Why Turkey’s opposition should not unite now behind one candidate to beat Erdoğan

As Turkey’s opposition parties scrabble to find a joint candidate capable of unseating President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the June 24 elections, not fielding a unity candidate might help the incumbent’s adversaries reach out to more voters during the campaign and give them a better chance in second round run-off polls.

In the next two months, the opposition parties will be obliged to run their campaigns without significant media support and financial resources. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a huge media advantage, particularly after the country’s largest private media group was sold to a government supporter last month.

Now even the centre-left main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will find it hard to reach out to the public through the media.

Election campaigning has two important steps for each party; reaching out to target voters and convincing them to vote for their candidates. Target voters are divided into two types; core supporters and swing voters.

It is not difficult for a party to reach out its core supporters, the key point is finding a candidate who can mobilise these voters and ensure they turn out to vote on election day.

Swing voters may vote for different parties at each election, do not affiliate themselves with any party, and many of them are apolitical. It is very difficult for a party to reach out these voters. They tend not to participate in party rallies, they do not regularly follow political news, and rarely talk about politics in their daily life.

If opposition parties visit voters in their neighbourhoods, they may reach some swing voters. But the resources that opposition parties can mobilise for this are limited. Also, they have only a short time before the election. It will be even harder to reach out to swing voters in rural areas, simply for logistical reasons.

During the 2014 presidential election, there was also only a very limited time for campaigning – less than a month – and even though there was less government control over the media, it was not possible for the opposition to effectively promote its candidate.

The AKP, meanwhile, hardly needed to introduce Erdoğan, whose speeches, then as now, appeared on television nearly every day.

While Erdoğan’s election rallies will be aired live simultaneously on several television channels, opposition parties will not have that privilege. Considering the fact that most people in Turkey still primarily use television as their news source, the issue is a major challenge for the opposition.

The opposition seems though to be more dominant in social media platforms such as Twitter, despite the presence of reportedly thousands of so-called AK-trolls; paid supporters who promote the ruling party on social media and often viciously attack opponents.

Perhaps only a small portion of apolitical swing voters pay attention to politics on social media, particularly if we exclude those voters below 30-years-old.

But despite these limitations, opposition parties will gain an important advantage, if Erdoğan fails to secure more than half of the votes in the first round of polling and a run-off election between the top two candidates is held two weeks later.

It will be on election day itself that opposition candidates will have the highest visibility and coverage in the traditional media. In the end, even the most apolitical voters will have a chance to learn about the opposition candidates, including the one that will gain highest number of votes.

Due to the naturally heated atmosphere of election day, even those voters who had only limited information about the opposition will probably find themselves discussing the candidates with friends and family and learn more about their ideology and campaign promises. The visibility of opposition party candidates will peak that day.

Of course, introducing a candidate to a voter is only the first step. The next is to convince voters to turn out in the second-round run-off. If an opposition candidate makes it to the second round of voting is someone who can appeal to large segments of the electorate, then they have a two-week period to make those votes count and the incumbent candidate’s chance of re-election significantly decreases.

The governing party will also be able to benefit from its comparative advantage in reaching out the apolitical swing voters, but it will benefit less, compared to the level it benefited in the first round.

Additionally, if the election reaches the second round, the duration of campaigning will increase by about 25 percent; from two months to two-and-a-half months. The opposition needs the extra time to campaign more than the government does.

From this perspective, nominating a joint opposition candidate and aiming to win the election in the first round, would prevent the opposition reaching large segments of apolitical swing voters.

Equally importantly, opposition parties would risk a low turnout among their core supporters as a result of such a strategy. If the incumbent candidate Erdoğan wins the election in the first round, possibly due to a lower turnout from opposition supporters, the opposition parties will not benefit from the advantage of increased visibility on election day. This was something the Turkish opposition experienced in 2014.

No matter how strong a unity candidate opposition parties manage to put up against Erdoğan, their chances of winning the election are very low, due to their inability to reach swing apolitical voters.

From Erdoğan’s perspective, the most disadvantageous scenario is to have each opposition party nominate a candidate who can maximise the turnout from their core voters in the first round. If the opposition parties select candidates who also have broader appeal, they will also pose a greater challenge in the second round.