Despite high hopes, Turkey’s opposition failed to remove Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from power in the Turkish general election in May. Burak Kadercan charts how a series of strategic blunders undermined their chances of success.
At the Turkish general election in May, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again inflicted a crushing electoral defeat on his opponents. This time, however, Erdoğan could have lost. With a tanking economy, many believed, Erdoğan stood no chance against a coalition of unprecedented scope and ambition, led by the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Instead, Erdoğan’s victory decisively broke the opposition’s back, setting the stage for a Putinesque Turkey where the Turkish president will rule unchallenged and (almost) unopposed, for as long as his health allows. Erdoğan is much like a ferocious street fighter who faces his opponents in a boxing ring in a fight rigged in his favour. His opponents must follow the rules, but Erdoğan doesn’t because he controls the state institutions and media. Against Erdoğan, it is never really a fair fight.
This being said, his victory is best explained in terms of the failings of the main opposition. The root cause of the defeat was the formation of the so-called Table of Six, another name for the opposition’s electoral alliance, which trapped the opposition in a graveyard of tactical errors. The journey to defeat was a tragedy in four acts, spanning the formation of the Table in 2022, Kılıçdaroğlu imposing his candidacy via the Table, the subsequent fracturing of the opposition between March and mid-May, and the final collapse of the Table between the first round (14 May) and second round (28 May) of the election.
In early 2022, with the Turkish economy in turmoil, Erdoğan was on the ropes. In the municipal elections of 2019, the opposition had also gained two new and wildly popular champions, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş. For the first time in a very long time, the opposition could afford to be optimistic.
This optimism was enough to bring together the six parties of the Table. The CHP and the nationalist Good Party (İYİ) were the largest of the six. They consistently polled around 25% and 15% of the vote at this time respectively. The other four parties were substantially smaller. They included the Felicity Party, an Islamist party with a strong stance against Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the Democrat Party, which lacked any real following or distinct message.
The final two parties were led by politicians who had formally served in government under Erdoğan. The Future Party is the brainchild of Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdoğan’s former prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. The Democracy and Progress Party was founded by Ali Babacan, Erdoğan’s former economy tsar and a former minister of foreign affairs. Despite their senior positions in government, neither politician had ever had an organic, substantial support base and they received negligible levels of support in the polls.
Optimism may have brought the Table together, but it also contained the seeds of its own downfall. The Table’s foundational assumption was that Erdoğan had already lost. It emerged as a movement not to defeat Erdoğan, but rather as a vehicle for remaking Turkey after Erdoğan. And for the Table to realise its idealistic goals after winning power, its candidate had to be Kılıçdaroğlu.
While İmamoğlu and Yavaş would have stood a better chance of winning the 2023 election than Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition knew that it would then face the risk of being unable to implement its vision for Turkey once in office. Turkey’s new presidential system equips the president with near-absolute powers and many of the deals that the members of the Table were striking among themselves were essentially extra-constitutional. This would have left little room for constraining the actions of the new president. Only Meral Akşener, the leader of the Good Party, stood as a real obstacle to Kılıçdaroğlu by openly favouring İmamoğlu and Yavaş.
Eventually, Kılıçdaroğlu gave oversized concessions to the four smaller parties in the alliance to secure his candidacy. The CHP offered dozens of parliamentary seats to these parties from its own electoral lists. If Kılıçdaroğlu won, the four parties would each get vice-presidential positions and cabinet seats, despite their small size. And if Kılıçdaroğlu lost, they would still win around 40 seats in parliament, all elected with CHP votes.
Strategic errors and the fracturing of the opposition
The Table’s strategy was rooted in several flawed assumptions. Kılıçdaroğlu believed that with the help two ex-AKP politicians on board, he could outflank Erdoğan when it came to identity politics, thereby attracting conservative voters from his rival. But with a tanking economy and a slow-burning refugee crisis – two issues that affect all voters regardless of party affiliation – this was the last card Kılıçdaroğlu should have played. Erdoğan is a master of identity politics and this was proven once again during the campaign.
