Limits of Anti-Erdoganism in Turkish Elections and Muharrem Ince’s Unexpected Withdrawal

Three days ahead of the election, the Turkish political landscape is jolted by an unforeseen tremor. Muharrem Ince, one of the peripheral players in the presidential race, abruptly withdraws, startling the dynamics of the contest. As a former opposition presidential candidate who fell to Erdogan in 2018, had also once unsuccessfully challenged Kemal Kilicdaroglu for the leadership of the main opposition party, the CHP.

Despite Ince’s withdrawal occurring after votes cast abroad – numbering in the millions – were already in, his abrupt exit, although puzzling, may have inadvertently strengthened the opposition’s hand, shifting the focus onto the two main contenders and their battle against the might of Erdogan’s political machinery. The election now stands as an even more formidable test of the strength of anti-Erdogan sentiment in Turkey.

As the candidates now reassess their strategies in this new landscape, the presidential race between the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, becomes even more intriguing. The rules remain the same: a candidate must secure more than half the votes to claim victory. If this hurdle is too high, the contest moves to a second round where the most voted emerges as the victor.


Recent opinion polls suggest a potential triumph for Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the Presidential elections, showing him with a lead of approximately five points over Erdogan.

In the grand scheme, the two other contenders – mere footnotes in the larger narrative – stood little chance of progressing to the second round. However, their role, particularly in splitting the anti-Erdogan vote, had the potential to push the election into that second round.


“The Butler Did It”

It is here, perhaps, that we find parallels in the advice of critic and detective novelist SS Van Dine, who in his essay “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” cautioned against choosing the servant, the least suspected character, as the culprit. His contention was that the culprit must be someone worthwhile, not ordinarily falling under suspicion. Ince, to many, was the “butler” of our story. The opposition bloc was already fighting an uphill battle against a government wielding state capacity, media domination, and a judiciary accused of suppressing opposition journalists and activists.


Muharrem Ince was a peculiar case. In 2018, as the presidential election night approached, he oddly vanished, leaving the public and the opposition in the dark.


Withdrawing from elections, Ince cited allegations of sexual misconduct and financial fraud circulated on social media, complete with images and videos. He fervently denied their authenticity, attributing the so-called sex videos to deep fake technology and accusing conspirators of sourcing the footage from an Israeli porn site. Despite the vehement denial, he chose to step down, adding an intriguing twist to the unfolding political narrative.


Ince’s Impact on the Presidential Race

However, let’s not be mistaken. The significance of this twist is less than some observers would lead you to believe. Ince’s support was already on a steep downward trajectory.


In the initial phases of the election campaign, President Erdogan, usually loath to engage or acknowledge weaker rivals, found an opportunity. He responded directly to Ince, inadvertently elevating his stature in the election.


Erdogan himself remained mostly absent during the early phases of the campaign, perhaps hoping for internal disputes to fracture the opposition. He may have anticipated quarrels between the other candidates or within the opposition’s national alliance. But the anticipated discord never materialized. Kilicdaroglu maintained an almost Zen-like calm, staying above the fray, and refraining from any negative comments about the other contenders.


The Anti-Erdogan Bloc: A Social Phenomenon Rooted in Shared Opposition

The crux of our tale rests on the anti-Erdogan sentiment in Turkey. Kadri Gursel, a senior Turkish journalist, argue that this feeling of opposition to Erdogan has transformed into something akin to a social bloc in the sense coined by Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci.


Gramci, introduced the concept of “historic blocs” to describe an alliance of different class-based groups united by shared values and a common worldview. This alliance forms the basis of a social and political order that seeks to maintain and enhance its dominance within a society. In the Turkish context, anti-Erdogan factions in Turkey despite their varied political affiliations and potentially divergent visions for society, find common ground in their shared opposition to President Erdogan.


In the polarized landscape of Turkish politics, the issues that dominate public discourse could determine the election’s outcome. If the focus remains on the state of the economy or the government’s response to recent earthquakes, the scales might tip against the government.


However, if the contentious issues of identity, secularism, the Kurdish issue, religious sensitivities, or the Alevi issue gain prominence, the government might yet hold sway. The presence of these rival candidates had indeed stirred up these polarizing topics, but the main opposition bloc wisely avoided engaging in these debates.


These anti-Erdoganists perceive Erdogan as the main barrier to an independent judiciary, the separation of powers, religious and political freedoms, and economic development. Despite the divergent visions for society among these groups, they may find common ground in their shared goal of ousting Erdogan in the upcoming election.


The escalation of tension in Turkish politics, punctuated by physical attacks and provocations against opposition rallies and campaigns, may have deterred anti-Erdogan voters contemplating casting their ballots for anyone but the main opposition candidate. Fearful of risking another Erdogan term, these voters may have chosen the safer option of sticking with the main opposition.


The Turkish Electorate’s Dilemma: Strategic Voting or Ideological Allegiance?

This election will reveal whether the anti-Erdoganists can think strategically, following the trend of grassroots solidarity demonstrated during the Gezi Protests in 2013 and replicated in the 2019 local elections. The latter saw voters of differing political affiliations unite behind the same opposition candidate in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and other major cities. This phenomenon of strategic voting, an effective tactic against an incumbent with a formidable political machinery, could determine the fate of this election.


In this complex political arena, the narrative seems almost reminiscent of a detective novel, where Muharrem Ince, the unexpected “butler”, played a significant part. The stage is now set for a crucial test of the anti-Erdoganism bloc. The players are in place, the campaigns are in full swing, and the Turkish electorate stands at the crossroads of a pivotal decision.


In the end, the success or failure of anti-Erdoganism will hinge on this collective ability to navigate the tumultuous landscape of Turkish politics. The stakes are high, the consequences far-reaching. The world watches with bated breath, waiting to see if this diverse, ideologically fragmented group can unite and chart a new course for Turkey.


In this decisive hour, the Turkish electorate must not only consider who they vote for but also why they vote for them. It is a test of their strategic acumen, a measure of their commitment to the greater good beyond party lines. It is, in essence, a litmus test for democracy itself.


From the perspective of the anti-Erdogan bloc, the choice is clear – a united front against a common adversary. It is in this unity, in this collective resolve, that they may find the strength to overcome the challenges ahead.


However, as the days count down to the election, one can only wonder if this unity will manifest into a formidable wave of strategic voting, powerful enough to turn the tide against Erdogan. Will the anti-Erdogan bloc rise to the challenge, or will they fall into the abyss of missed opportunities and what-ifs? Only time will tell and there are three days to count.

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