After entering the election with high hopes, the Turkish political opposition is struggling to fight desperation and chart a course to give their candidate a chance to fight incumbent President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a runoff later this month.
While Erdogan, who had bid for a third five-year presidential term, failed to secure a simple majority in Sunday’s election, he still led the opposition by a margin of about five percentage points. That, and a number of other indications, point to a run-off victory for the president on May 28.
Importantly, Mr Erdogan is likely to be the main beneficiary of votes from supporters of an ultra-nationalist third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who has been knocked out despite a surprisingly strong showing over the weekend. The results of the first round indicated growing nationalist sentiment among the electorate that is likely to boost the president.
All this amounts to an uphill battle for the challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party coalition that came together with the aim of ousting Mr Erdogan, restoring Turkish democracy, restoring order to the economy and weakening smoothing relations with the West.
“It is clear that it is difficult,” said Can Selcuki, the director of the Turkey Report, which publishes opinion polls and political analysis.
Mr Selcuki, who had predicted stronger opposition action, said the coalition now appeared to have at least two options: find a way to increase turnout among supportive voters and adopt a more nationalist tone that would encourage crossover could get votes.
So far opposition leaders have said little publicly about how they might change their campaign for the second round.
“I’m here, I’m here,” says opposition candidate Kilicdaroglu. said in a video posted on Twitter on Monday showing him unusually banging on a desk. “I swear I will fight to the end.”
In Tuesday another messagehe tried to rally younger voters and warned that a victory by his opponent would lead to “a bottomless darkness”.
Still, the math doesn’t seem to work in his favor.
Mr Erdogan won 49.5 percent of the vote, compared to 44.9 percent for Mr Kilicdaroglu, according to Turkey’s electoral authority. The third candidate, Mr. Ogan, got 5.2 percent, and his right-wing supporters seem more likely to favor Mr. Erdogan to be chosen in the second round.
Going into the first round, most polls pointed to a slight lead for Mr. Kilicdaroglu, but since the results came out, analysts have tried to explain why the opposition performed worse than expected.
The six parties that supported Mr Kilicdaroglu represent a disparate range of backgrounds and ideologies, including nationalists, staunch secularists and even Islamists who had defected from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
While their primary unifying goal was to unseat Erdogan, they tried to sell voters a different vision for Turkey’s future. That included restoring the independence of state institutions such as the State Department and the central bank; a return to orthodox financial policies aimed at curbing painfully high inflation and attracting foreign investors; and strengthening civil liberties, including freedom of expression and association, which Mr Erdogan has restricted.
Mr Erdogan ran a campaign that linked him with voters to Turkey’s rising military prowess and independence. In interviews, many pro-Erdogan voters expressed their admiration for Turkey’s defense industry, especially its drones, which have played a key role in a number of conflicts, including in Ukraine and Ethiopia.
He also demonized the opposition and associated it with terrorism. This line of attack benefited from the support Mr Kilicdaroglu has received from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party, the third largest in the country. The government has accused that party’s officials and members of collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which it has identified as a terrorist organization.
At campaign rallies, Mr Erdogan even showed a video manipulated to make it look like a PKK leader was clapping along to one of Mr Kilicdaroglu’s campaign chants.
Turkey has waged a long and deadly battle against Kurdish militants, and the government often accuses Kurdish politicians of collaborating with them. Many Kurdish politicians have been imprisoned, prosecuted or removed from office over such allegations.
The overall result of Sunday’s vote, including for the Turkish parliament, was a strong showing by right-wing nationalists. The Nationalist Movement Party, Mr Erdogan’s strongest ally in parliament, increased its share, and Mr Ogan fared much better than polls predicted.
Those candidates emphasize Turkish identity and national security, demonize the Kurds and call for the more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey to be sent home. All seem to have benefited from Mr Erdogan’s warnings about terrorism.
At the same time, some of the smaller parties Mr Kilicdaroglu had brought into his coalition failed to mobilize large numbers of voters.
In his message was aimed at Turkey’s younger voters on Tuesday Mr. Kilicdaroglu back to the state of the country’s economy, focusing on how inflation, which topped 80 percent last year, had eroded the value of people’s incomes.
‘You have no money for anything. You have to count for a cup of coffee,” he wrote. “Yet youth means being carefree. They wouldn’t even let you have that for a day.
He also returned to the central theme of the opposition, the attempt to remove Erdogan and reverse his tendency towards authoritarian rule.
“Those who want change in this country outnumber those who don’t,” He wrote. “But this is clear: we are the party that must fight harder to get rid of such a tyrannical government.”