For a brief moment, Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone after being re-elected president of Turkey on Sunday night. “If we win, nobody in this country loses,” he said from the balcony of his palace in Ankara. “It is time to leave behind all debates and conflicts over the elections and unite around our national goals and dreams.”
A minute later, Erdogan became Erdogan again.
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He mocked his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu as a failing bookkeeper, portrayed the opposition as terrorist friends and lashed out at European newspapers that wanted to destroy him by playing ‘dirty games’. Surprisingly, the rants were omitted from the English translation of the speech on the presidential palace website. To the outside world, Erdogan preferred to present himself as a beacon of stability, but domestically he continues to sow division.
Polarization is therefore Erdogan’s profit model. By portraying his opponents as enemies of the nation, he succeeds time and time again in mobilizing his supporters, terrifying doubting voters and winning just over half of the country behind him. Once again, Erdogan obtained about 52 percent of the vote in this way: just enough to once again pay little attention to the other 48 percent of a country divided to the bone for the next five years.
From love rhetoric to politics of fear
The opposition initially tried to break through this polarization. The 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu acted as a unifying grandfather, forging previously unthinkable alliances between secularists, liberals and conservatives. At election rallies, he formed his hands into a heart.
But after a disappointing first round on May 14, the opposition panicked. In a desperate attempt to attract floating nationalist voters, Kilicdaroglu ditched his love rhetoric and, like Erdogan, lapsed into politics of fear. He attacked Erdogan more fiercely and directly, made an alliance with a far-right politician and promised to expel “ten million” Syrian refugees (according to the UN, there are an estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey) within a year.
As long as Erdogan dominates the media, the opposition cannot win the polarization game
The cover added fuel to the fire of refugee hatred, but did not lead to an opposition victory. Although Kilicdaroglu managed to get part of the Turkish nationalist vote behind it, it also lost votes from Kurdish voters, whose turnout was lower than in the first round. In addition, religious-conservative provinces in Anatolia voted even more massively for Erdogan this time. It shows that his supporters close ranks when their leader is attacked. As long as Erdogan dominates the media, the opposition cannot win the polarization game.
“This was the most unfair election in years,” Kilicdaroglu said in a short speech on Sunday evening. In doing so, he read from a piece of paper, did not congratulate Erdogan on his victory and called on the 25 million voters who had voted for him to continue fighting. There was no question of self-criticism or resignation.
Call for Kilicdaroglu to step down
There is no doubt that the playing field in Turkey is unfair, but it does not alter the fact that Kilicdaroglu himself also has a lot to explain. The 74-year-old has headed the main opposition CHP for 13 years and pushed through his own presidential candidacy despite signs that other candidates were more popular. That led then, and certainly now, to fierce criticism. “Turkey is nobody’s testing ground,” academic Berk Esen tweeted after the result. “A politician who has been in the chair of the party head for thirteen years and has lost every election must answer to voters instead of playing with their lives.”
It is therefore expected that the call for Kilicdaroglu’s resignation will swell. In particular, his coalition partner Meral Aksener, a nationalist politician who had argued for nominating the mayor of Istanbul or Ankara as a presidential candidate, will now feel all the more right in her favour. An important question for the opposition is whether its alliance with the CHP will last in the long run.
The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, seems to be warming up to a power struggle within the CHP. “We can’t expect different results if we keep doing the same thing,” he said in a video on Twitter Monday morning. “No one has to worry, everything starts again.” He then invited his fellow citizens to a rally commemorating the conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror, exactly 570 years ago that day.
It shows that Imamoglu has already started the next race: the 2024 municipal elections. If he then succeeds in being re-elected mayor of Istanbul, this will strengthen his position as a possible new leader of the Turkish opposition.
But pedigree politician Erdogan, who also started his career as mayor of Istanbul, already seemed determined on Sunday evening not to let that happen. “Istanbul, I’m in love with you, we’ll get you back,” said the longest-serving head of state in Turkish history. In the same speech, Erdogan called the opposition “pro-LGBTI” and said they will fail to “infiltrate” Turkey. One thing is clear: this election is over, the next one has already begun.