Lessons from the Turkish elections regarding the track record of united opposition alliances.
Last year, a similar campaign by the Hungarian opposition started with promise but was swiftly derailed by internal dysfunction and external shocks (i.e. the Russian invasion of Ukraine). In Turkey, conditions were different. Kemal Kilicdaroglu was likely not the best candidate but the opposition was impressively disciplined. Still the overall opposition could not break the glass ceiling of 48%.
Are anti-system opposition alliances a siren’s call? Or is the house always going to win in hybrid authoritarian democracies? The question is pertinent ahead of important elections in Poland later this year.
Two weeks ago, this was far from a foregone conclusion. The pollsters as well as the bookies had Kilicdaroglu ahead of Erdogan in the first round. Then disaster struck: not only did Erdogan finish in first place, he did so with 49.5% of the vote, requiring that Kilicdaroglu execute an electoral turnaround of unprecedented proportions if he was to have any chance of winning.
Unsurprisingly, this turnaround did not materialise. The reasons for the failure of the opposition – which also could not dismantle the majority of the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the concurrent parliamentary elections – are as manifold as they are hotly disputed.
Pollsters did not capture the voting preferences of shy conservatives in AKP heartlands such as Inner Anatolia, the Inner Aegean and West Black Sea. Kilicdaroglu, although putting in a confident performance, was among the weakest of the possible opposition candidates. His campaign was also caught between a rock and a hard place, having to choose in the runoff round whether to court the Kurdish or nationalist vote. It tried to do both but was unsuccessful.
Last but not least, despite the energetic opposition campaign, the elections may have been free, but they were not fair. After 21 years in power, during which time the Turkish political system became what may be described as “competitive authoritarian”, the AKP accrued a massive structural advantage due to its control of the state apparatus and informational space, as well as clientelist networks in localities.
Yet another factor that should not be overlooked is the fact that the opposition campaign was arguably handicapped from the beginning. Kilicdaroglu was not only standing as the CHP candidate, but as that of a wider anti-Erdogan coalition: the Nation Alliance, which is a big tent housing six parties.
We’ve been here before: in Hungary, the main opposition parties united on a single list, United for Hungary, to dismantle the hegemony of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz-KDNP coalition.
At first glance, in Hungary this strategy looked promising. There was a lot to campaign on: the annual rate of inflation had nearly doubled from 3.3% to 5.1% in 2021. Alarm was growing as the European Commission held up the payment of billions of euros in grants to the government, given its concerns over the rule of law and corruption. The healthcare system was creaking after years of mismanagement, which was exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, opposition pacts had delivered major successes in the local elections of 2019, winning not only Budapest but most provincial cities. When United for Hungary was formed, it generated considerable enthusiasm by holding open primaries to select its joint prime ministerial candidate, with hundreds of thousands of people voting. A relatively unknown outsider, Peter Marki-Zay, won the nomination amid much fanfare as he promised to bridge the gap between the liberal and conservative constituencies. The opposition began to register consistent poll leads for the first time since 2014.
Yet before the starting gun had even been fired, the opposition campaign faceplanted the racetrack. Internal confusion, personal rivalries and mistrust, as well as the erratic style of Marki-Zay, derailed the momentum generated by the primaries. This collided headfirst with an external shock: namely, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which contributed to the reluctance of the electorate to risk voting for the devils they didn’t know. Other campaign issues slid down on the list of priorities.
With its own massive structural advantage, Fidesz was able to clean up come election day on 3 April 2022. Until the last minute, United for Hungary was at least hoping for a narrow defeat: but not only did this not transpire, the combined opposition vote fell by 8pp to 34% compared with 2018. Meanwhile, Fidesz-KDNP increased its vote share by 5pp to 54%, the biggest electoral triumph by any party in Hungary since 1989.
The defeat of United for Hungary was as devastating as it was ignominious. There was a sense that if the opposition campaign had maintained its unity and momentum, a stronger performance if not victory could have been possible. The Turkish elections now provide a useful counterfactual; namely, how a united opposition can perform in optimal conditions when the authoritarian incumbent is at a disadvantage.
From a campaigning perspective, Turkey’s Nation Alliance had a stronger hand even than United for Hungary. With his macroeconomic policy, Erdogan has wiped out the savings of the Turkish middle class, thereby undoing all the progress he made during his first decade in power. Systemic corruption and lack of regulatory oversight contributed directly to the devastation inflicted by the earthquake in southern Turkey in February. Erdogan may have geo-politicked to the economic advantage of Turkey, positioning it as a gateway for Western and Russian capital, but most of the damage is already done.
The Nation Alliance formulated an extensive 200-page manifesto that was to form the basis for addressing nine core policy areas. Furthermore, like in Hungary, opposition pacts had proven their worth in the 2019 local elections, which delivered the massive prizes of Istanbul and Ankara.
