHP’s secularist voter base.

But the 74-year-old may also choose to cling on – perhaps he feels he can even challenge Erdogan again five years from now.

The second option would undermine his many achievements, capped by the election campaign before this election, which was among Kilicdaroglu’s best. It was inclusive, drawing together groups as diverse as Islamists and leftists. Its tone was overwhelmingly positive. There was a clear programme of policy.

Against that message of unity, Erdogan ran a campaign that was nationalist and sharply divisive.

The president fully exploited the advantage of his incumbency and his control over the institutions of government. 

The media's one-sidedness was brazen. Apart from his direct-to-camera speeches, which are mandated by law, Kilicdaroglu barely appeared on state television at all. Private broadcasters pretended he didn’t exist: one news channel made graphics of the ballot paper that presented Erdogan as the only choice.

Yet the lopsided playing field is not a new phenomenon in Turkish elections. The brutal reality is that Kilicdaroglu’s campaign was not enough.

There is another electoral test in just nine months – local elections, where the CHP will defend the mayoralties of Turkey’s largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara among them.

Turkey’s main opposition party must now decide whether it renews itself before it fights that campaign against the sheer weight of the presidency.

It’s clear that Kilicdaroglu has little left in the tank: the question now is whether he preserves his legacy by stepping down, or digs in his heels in the style of Erdogan himself.