Too Important

Izzy Finkel

It wasn’t dodgy polling that convinced Turkey’s opposition they stood a chance at overturning Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two-decade rule, or not dodgy polling alone. In the twelve years since Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu became leader of the CHP, the UK has cycled through three main opposition leaders and five prime ministers. Turkish voters have been here before – so many times before – and are attuned to subtle changes in the air. This time the changes weren’t even subtle.

There were plenty of good reasons for the opposition to be confident of putting an end to their 21-year losing streak. The economy’s slow-motion crisis has lately achieved an excruciating clip, thanks to eccentric policies indelibly associated with the president – so who better to spearhead a return to orthodoxy than Kılıçdaroğlu, a challenger who, though 74 years old, closely resembles a young Friedrich Hayek? Against a backdrop of inflation hovering around 50 per cent, it would have been crazy not to believe.

It could and should have made a difference that so many opposition parties united around a single challenger. In the terrified atmosphere after 2016’s failed coup, Erdoğan succeeded so completely in equating opposition to him personally with opposition to the state that the ‘no’ camp only feebly contested the 2017 referendum on shifting to a presidential system. Their flags in that campaign didn’t feature anyone actually known to the electorate, instead using the benign face of a schoolgirl available for download from Shutterstock for $49. This time the opposition showed their faces, offering as an antidote to one-man rule the beaming triumvirate of Kılıçdaroğlu alongside the popular mayors of Ankara and Istanbul.

Incorporating parties to the right and left of the ruling AKP as well as high-profile defectors from within its ranks, the opposition coalition had something for everyone who wanted change. Too many Turks did not. Sunday’s election was both a parliamentary vote, which has concluded in favour of the AKP-led bloc, and a presidential election which goes to a runoff next week after no candidate gained an outright majority. But it was Erdoğan who came closest to clearing that hurdle, with 49.5 per cent to Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.9. It would have created a constitutional conundrum for voters to install Erdoğan’s opponent as president while the AKP held a majority in parliament, as many polls predicted. Now that conflict seems unlikely to arise.

Commentators so recently confident of an upset now point to factors that were there all along. The government has dismantled the independent media. In times of crisis people turn to a strong man, overlooking his complicity in their fates. All the things that were admired about Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign might, in retrospect, have been weakness: too mild, too clean, too Alevi. Within the opposition alliance there is renewed debate over whether he was the wrong candidate. These are not the sorts of conversation that presage a last-minute comeback. Ahead of the first round of voting, at the Istanbul ferry hub of Üsküdar, all the parties had pitched extravagantly sized tents blaring campaign songs while their volunteers dispersed leaflets to commuters. Two days after the vote the place had returned to its factory settings: a single tent and the face of one man.

At next Sunday’s run-off Kılıçdaroğlu somehow has to target the 5 per cent of voters who came out for the ultranationalist third candidate (Sinan Oğan) without jeopardising his informal alliance with the predominantly Kurdish party of the left. In the first round, Kılıçdaroğlu won his highest shares of the vote not in his own party’s secular heartlands but in the Kurdish provinces. His first major post-election broadcast underlined his difficult position. He chose to emphasise border security, voicing a coded promise to expel millions of Syrian refugees. Before the election the opposition’s informal symbol had been a heart formed by two joined hands.

Observers like to say that Turkey’s elections are ‘free and not fair’. In recent times, the first part of the assertion has come under some strain. There were allegations of irregularities (there often are). And there was some evidence of it (there often is). Two days after the election it turned out that some numbers had been entered into the wrong parties’ columns as the votes were aggregated. One of Kılıçdaroğlu’s deputies said that the party had raised objections at thousands of ballot boxes nationwide and will chase every last vote but he admitted that even if the appeals stand it won’t change the result. It seems unlikely that these allegations will play so prominent a role in the second round: no one needs to fiddle the numbers when morale on one side is this low.

At least participation was high, the armchair modernisation theorists on Twitter agreed: turnout of 89 per cent is truly among the world’s highest. But another way to look at this is that in a nation where power has become so centralised, the stakes around elections are far too high. When the party in power is the one that gets to conduct purges of a nominally independent civil service, ignore the rulings of regulatory bodies and appoint the judiciary that will imprison their enemies on flimsy pretexts, elections may be important for all the wrong reasons. They shouldn’t have to matter this much.