A second assumption was that the Table could present a united front to voters. Instead, it remained an incoherent and chaotic alternative to Erdoğan, who could present himself as a vote for stability. Similarly, the Table naively assumed it would win the support of all secular voters due to their hatred of Erdoğan. While many secular voters eventually joined the fold, not all did.
Finally, the opposition suffered from the flawed assumption that it could dictate its preferences to its support base. The Table reflected the hopes, ideals and biases of a handful of political and intellectual elites. The ideals it promoted were not based on the actual preferences or priorities of voters and this once again played into Erdoğan’s hands.
All of these errors combined to create a sense that an “opposition to the opposition” was required. In early March, the reemergence of Muharrem İnce, the CHP’s presidential candidate in the 2018 Turkish election, provided a vehicle for these sentiments. İnce argued that the Table was formed to impose Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy on the broader opposition, noting that prior to his nomination, Kılıçdaroğlu was only the fourth most popular candidate in the polls. While İnce eventually dropped out of the race a couple of days before the first round, pro-Kılıçdaroğlu public intellectuals and voters wasted the most valuable two months of the election campaign by trying to bully him into submission.
At the same time, the Table’s second biggest partner, Meral Akşener, was expressing her own doubts. On 3 March, Akşener publicly blamed Kılıçdaroğlu for exploiting the Table construct to impose his candidacy, implying that the smaller parties were colluding with the CHP leader. Aksener also made clear that she did not believe Kılıçdaroğlu could actually win and that İmamoğlu and Yavaş, who are both members of the CHP, would stand a better chance.
Pro-CHP public figures instantly launched a massive smear campaign against Akşener. After three days of this, Akşener caved. While some blamed Aksener for trying to break the Table, others blamed her for sheepishly giving in. The result was that Akşener’s İYİ failed to reach 10% of the vote in the election, only a year after holding aspirations of breaking the 20% barrier. This infighting was the one path the opposition should have avoided at all costs, yet it was precisely where the decision to create the Table led.
The two weeks when Turkey stood still
Prior to the first round of the election on 14 May, Kılıçdaroğlu had conditioned his constituents into believing that the opposition was destined to win. Paradoxically, Kılıçdaroğlu also tried to convince his voters that unless he won in the first round, they would be trapped in a bottomless darkness forever – a theme he emphasised to an even greater extent after 14 May.
When his supporters awoke on the day after the first round of the election, they were confronted with the reality that Kılıçdaroğlu had failed to win a majority and that the election was headed into a second round. This produced a bitter cocktail of disbelief and desperation. The Table had clearly failed to entertain the possibility of a runoff, as for almost a week after the first round, Kılıçdaroğlu was either absent or projecting a sense of panic.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s best bet was to turn to Sinan Ogan, who entered the race under the banner of the ultranationalist and anti-refugee ATA Alliance and received 5.2% of the vote in the first round. While Ogan eventually defected to Erdoğan, a greater priority for Kılıçdaroğlu was to reach out to Ümit Özdağ, the real brains and electoral muscle behind the ATA Alliance.
To secure Ozdag’s support, Kılıçdaroğlu was forced to reinvent himself as a hardline nationalist, vehemently pushing forward a radical anti-refugee platform. This was a humiliating ideological concession because the opposition’s campaign had been built on a message that boiled down to “love will prevail.” Kılıçdaroğlu still lost, but also let the anti-refugee genie out of the bottle – something that will heavily influence the Turkish political discourse in the coming years.
The road ahead
Like Icarus, the opposition aimed too high, and is now in freefall. Soon, the political cannibalism that defined the last couple of months of the campaign is bound to destroy whatever is left of the Table. We may also see fragmentation within the CHP. It is difficult to see what hope there may be for the future of the opposition. Erdoğan’s political prospects are now safer than ever.
The Table initiative will be remembered as a risky gamble that effectively wasted the only real chance the opposition has had against Erdoğan in decades. The Table and Kılıçdaroğlu offered the hope of a democratic paradise, but their inexplicable optimism has ensured that this paradise will be forever lost. Indeed, the only hope that remains is that opposition parties in other countries that are dominated by competitive authoritarianism may learn from the Table’s flawed experiment and vow to avoid the same mistakes.