The opposition, led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance, had seen the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades and the fallout over catastrophic earthquakes in February as near-insurmountable obstacles to Erdogan’s re-election.
The president, however, surprised his critics, pundits and pollsters by securing a third term and extending his 20-year rule for another five years.
The opposition can view Kilicdaroglu’s 47.8 percent share of the vote in Sunday’s second-round presidential race against Erdogan as a success of sorts. In Turkey’s two previous direct presidential elections, Erdogan’s challengers had failed to break through the 40 percent barrier.
The focus is now on local elections due in March next year. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) will try to defend the gains made in 2019.
Four years ago, the CHP, backed by other parties, took a clutch of major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, which had been governed by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) or its predecessors for 25 years.
Opposition politicians are due to attend party congresses before the end of the year, where they will likely face questions over the leadership and strategy of this spring’s campaign.
Frustration over continual defeat
The harshest spotlight is likely to be on the CHP, as the largest opposition party, and Kilicdaroglu, who has led the party since 2010 without winning a national election.
“Nobody should attempt to create a success story from these results,” former CHP General Secretary Mehmet Akif Hamzacebi said on Monday. “There is a complete failure in terms of our chairman and party.”
Fatih Portakal, a leading journalist seen as sympathetic to the opposition, used his Sozcu TV show on Tuesday morning to question the direction of the CHP under Kilicdaroglu.
“You must leave this party now,” he said, accusing Kilicdaroglu of “desperation” in his switch to nationalist rhetoric following an unexpectedly high showing by nationalist voters in the first round.
“A blood change is needed … You enter every election and you lose … After losing this important election, you shouldn’t have a chance again.”
Kilicdaroglu, however, shows no sign of stepping down before March’s local election.
“We will continue to be the vanguard of this struggle until real democracy comes to our country,” he said in the wake of his loss. “Our march continues, we are here.”
Contemplating a change of face
If CHP rebels converge in a bid to remove the 74-year-old former bureaucrat, they are likely to focus on Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu as his successor.
Since winning Turkey’s largest city for the party, Imamoglu has become a household figure and played a significant role in the campaign, as did his Ankara counterpart Mansur Yavas.
Both men had been discussed as possible presidential candidates before Kilicdaroglu was confirmed in early March.
That decision nearly led to the breakup of the opposition alliance as the head of the bloc’s second-biggest party, Meral Aksener of the nationalist Iyi Party, threatened to quit only to backtrack after a weekend of talks.
Imamoglu has remained outwardly loyal to Kilicdaroglu, but is said to be frustrated by many aspects of the campaign, particularly during the first-round vote.
However, an Imamoglu leadership bid is hampered by a court ruling that could see him banned from politics or even imprisoned should his appeal fail.
“The threat against Imamoglu is real,” said Emre Peker, Europe director at the Eurasia Group. “If the judicial process is concluded and he is removed from office by October, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“That will give Erdogan enough time to build on his post-election victory and make people forget [by March’s local elections] that he’s jailed Istanbul’s popular mayor.”
Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said the ruling was not politically motivated. “No organ, authority or person can give orders and instructions, send circulars, make recommendations or suggestions to courts and judges in the exercise of judicial power,” Bozdag said last year.
Early signs of disquiet at the outcome of the elections have emerged from the Iyi Party, which is due to hold its national congress at the end of June.
The party held on to its 43 seats in the 600-member parliament, a static position that Aksener described as a success.
Ethem Baykal, one of the party’s founders, called for her to resign and media reports suggested that members saw her retreat over Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy as a “strategic mistake” that had led to a loss of votes.
By joining Kilicdaroglu’s “inclusive” first-round campaign, many said the Iyi Party had surrendered nationalist votes to the Erdogan-allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
“The Iyi Party saw that by backing more moderate candidates and stepping away from nationalist voters it couldn’t build and actually lost some votes to its main rival on the right, the MHP,” Peker said.
Struggle for unity
Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, predicted it would be difficult for the opposition alliance to remain united.
“The leadership of these parties will start pointing fingers at one another to explain this defeat,” he said.
The four smaller parties that make up the Nation Alliance, also known as the Table of Six, will share 38 parliamentary seats between them, having stood in the election on the CHP’s list.
Two centre-right parties – Gelecek and Deva – were created by former members of Erdogan’s government, ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan.
Analysts expect Erdogan to attempt to win over their deputies, as well as those of the Islamist Saadet Party, to add to his alliance’s 23-strong majority in the parliament.
“I think their base, their voters, would want them to cooperate with Erdogan,” Esen said.