How Turkey’s Elections Gone Wrong for Erdogan’s Rival

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s biggest election of its post-Ottoman era has baffled pollsters and prompted surprises that underscored the difficulty of gauging the mood of the heavily polarized country.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came within a fraction of a percentage point of defeating secular challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the first round.
The ability of one or the other to cross the 50% threshold organizes a historic second round on May 28 – Turkey’s first – in which Erdogan enters as the big favorite.
Kilicdaroglu’s performance was the best of the opposition in Erdogan’s two-decade rule.
But the 74-year-old former civil servant had to take on the role of chief comforter instead of president-elect on Monday.
“Don’t despair,” he told his discouraged supporters.
AFP returns to the main surprises of Sunday.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” strategist James Carville told future US President Bill Clinton as he tried to come up with a battle plan for his 1992 election campaign.
The case of Turkey proved that the mantra had caveats.
Erdogan entered the election battling Turkey’s worst economic crisis since the 1990s.
The official annual inflation rate reached 85% last year. The unofficial one calculated by economists – and which most Turks trust – approached 200%.
Erdogan fought it by refusing to give up his unconventional theories and instead doled out incentives and salary increases to various segments of the population.
Analysts estimate the cost of his commitments at billions of dollars.
“Last-minute spending promises — like a 45% pay hike for 700,000 civil servants — helped,” said Verisk Maplecroft analyst Hamish Kinnear.
“Erdogan’s promise to rebuild earthquake-devastated areas also seems to have hit voters.”
Erdogan maintained high levels of support in almost all regions affected by February’s deadly disaster.
Turkey’s long-repressed Kurdish community accounts for almost a fifth of the population and more than 10% of the vote.
He largely supported Erdogan during his first decade of rule and turned against him during the second.
Some analysts said the decision by the main pro-Kurdish party to officially endorse Kilicdaroglu could put him above.
But Erdogan used it against him by telling voters that the opposition was taking orders from the Kurdish PKK militia.
“Erdogan’s strategy of linking the opposition to the PKK and the terrorist movement has paid off,” said Bayram Balci of the CERI Sciences Po institute.
Istanbul housewife Leyla Gurler said she was worried about the opposition’s association with the pro-Kurdish HDP party.
“If the opposition had won, it would have been thanks to the HDP and the PKK,” the 57-year-old said. “They supported the PKK. They made a mistake there.”
Erdogan’s chances on May 28 are helped by the unexpected rise of little-known ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan.
The 55-year-old won 5.1% of the vote as an independent.
He was once a member of an ultra-nationalist party that is part of Erdogan’s parliamentary alliance and represents voters who have more in common with the Turkish leader than the leftist Kilicdaroglu.
Analyst Umut Ozkirimli said nationalism has been a “constant” component of Turkish politics since the 1990s.
Various nationalist and far-right groups won 22% of the vote in Sunday’s legislative poll.
“The fact that Sinan Ogan won over 5% of the vote underscores that pure ultranationalism is alive and well in Turkey,” said political risk consultant Anthony Skinner.
“It would be a surprise if Ogan decides to support the moderate Kilicdaroglu in the second round of the presidential election. Erdogan is in pole position on May 28.”
Turkish pollsters emerged as one of the biggest losers of the day.
Only a small fraction predicted an Erdogan victory. Some put Kilicdaroglu ahead by 10 percentage points.
“It’s amazing how bad the polls and most lay analysts have been calling this one,” remarked emerging markets economist Timothy Ash.
The seasoned Turkey observer attributed it to the inherent political bias of pollsters in a country with strongly polarized and deeply rooted opinions.
“I have to say that all the analysts I trust who are closer to the (ruling party) were saying 50-50, too close to call, with an Erdogan bias.”
Skinner noted that Kilicdaroglu’s party spent part of Sunday night claiming to be ahead in the election and challenging the results reported by state media.
“Opposition officials have yet to explain why they were so optimistic as the vote progressed. Were their models fundamentally flawed or was something else at play?” Skinner told AFP.


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