Istanbul, Turkey—Sunday started sunny and cheerful in Turkey’s most populous city. Scores of families headed to secondary schools to cast their ballots and have their say in Turkish politics. That the country’s longtime president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would lose in this first round of presidential elections seemed a historical inevitability to the smiling, hopeful people lining the streets in my upper-middle-class neighborhood. In a few hours, we would be proven terribly wrong.
I voted at a school where crowded queues snaked into corridors. I heard middle-aged women repeat, “One vote to Kemal, one vote to Meral,” a mantra promising that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leftist leader of the main opposition party, the CHP, would be president, and Meral Akşener, the right-wing leader of the nationalist IYI party, his prime minister by sunset.
I walked to a nearby restaurant and chatted with a waitress, who was all smiles. “The cook has just returned from voting; the queue there has kept him for an hour,” she said. Surely, all that was good news? The voter turnout, we learned soon afterward, had hit 88.8 percent. Though we didn’t realize it at the moment, this was the first impediment to an opposition victory: The last time Erdoğan’s party lost, in the rerun of 2019’s mayoral elections, his disillusioned supporters didn’t turn up to save his candidate of choice. This time, to a remarkable degree, they did.
From the Asian shore, I took a train to Europe. The carriage rushing into a tunnel under the Bosphorus was mostly deserted. There was deadly calm in station after station as we made our way under the invisible waves of the Marmara Sea. I noticed that even my notoriously noisy family WhatsApp groups lacked activity. Where had all the excitement gone? In this moment of reckoning, people seemed to have receded to solitude. They were, I realized, privately pondering their choices. We, the rebels, had assumed the posture of winners for weeks. Yet were we really sure we were winning?
The May 14, 2023, elections had turned, after months of political stratagems and debates, into a choice between hope and pessimism. Between romanticism and realism. Between those who said Turkey must and would change and those who said it perhaps should—yet probably wouldn’t. When the opposition alliance announced Kılıçdaroğlu as its candidate, there was a brief reality check. The right-wingers in the opposition ranks argued that Kılıçdaroğlu wasn’t an “electable candidate.” He was an uncharismatic, short, grandfatherly Alevi—a heterodox Islamic denomination that features elements from Sunni and Shia Islam—and would thereby be easy prey for the tall caliph of Neo-Ottomanism. Wasn’t Alevism a minority sect in Turkey (its members constituting around 10 percent of the population)? Wouldn’t an energetic, rambling populist have a better chance against the most electorally successful populist leader of the 21st century? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be so nice to take a leap of faith and support a softly spoken man from a religious minority and show, to the whole world, that one needn’t dance to the tune of illiberalism to dismantle it?
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I got off the train near the Galata Tower, built by the Genovese in 1348, and walked among tourists, seemingly the only group inhabiting the Old City, enjoying its emptied side streets. In Cihangir, journalist and artist comrades sat at tree-shaded cafes, having voted in the morning and devoting the rest of their Sunday to keyif. This Istanbul tradition comprises spending a laid-back day with friends or books, with little attempt at efficiency, and many thought the keyif session would continue for hours after the electoral victory. But at the cafe where I sat, around 6 pm., I noticed that people had slowly stopped chatting, devoting their full attention to their iPhones. The preliminary results, just announced, were a devastating opening punch to the face. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the leader many pollsters said would retire by Sunday evening, led by 59 percent. His party, the AKP, and the flurry of right-wing partners it aligned with took 62 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections.
Friends consoled each other, explaining how results started this way in every Turkish election. It was the official Anadolu Agency that was reporting these numbers. Surely, they were skewed toward the government? We watched in shell-shocked silence as the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara appeared together, all smiles, to console their voters. The opposition was winning, they swore. Wait until the votes from big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir were added to the tally. There were “golden ballot boxes” that would, in an electoral deus ex machina, secure an opposition victory in the coming hours. They reported that AKP gadflies were annoying election officials in various schools, making them recount the votes up to a dozen times to postpone the news of an opposition victory.
All of that proved to be the loser’s solace. By the time I paced toward the Harbiye neighborhood—home of the first Ottoman military academy, where I had watched Turkish police officers and army members machine-gun each other during 2016’s failed coup—reality was starting to sink in. The results were becoming clearer, and the disillusionment turned starker. The winner of this Turkish election wasn’t the AKP (which received 35 percent—much less than its 42 percent in 2018) or Erdoğan (whose 49 percent vote proved 3 percent short of his presidential victory five years ago). The opposition alliance, whose strategy of aligning with progressive Kurds and supporting LGBTQI rights won our hearts, wasn’t a winner in any meaningful sense of the word either. The winner was the far right, which Erdoğan, in further proof of his uncanny political savvy, had aligned with two months ago, at the risk of alienating his voters.
As I reached the subway station, I could see the unnerving outcome in all its clarity. People responded to the economic fallout from the historically devastating earthquakes of February 6 by voting for Yeniden Refah, a religious party that promised to close down all LGBTQI organizations in the country. People responded to our record-breaking inflation, which reached 84.39 percent last November, by voting for Hüdapar, a religious Kurdish party that pledged to “protect the family from perverted influences,” stop mixed-sex education, remove constitutional protections of women against violence, and abolish the requirement of divorced men to pay alimony.
So why should we be surprised that the kingmaker of this election turned out to be the third presidential candidate, Sinan Oğan, a nationalist who shaved 5 percent of the vote from Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan, accusing both leaders of aligning with Kurds? Oğan was among those who had urged the opposition alliance to nominate Mansur Yavaş, Ankara’s mayor, also a Turkish nationalist, as its presidential candidate. When Kılıçdaroğlu became Erdoğan’s challenger instead, these right-wing opponents quickly formed a campaign that won 2,796,422 votes on Sunday.
Therefore, we all need ask now whether Kılıçdaroğlu’s doubters were right all along. Was he the author of his own defeat by refusing to appoint one of the younger stars of his party as the opposition candidate? Over the next fortnight, Kılıçdaroğlu will need to win Oğan’s support to stand any chance in May 28’s second round. But Oğan says that can only be achieved by ending ties with the Kurds. Yet, according to the results, Kurds were the backbone of Kılıçdaroğlu’s 45 percent vote. If Kılıçdaroğlu were to turn against them to receive Oğan’s blessing, then the whole scaffolding of the opposition building will collapse.
The morning after the elections, I headed to Üsküdar, an AKP stronghold. “You were surprised, really?” asked a government-supporting journalist over tea and cigarettes. “Around 70 percent of Turkey always votes for right-wing parties,” she continued, repeating a grim fact I learned shortly after I cast my first vote in 1999. “The opposition forgot this, and the government silently let them enjoy their illusions.”