The opposition campaign itself was also impressively disciplined and united, with no major mistakes made in the first round. That was not always a given. In March, Meral Aksener of the right-wing Good Party (IYI) briefly withdrew from the Nation Alliance in protest over the insistence of the CHP old guard on Kilicdaroglu’s presidential candidacy. However, Aksener was assuaged when it was subsequently agreed that the proven winners of the CHP, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas, would share a vice-presidential ticket alongside Kilicdaroglu.
The opposition campaign also benefitted from some pleasant surprises. Muharrem Ince, who ran as the CHP candidate in 2018, stood on his own Kemalist platform, but withdrew from the election in the final days. Former MHP MP Sinan Ogan, meanwhile, ran on an ultranationalist platform, threatening to poach votes from Erdogan – which he ultimately did, winning a surprising 5.2% of the vote.
None of this sufficed. The Nation Alliance may be consoled by the fact that the energy it generated brought Erdogan closer to defeat than he has ever been. Yet a closer look at the results tells a different story: namely, that the opposition mostly failed to break through the glass ceiling of past presidential elections.
In the first round, Kilicdaroglu won 44.9% of the popular vote. That is more than Erdogan’s main challengers in the 2014 and 2018 elections, where Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Muharrem Ince won 38.5% and 30.6%, respectively. However, the opposition was not fully united in either election: the HDP and IYI fielded their own candidates in one or both elections. When these votes are added to the total, the vote share of the opposition in both elections rises to 48.2% and 46.3%, respectively.
Indeed, although turnout was only 3% higher, Kilicdaroglu won over two million votes less than the combined opposition did in 2018, while Erdogan won 700,000 more. It is thus clear that the AKP was far more effective at mobilising its vote than the united opposition was.
The underperformance of Kilicdaroglu in this respect is partly explained by the fact that, although he won decisively in Kurdish-majority regions, Czechia, but a single platform was foregone, providing space for ideological differentiation.
A hybrid example is Slovenia, where the centre-left parties of former prime ministers Marjan Sarec and Alenka Bratusek deliberately demobilised their campaigns when the popularity of Robert Golob’s Freedom Movement became clear. These parties accordingly failed to meet the parliamentary threshold, for which Golob rewarded Sarec and Bratusek with ministerial portfolios in his incoming government.
The coalition governments that were formed following the legislative elections in these countries were not necessarily stable. Indeed, the multiparty coalitions formed in Slovakia and Montenegro to dismantle the regimes of Robert Fico and Milos Djukanovic, respectively, have since collapsed. In other words, there is no silver bullet.
Nonetheless, these case studies are valuable ahead of legislative elections in Poland in late 2023, which will be taking place in similar, if less extreme, circumstances as Turkey and Hungary. The ruling United Right coalition of the Law and Justice (PiS) party has partly captured the state and informational apparatus, commanding reliable clientelist networks that provide it with a large structural advantage that it has exploited in past elections, most recently the 2020 presidential election. The issue of security likewise looms large amid the Russian war in Ukraine.
The leader of the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) alliance, Donald Tusk, has pushed other liberal opposition parties to group into a single list, emphasising that the polls indicate that it is their only chance of defeating the ruling United Right coalition led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. The logic therein is that if these parties will form a coalition anyway, it is surely intuitive that they combine their resources in an electoral alliance to defeat their common enemy.
Yet mistrust of Tusk is reducing the likelihood of this materialising. The main liberal conservative parties – Szymon Holownia’s Poland 2050 and Tusk’s old coalition partner the Polish People’s Party (PSL) – have opted to form their own joint list. The Left alliance, which pools modern and old-school centre-left parties, have likewise resisted the siren’s call to join with Tusk’s Civic Platform in the Civic Coalition.
Given the importance of the Polish elections to the EU, a huge amount is riding on the opposition strategy.
The failure of the united opposition lists in Turkey and Hungary, and the success of competing opposition campaigns in Czechia, Slovakia, Montenegro and Slovenia, suggest that this is probably the right decision. United lists corral the opposition, at best consolidating their existing vote and at worst actively losing it. While there is a benefit in combining resources, the ability of the individual parties to focus on capturing diverse swing votes is limited. As Slovenia demonstrated, non-aggression if not tacit cooperation agreements between parties provide some of the benefits of a united list while avoiding some of the pitfalls.
Naturally, the risks are high regardless of the strategy for which the opposition opts. And when all is said and done, the debate might be immaterial, underestimating the extent to which the incumbent illiberals may tilt, if not outright manipulate, the playing field. In Turkey, the extent to which this was the case is likely to become clearer over time.
Marcus How is head of research & analysis at ViennEast Consulting in Vienna
This article first appeared in Intellinews.com