Turkey’s Opposition Struggles to Chart Path as Runoff Nears

After heading into elections with high hopes, Turkey’s political opposition is struggling to fight off despair and plot a course to give their candidate a fighting chance against the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a runoff later this month.

While Mr. Erdogan, bidding for a third five-year presidential term, failed to win a simple majority in Sunday’s election, he still led the opposition by a margin of about five percentage points. That, and a number of other indications, point to a win for the president in the second round on May 28.

Importantly, Mr. Erdogan looks likely to be the primary beneficiary of votes from supporters of an ultranationalist third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who has been eliminated despite a surprisingly strong showing over the weekend. The first-round results pointed to growing nationalist sentiment across the electorate that will probably boost the president.

All of that amounts to an uphill battle for the challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party coalition that came together with the goals of unseating Mr. Erdogan, restoring Turkish democracy, righting the economy and smoothing over frazzled relations with the West.

“Obviously, it is difficult,” said Can Selcuki, the director of the Turkey Report, which publishes polls and political analysis.

Mr. Selcuki, who had predicted a stronger showing by the opposition, said that the coalition now appeared to have at least two options: find a way to increase turnout among supportive voters and adopt a more nationalist tone that might attract crossover votes.

So far, opposition leaders have publicly said very little about how they might modify their campaign before the runoff.

“I am here, I am here,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate, said in a video posted on Twitter on Monday that showed him uncharacteristically banging on a desk. “I swear I will fight to the end.”

In another post on Tuesday, he tried to rally younger voters, cautioning that a win by his opponent would lead to “a bottomless darkness.”

Still, the math does not appear to be in his favor.

Mr. Erdogan won 49.5 percent of the vote, versus 44.9 percent for Mr. Kilicdaroglu, according to the Turkish electoral authority. The third candidate, Mr. Ogan, received 5.2 percent, and his right-wing supporters seem more likely to opt for Mr. Erdogan in the runoff.

Going into the first round, most polls indicated a slight lead for Mr. Kilicdaroglu, but since the results came out, analysts have tried to explain why the opposition performed worse than expected and how it might rebound in the second round.

“It seems like they didn’t make a plan for the second round, the Plan B,” said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of IstanPol, an Istanbul-based research group. “And now the opposition will spent a couple of days to make that plan and also to clean the wreck of the disappointment of that night. This is the biggest mistake in this election.”

The six parties that backed Mr. Kilicdaroglu represent a disparate range of backgrounds and ideologies, including nationalists, staunch secularists and even Islamists who had defected from Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

While their primary unifying goal was to unseat Mr. Erdogan, they tried to sell voters on a different vision for Turkey’s future. That included restoring the independence of state institutions such as the Foreign Ministry and the central bank; a return to orthodox financial policies aimed at taming painfully high inflation and enticing foreign investors; and the strengthening of civil liberties, including freedom of expression and of association, which Mr. Erdogan has limited.

Throughout the campaign, the opposition emphasized the breadth of its coalition, with the leaders of the six parties often appearing onstage together, sometimes with the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, the capital, who are both supposed to be vice presidents.

Instead of unity, many voters saw potential chaos in the administration when it came time to divvy up jobs.

“And once and for all, the opposition’s campaign should get rid of this ‘picture of all the leaders together,’” Ates Ilyas Bassoy, a former campaign manager for the largest opposition party, wrote in a text message. “A leader is being selected, not a team. Only Kilicdaroglu must be onstage.”

The opposition also needed to remain upbeat and confident and make its plans clearer to voters, he said.

Mr. Erdogan mounted a campaign that linked him in voters’ minds to Turkey’s increasing military might and independence. In interviews, many pro-Erdogan voters expressed admiration for Turkey’s defense industry, particularly its drones, which have played key roles in a number of conflicts, including in Ukraine and in Ethiopia.

He also demonized the opposition, associating them with terrorism. This line of attack capitalized on the support that Mr. Kilicdaroglu has received from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party, the country’s third-largest. The government has accused that party’s officials and members of cooperation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which it has designated a terrorist organization.

At campaign rallies, Mr. Erdogan even showed a video that had been manipulated to make it look as if a P.K.K. leader was clapping along with one of Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s campaign songs.

Turkey has fought a long and deadly battle against Kurdish militants, and the government often accuses Kurdish politicians of cooperating with them. Many Kurdish politicians have been jailed, prosecuted or removed from office because of such allegations.

The terrorism allegation proved to be painfully effective against the opposition, said Idris Sahin, an official with DEVA, an opposition alliance party.

Mr. Erdogan’s party’s campaign “revolved around identity politics and affiliating any opposition initiative with terrorism,” he said, adding that this gave them “the psychological upper hand.”

In the runoff, he said, the opposition needed to bring out supportive voters who did not participate in the first round and attract voters who had originally voted for Mr. Ogan, the third candidate, and now needed another option.

The overall results of Sunday’s vote, including for the Turkish Parliament, amounted to a strong showing by right-wing nationalists. The Nationalist Movement Party, Mr. Erdogan’s strongest ally in Parliament, increased its share, and Mr. Ogan did much better than polls had predicted.

Those candidates emphasize Turkish identity and national security, demonize the Kurds and call for the more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey to be sent home. All appear to have benefited from Mr. Erdogan’s warnings about terrorism.

At the same time, some of the smaller parties that Mr. Kilicdaroglu brought into his coalition failed to mobilize significant numbers of voters.In his message aimed at Turkey’s younger voters on Tuesday, Mr. Kilicdaroglu returned to the state of the country’s economy, focusing on how inflation, which exceeded 80 percent last year, had eroded the value of people’s incomes.

“You don’t have money for anything. You have to do calculations for a cup of coffee,” he wrote. “Yet youth means being carefree. They didn’t allow you to have that for even a day.”

He also returned to the opposition’s central theme, the effort to remove Mr. Erdogan and reverse his tilt toward authoritarian rule.

“Those who want change in this country are more than those who don’t want it,” he wrote. “But this is clear: we are the side that needs to fight harder to get rid of such a tyrant government.”



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