hEnter Opposition coalition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu is campaigning on the themes of hope, tolerance and economic recovery in Turkey’s first round of presidential elections on May 14. The second time, on May 28, he ran a decidedly more negative campaign, doubling down on his pledge to send home millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey and ruling out peace talks with Kurdish separatist rebels.
Two weeks ago, Mr Kilicdaroglu became the first politician ever to force Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for more than two decades, into a runoff. But his performance fell far short of his expectations. Leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (Cogeneration) received 44.9% of the vote, well below the votes given to him by pollsters on the eve of the election, and Mr Erdogan’s 49.5%. Mr Kilicdaroglu had hoped to win a majority and avoid a second round of voting. Instead, he barely avoided a first-round loss.
To salvage the situation, Mr Kilicdaroglu has begun courting Türkiye’s hard-line right. On May 17, the former bureaucrat, who recorded a video address from his home addressing supporters, appeared in front of a portrait of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, expressing his inner nationalism mood. “Once I come to power, I will send all the refugees home,” he promised, citing the number of Syrian refugees and other migrants in Turkey at 10 million, far more than double what experts estimate. “If they stay, another 10 million people will come to Turkey,” he said, without offering any supporting evidence. Mr Kilicdaroglu also said that, unlike Mr Erdogan, who had approved secret talks with rebels from the PKK (PKK) More than a decade ago, he would never have sat down with a “terrorist”.
As a policy, the refugee program doesn’t work. Of the 3.6 million Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey over the past decade, only a fraction want to go back, research shows. The country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, does not want to see them return. Any attempt to deport refugees by force would turn Turkey into a pariah state and poison relations with Europe.
As an emergency electoral tactic, born less of conviction than desperation, Mr Kilicdaroglu’s sharp rightward turn appears to have met with limited success. Umit Ozdag, leader of the openly xenophobic Victory Party, backed Mr Kilicdaroglu on 24 May with 2.2% of the parliamentary vote (well below the threshold for winning a seat). Days before that, however, nationalist Sinan Ogan, who came third with 5.2 percent support in the first round of the presidential election, called on his supporters to vote for Mr Erdogan in the runoff.
Without the support of Turkey’s main Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party, Mr Kilicdaroglu would have had no chance of winning the presidency (HDF) and its 5 million voters.But Mr Erdogan has ensured HDF— Most Turks, especially nationalists, think this is PKKpolitical affiliation – paid a heavy price.For weeks he has been emphasizing that the opposition is somehow PKK. The president hit a new low at a May 7 rally when he showed a doctored video purporting to show PKK The fighters sang Mr Kilicdaroglu’s campaign song.
Political analyst Ali Carkoglu said the fact that Mr Kilidaroglu felt compelled to respond to such a low hit showed they had been hit. The same goes for the results of the first round. Mr Erdogan not only took the lead, but won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections; his coalition won 323 of the 600 seats. He clearly has the wind behind him. Opinion polls show the Turkish strongman has maintained and even expanded his lead over Kilidaroglu since the first round.
The nationalist right fared well in parliamentary elections. A quarter of Turks voted for a nationalist party: the Nationalist Movement Party, a member of Mr Erdogan’s coalition (10.0% of the vote); Good Party (9.7%), which is part of Mr Kilicdaroglu; or three others Smaller groups, including victories.Mr Erdogan himself supported the nationalist cause years ago, putting PKKjailing thousands of Kurdish militants and opening a new front in northern Syria in his country’s endless war against rebels.
Nationalism has always been part of Türkiye’s political culture. But this year’s elections have shown that the country’s nationalists, though spread across multiple parties, are as much king-makers as the Kurds. Unless Mr Kilicdaroglu’s last 11 hours of campaigning somehow convince millions otherwise, they will crown Mr Erdogan again.■