Istanbul, Turkey, May 6, 2023: Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the presidential candidate of the Nation Alliance and chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) at the Great Istanbul Rally. Credit: tolga ildun / Shutterstock
The 2023 Turkish elections, held on the centennial of the Turkish Republic, carried significant symbolic importance. This symbolism was reflected in the election slogan adopted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) prior to the 2011 national elections: “Turkey is ready, the goal is 2023” (Türkiye hazır, hedef 2023). It demonstrated how early the ruling party started preparing for 2023.
However, 2023 began with a disaster for a regime that lacked any apparent preparedness. In early February, two massive earthquakes struck Turkey, resulting in the tragic loss of tens of thousands of lives and profoundly impacting both the political landscape and emotional well-being of the nation.
The toll on people’s emotions was immense, with grieving individuals mourning the loss of loved ones, and residents in earthquake-prone regions experiencing fear and sleep disturbances. Even dedicated volunteers who assisted in the affected areas developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
The earthquakes also reshaped the political landscape, providing hope for the opposition as the AKP’s standing in public opinion polls fell following these events.
What followed was an emotional rollercoaster. The campaign of the opposition, unified as never before, and bolstered by promising opinion poll results, characterized by unexpected twists and turns, left their supporters hoping for the best, facing the worst, and finally in a state of confusion and disappointment.
As the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections approached on May 14, 2023, the opposition parties, de facto led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), tried hard to build enthusiasm among their supporters. They presented a united front, offering a vision of a brighter future for Turkey and appealing to a wide spectrum of voters through inclusive rhetoric. Kilicdaroglu, in particular, followed a strategy known as hellalesme, which involved “making peace” with and sort of apologizing to groups mistreated by his party and the state, including, but not limited to, religious women who have been disadvantaged due to their headscarves, Kurds, and Alevis.
The opposition’s objective was to mobilize hope through the use of slogans like “the spring will come, promise,” accompanied by heart emojis, and by featuring commercials showcasing blooming trees. Amplifying this soaring optimism were certain polls, conducted by respected companies such as KONDA, that indicated Kilicdaroglu in the lead.
In contrast, Erdogan adopted a polarizing and exclusionary approach throughout his campaign. His central message revolved around the notion that he alone possessed the ability to surmount the country’s manifold challenges. As his campaign motto put it, he was the “right man at the right time.”
At the same time, Erdogan attempted to link the opposition to terrorist organizations. By exploiting fears and capitalizing on national security concerns, Erdogan aimed to consolidate his support base and position himself as the sole guardian of stability and order. Furthermore, Erdogan’s campaign leveraged cultural issues to further polarize the electorate. Specifically, he emphasized topics related to LGBTQI groups and their perceived impact on the institution of family. This strategy further fueled fear and anger within segments of the population, creating a volatile political atmosphere.
Once the votes had been counted after the balloting in mid-May, it was clear that Erdogan and his party had won an unexpectedly decisive victory, both in the voting for parliament, and in the contest for the presidency, even though Erdogan fell slightly short of securing a majority of the votes, triggering a runoff two weeks later between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu.
While Erdogan, in his election night speech to supporters, stressed that the fight was far from over, Kilicdaroglu and his allies couldn’t hide their disappointment, retreating into a shell of stunned silence. Kilicdaroglu’s supporters were left without any clear explanation for this unexpected turn of events, or any clear strategy about how to mobilize voters for the runoff election. They also were left facing an uneven playing field, as the regime’s control of TRT, the state television network, insured that staggeringly disproportionate coverage would be given to the final two weeks of Erdogan’s campaign (35 hours according to one study—in contrast to the 35 minutes dedicated to Kilicdaroglu’s campaign).
The outcome of the first round completely transformed the political atmosphere. While Erdogan moderated his campaign materials, releasing a song titled “The Hopes Are with You” that portrayed him as a refuge during difficult times, the vilifying rhetoric against the opposition persisted. Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, completely reversed his campaign messaging from hope to anxiety, employing slogans aimed at nationalist segments of society hesitant to vote for either Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu.
