The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkish opposition, trailing Erdogan, faces hard post-election truths

A couple walks under a poster of Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, in Ankara on Monday, the day after Turkey's general election. (Sedat Suna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

ISTANBUL — Two days had passed since Turkey’s landmark election and Gokce Sari, a 24-year-old supporter of the opposition, was still processing defeat, with her candidate badly trailing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the first round of voting.

“I’m hopeless. Sometimes I’m angry,” she said. But it was a deeper realization that haunted her, with the results for parliament and president showing that parties that did not reflect her worldview, and voters who did not share her priorities, held more sway than she had imagined.

“I don’t appear to understand my society,” she said. “My hope hindered my understanding of the reality, of how degraded and ignorant our society has become.”

On the streets of her Besiktas neighborhood in Istanbul, where most people have traditionally voted against the ruling party, and in opposition party headquarters across Turkey, supporters of Erdogan’s challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, were grappling with election results replete with uncomfortable truths — and wondering whether any path to victory remained in the election’s second round.

Erdogan has the advantage as Turkey election heads to runoff

Independent polls before the vote showed Kilicdaroglu leading the incumbent by a few points, buoying opposition hopes after two decades in Erdogan’s shadow. But the final outcome, a nearly five-point win by Erdogan, raised questions including whether some respondents had hidden their prejudices against Kilicdaroglu, a member of Turkey’s persecuted Alevi religious minority who talked openly about his faith during the campaign.

It was not just his faith. Before the election, there had been disputes within the opposition over whether Kilicdaroglu was the best candidate to face Turkey’s dominating leader, given that others within Kilicdaroglu’s party were more popular or charismatic.

Nationalist parties fared better than expected Sunday, and a hard-right presidential candidate, Sinan Ogan, garnered more than 5 percent of the vote. The success of the nationalists suggested that Erdogan’s smearing of the opposition as “terrorists” had gained traction with the public — at least more so than Kilicdaroglu’s appeals for a return to democracy and justice, things he said had been lost under Erdogan’s autocratic rule.

Sari was hard on herself, citing blind spots that held true for other opposition supporters. “I know Istanbul, Antalya, Izmir,” she said, citing places where the opposition was strong. Voters, she had assumed, were angry about the dismal economy and the inadequate government response to deadly earthquakes in southern Turkey a few months ago. But those concerns didn’t seem to register when election day finally came.

“I thought people would make certain conclusions,” Sari said. The results had hardened her conviction to leave Turkey, she said, in the hopes that in a few decades the country might eventually change.

Kilicdaroglu and senior members of his Republican People’s Party, or CHP, huddled Tuesday in Ankara to find a way to stave off disaster when Turkey’s voters return to the polls on May 28 for the runoff. At least one senior official, responsible for election monitoring, stepped down, as part of what Turkish media outlets reported was a larger shake-up in the management of a once-confident campaign, now suddenly adrift. The candidate, meanwhile, issued the latest of his rallying cries to the public, this one focused on young people.

From his kitchen table, Erdogan’s challenger gets his message out

On Twitter, Kilicdaroglu spun the support for ultranationalists as evidence that voters wanted “change.” But it was also clear, he said, that “we are the party that has to fight much harder.”

Young people had the most to lose if Erdogan remained, he said, if things stayed as they were. “You are not able to afford anything,” he wrote. “Your joy of life has been stolen. Youth is supposed to be carefree. They haven’t let you experience this even for a day.”

A few miles from Kilicdaroglu’s office, in the presidential palace, Erdogan received some of his electoral allies Tuesday, including the leader of a hard-line Islamist party that has pushed for the annulment of a law protecting women from violence.

“The opposition needs to understand that it can no longer win elections with terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said in a televised interview broadcast Tuesday evening, doubling down on his baseless allegation that Kilicdaroglu was aligned with Kurdish militants because he had received support from a Kurdish-led opposition party.

Erdogan, whose loyal base includes conservative Muslims, said he would travel to the earthquake zone, where he had received strong support, and hold “rally-like meetings to unite with the people.” Opposition supporters, he noted, had “insulted” earthquake survivors after the election because of their political preferences. “This is very, very wrong,” he said.

A new threat rises in earthquake-battered Turkey: Mountains of rubble

Morale among Kilicdaroglu’s supporters was low, a CHP official said, adding that “we’re not letting go of hope.” But they had been surprised by how many votes had gone to the ruling party, as well as to Erdogan’s hard-right alliance partner, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak for the party.

One factor in the first-round defeat was Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi faith, the official said. Prejudice was not strong among young people, but “it exists in older generations,” the official said.

The CHP said Wednesday that it was still objecting to “errors” in the vote tallies in several cities, though the party did not indicate that the errors had changed the election’s overall results.

Others thought the opposition may have misread the shifting politics of Turkey’s youngest voters. “Nationalism is increasing, especially among the young,” said Mehmet Yildiz, 31, who works in banking and sat with his laptop Tuesday afternoon in a Besiktas park. “I think that young people think Syrians and Afghans are taking opportunities from them,” he said, referring to the anti-immigration rhetoric that has been a staple of the nationalists’ campaigns.

Kilicdaroglu, during his campaign, had also seized on the anger against immigrants in Turkey, vowing to send Syrian refugees back to their country within two years.

Yildiz said the only hope for Kilicdaroglu, whom he supported, was to “act nationalist for the second round.” At the moment, he was “acting like a left-liberal.” Going forward, he thought, Kilicdaroglu’s messages could tack more “populist.”

Up the hill in the park, a 36-year-old woman said she had not voted for Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu but for Ogan, the obscure ultranationalist who had gathered more than 5 percent of the vote in the presidential race. She liked what little she knew about Ogan — his education, his experience — but mostly, she had been swayed by assertions that both mainstream candidates were associated with “terrorist” organizations.

“On both sides, the waters are cloudy. I don’t go into cloudy water,” she said. In the second round, though, she said she would vote for Kilicdaroglu, and was dismayed that Erdogan had gathered so many first-round votes. “Maybe it’s that voters are afraid of change,” she said.

“I would like to see a new order arrive, a state apart from Erdogan,” she said. “Now there is an understanding that the state is Erdogan.”