MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.

The Kılıçdaroğlu campaign gets exciting

The opposition bloc’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, broke taboos last week by speaking out about being an Alevi in a new election video. Alevis are heterodox Muslims who have suffered centuries of persecution at the hands of the country’s Sunni majority and have been forced to hold back their identity. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has been targeted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has previously accused Alevis of inventing a “new religion.” Despite pressure to play down his origins, the opposition candidate has never hidden his Alevi faith but rarely spoke about it in public.

In the recently released video, Kılıçdaroğlu addressed the country’s youth and asked them to embrace their identity but go beyond it to build a country where successes and common dreams are cherished, not differences and divides. The tweet of the video has been viewed more than 100 million times and it received widespread praise from those who watched it as a much-needed message of unity in a deeply polarized country. The video was lauded by opposition parties as well, including the Islamist Felicity Party. It was released shortly after Kılıçdaroğlu put out another courageous video in which he criticized Erdoğan’s habit of labeling the country’s Kurds as “terrorists” in order to secure nationalist votes. Kılıçdaroğlu asked the people of Turkey “not to fall for Erdoğan’s propaganda” and embrace Kurds as brothers and sisters.

Calls to transcend ethnic, religious, and cultural differences to focus on building a democratic and prosperous future for Turkey are part of Kılıçdaroğlu’s larger campaign, which offers tangible solutions to the country’s economic, social, and political problems.

Erdoğan adds natural gas discount to pre-vote handouts

Erdoğan came to power in the name of the forgotten people, but after two decades in power, he seems to have forgotten people’s everyday problems. Erdoğan and other Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials ridiculed another video from Kılıçdaroğlu in which the opposition leader criticized high food price inflation by holding an onion, which has become the symbol of skyrocketing food prices. The deputy chairman of the AKP disparaged the opposition for its constant focus on the price of onions, saying, “We are talking about TOGG,” referring to the first Turkish-developed and Turkish-made vehicle, “they are talking about onions.”

The opposition’s constant focus on the dire state of the economy is forcing Erdoğan to appeal to voters’ wallets as well. Last week, he promised a reduction in natural gas bills for households for a year and free gas for the next month. This comes on top of other pre-election handouts, including a minimum wage hike, subsidized loans, and early retirement for millions of people. These moves are likely to boost his popularity but do not guarantee that he’ll win enough votes to beat his rival in the first round of the presidential election. So Erdoğan has also turned to the next best thing: dialing up the tension by polarizing the country along ethnic, sectarian, and cultural lines.

Erdoğan dials up the tension

Shortly after Kılıçdaroğlu released his “Alevi” video, Erdoğan campaigned at a mosque on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, falsely claiming that the opposition would close down the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) should they come to power. He asked the booing crowd to do more than just boo to “politically kill” those who are hand in hand with “terrorists.” On the same day, Kılıçdaroğlu was targeted three times. In the southeastern province of Adıyaman, shortly after he was verbally attacked over his Alevi identity, he was harassed and his convoy was physically attacked by AKP supporters, leading to worries that Erdoğan might unleash more chaos, especially if the presidential vote goes to a second-round run-off.

A surprising decision from the top electoral body

The Supreme Election Council (YSK) is known to heed Erdoğan’s demands. In one of its most scandalous moves, on the day of the controversial referendum that granted Erdoğan sweeping new powers in 2017, the YSK made a last-minute decision to consider unstamped ballots as valid unless they were proved to be fraudulent, raising questions about the validity of the vote. 

Last week, the YSK entertained another controversial idea, prompting new concerns among the opposition parties. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good (İyi) Party agreed to back each other’s parliamentary candidates in 16 provinces. According to the agreement, in nine of these provinces, the CHP fielded its candidate in the top spot on the list, while in the rest of the provinces İyi Party’s parliamentary candidate secured the top spot. Turkey’s electoral law favors parties running on joint lists and allows them to secure more votes. To deny the CHP and İyi Party this advantage, the AKP requested that these parties’ votes be calculated separately and the name of the opposition coalition to which they belong, the Nation Alliance, be removed from the ballot. The move led to an outcry among CHP members of parliament that the country’s top electoral body was rewriting the rules in favor of the ruling coalition. In a surprising move, however, the YSK rejected the AKP’s request.

The YSK’s decision is significant not just for its implications for the CHP and İyi Party’s parliamentary prospects in those 16 provinces. It is also a sign that the YSK might think twice before engaging in moves that seem to outright favor the AKP both in the lead up to the elections and afterwards. It is not the first sign that the Turkish bureaucracy might be hedging its bets. In January, the Constitutional Court blocked the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) from receiving allocated state funding to finance its electoral campaign over its alleged ties to militant groups who have carried out attacks in Turkey. Last month, the court reversed that decision, despite Erdoğan’s objections.


Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative. She is the author of Erdogan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria

Photo by Muhammed Selim Korkutata/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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