After Sinan Ogan, the presidential candidate of the right wing nationalist coalition who had finished third in the presidential race, cut a deal with Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu entered into a desperate alliance with Umit Ozdag, an equally fiery ultra-nationalist politician and the leader of a nationalist party, and erected billboards echoing Ozdag’s polarizing rhetoric on refugees with the message “Syrians will go back!”
Given this whiplash change in tactics by the opposition, fear and anxiety overcame hope, and Kilicdaroglu’s efforts fell short once again in the second round, with Erdogan securing 52 percent of the votes.
These developments left supporters of the opposition reeling. Some said they felt as if they had been “gaslit” or “ghosted,” using terms commonly found in dating contexts.
About a week after the runoff of the Turkish presidential elections in 2023, I had a vivid dream. In this dream, the elections extended to a third round, scheduled for a few weeks later, and the dates for diaspora voting were yet to be released. As a diaspora voter myself, I woke up distressed and filled with unease.
On the tenth anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, there was a significant level of popular mobilization during the 2023 electoral cycle, especially among women and youth. This heightened level of engagement can be attributed, in part, to the lessons learned from the Gezi Park protests. The first round of elections sparked extensive engagement, with volunteers actively participating in activities such as observing ballot counting, fundraising for transportation, and organizing buses for voters affected by earthquakes. Recognizing the elections’ immense significance, with some perceiving them as predetermined, individuals persisted in their efforts following the initial shock of the first round’s results. This dedication resulted in a notable threefold increase in the number of volunteers for the second round. Additional efforts were made to persuade abstaining voters and rally support for preferred candidates. Moreover, individuals abroad opened their homes to fellow citizens in an attempt to reduce travel and accommodation costs and encourage higher turnout in the second round. The significantly high turnout rates, especially in the first round, which occurred around 87 percent, can also be attributed to this mobilization.
However, our hopes abruptly gave way to despair, due in part to the self-destructive tactics in the second round of the main opposition party CHP.
Under competitive authoritarian regimes like Turkey, elections become one of the primary means to challenge incumbents despite also being used as an authoritarian survival tool, especially since they “can serve as critical junctures around which the opposition [parties] can mobilize its supporters,” as observed by Alexander Dukalskis and Johannes Gerschewski. This is especially true for societies where protests have not become a “normal” way of doing politics. In this sense, opposition parties in many ways are more relevant, because they are less likely to be repressed, than a popular uprising like the Gezi Park protests, which left dozens dead and thousands of people injured after the regime crushed the revolt. As a result, even weak and vacillating opposition political parties remain one focus for dissent, despite the “crisis of representative democracy” in Turkey, which led to the 62 percent of the population to tend not to trust any political parties, according to the World Values Survey.
If opposition parties like CHP are not to contribute to the depoliticization of society, by leaving followers feeling “ghosted,” it is imperative that they alter their approach. At the moment, they engage with a substantial portion of their supporters solely during elections, and disregard them afterward. This necessitates a shift in perception regarding politics and political participation, recognizing that politics extends beyond elections and voting.
To accomplish this, engaging in honest self-reflection and demonstrating a renewed commitment to accountability are essential steps for the CHP and the opposition in Turkey as a whole. Drawing lessons from the 2023 elections, opposition parties must strive to inspire trust, foster unity, and instill genuine hope for a better future, ultimately enabling them to effectively challenge the ruling government in future elections.
However, as I write this essay, there has been no indication of such a reckoning among the opposition, suggesting a potential decline in party-based opposition.
Under these circumstances, especially in case the current opposition parties cannot pull themselves together, the ball falls in the civil society’s court. The people who independently mobilized throughout the election cycle, drawing on their experience from earlier waves mobilization, such as Gezi, can be recruited by civil society organizations, which can offer alternative channels for political engagement, facilitate dialogue, and establish platforms for collective action. These efforts should extend beyond electoral cycles and be sustained on a daily basis, as they are essential for revitalizing popular mobilization and rebuilding trust among the “ghosted” supporters.
In this regard, the resilience and effectiveness of civil society in addressing the concerns, grievances, and disappointments after the 2023 elections is essential, and their ability in channeling the emotional despair of opposition party supporters will play a crucial role in shaping the future political landscape.
Selin Bengi Gumrukcu is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Rutgers University.