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Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu faces the heat after election loss to Erdogan

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Kemal Kilicdaroglu barely managed to force a runoff on May 28. In the last two weeks, he struggled to motivate voters in the face of an overwhelmingly pro-government mainstream media and Erdogan's strong base of support across rural Anatolia

After failing to seize the moment to defeat President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces questions about his leadership and the challenge of preserving a bitter opposition alliance ahead of local voting in March 2024.

According to some party members, analysts and voters, Kilicdaroglu, the opposition presidential candidate in Sunday’s runoff vote, will need to immediately re-focus on maintaining control of Turkey’s big cities in the municipal elections.

But after his loss to Erdogan – who was seen as uniquely vulnerable due to a cost-of-living crisis – many opposition members and supporters are frustrated, soul-searching and considering leadership changes.

“It was not a surprising result since the opposition did not change for 20 years facing the same government,” said Bugra Oztug, 24, who voted for Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul. “I feel sad and disappointed, but I am not hopeless.”

Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant, got 47.8% support in the runoff vote despite an optimistic, inclusive campaign that pledged to rein in Erdogan’s maverick economic policies.

Instead Erdogan, modern Turkey’s longest-serving leader, will extend his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade, backed by a majority for his alliance in parliament.

Meanwhile the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which Kilicdaroglu leads, holds internal discussions this week in Ankara to pick up the pieces. The broader six-party opposition alliance convened after Sunday’s election results came in.

Akif Hamzacebi, a former CHP deputy parliamentary group chair, said his party and Kilicdaroglu were “seriously unsuccessful” because of a poor strategy, and a comprehensive re-evaluation is needed. If “the necessary actions are not taken, the future will be worse than today,” he said on Twitter.

SECOND-GUESSING

Kilicdaroglu, 74, had long pressed to be the man to take on the 69-year-old Erdogan.

The opposition alliance – which included nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals – chose him as candidate in March, even though some members had warned at the time that he was not the strongest option based on opinion polls.

His selection came after a dramatic weekend in which Meral Aksener, leader of the IYI Party, the Turkish opposition’s second largest, briefly walked out in protest.

Yet on the campaign trail, Kilicdaroglu won the key backing of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), leading most pollsters to predict he would prevail in the initial vote on May 14 and begin rolling back Erdogan’s legacy.

In the end, he barely managed to force a runoff on May 28. In the last two weeks, he struggled to motivate voters in the face of an overwhelmingly pro-government mainstream media and Erdogan’s strong base of support across rural Anatolia.

In a speech on Sunday evening, Kilicdaroglu called it “the most unfair election in years”. But he gave no sign of resignation and said he “will continue to lead and struggle for democracy”.

Atilla Yesilada, analyst at GlobalSource Partners, said, “I don’t know whether CHP and IYI Party can tolerate their leadership anymore”.

Zeynep Alemdar, professor of international relations at Okan University, said Kilicdaroglu sought to be a collaborative leader but his allies contributed little to his success.

“None of them seem to have increased their share of votes, neither for themselves nor for Kilicdaroglu,” she said.

HOLDING THE CITIES

Analysts say Kilicdaroglu will now seek to keep this unwieldy alliance united, including the HDP’s support, to hold on to cities in March.

In the last municipal elections in 2019, CHP candidates backed by the alliance shocked Erdogan’s AK Party (AKP) by winning mayoralties in Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Adana.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP – who Aksener had promoted as a better presidential candidate than Kilicdaroglu – said on Monday that the “struggle is starting again”.

“We will no longer expect different results by doing the same things. From now on, we will continue to fight to win all hearts,” Imamoglu said in the video address.

An internal debate within the CHP, the party of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, will likely stir ahead of a party congress scheduled for this summer.

Emre Erdogan, political science professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said the opposition’s election loss made it harder to form a “grand” alliance but this remained necessary for success in the local elections in March 2024.

“If the opposition cannot unite again, the victories of 2019 may be reversed and the opposition camp can lose Istanbul and even Ankara,” he said.

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