In 1984, the Democratic Party nominated Walter Mondale, a former Vice President and U.S. Senator from Minnesota, to challenge Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan to become the 41st President of the United States. Mondale, an undisputed underdog in the Democratic primaries, largely clinched the nomination since the Democrats did not wish to risk one of their heavyweights in the 1984 election. The result was humiliating yet unsurprising: President Reagan won 525 out of 538 electoral votes, and received 58.8 percent of the vote to defeat Mondale by a margin of victory of over 18 percent. The Democratic challenger carried no state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia (to put things in perspective, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama received only 51.1 percent of the vote in 2012, when he ran against Republican Mitt Romney).
Aug. 10, 2014 marked the quintessential Mondale moment of Turkish politics, when Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint presidential candidate of a twelve-party coalition, lost to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by a 15-point margin. The fact that Erdoğan, the ruling AK Party's chairman and presidential contender, won over 65 percent of the vote in Yozgat, his challenger's hometown, did not make things any better. One thing had long been certain: the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) did not seriously think that they could win the presidential election, but merely attempted a blitz to console their supporters, and distract attention from their own shortcomings. By fielding Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, an Egyptian-born conservative academic with little political experience, the opposition leaders embarked on a suicide mission against the prime minister, who has been nothing short of an electoral behemoth throughout his career, and effectively saved their seats. Yesterday's humiliating defeat, however, sent shockwaves through opposition ranks, and therefore placed the political career of Mr. İhsanoğlu's sponsors at serious risk.
The 2014 presidential election in Turkey did not only mark a defeat for the İhsanoğlu campaign, but also a victory for Selahattin Demirtaş - the 41-year-old self-made man who represented the Kurdish political movement with a smile on his face - who was a distant third in the race, but won just enough votes to outperform his political predecessors, and established that the opposition parties could no longer survive on negative campaigning alone. Over the past weeks, Mr. Demirtaş spoke his mind freely, and consequently converted some lifelong CHP voters who, in the most recent local election in March 2014, remained loyal to their political party with little hope for the future.
The İhsanoğlu campaign's failure will inevitably cause an outrage among CHP and MHP ranks, and entail serious consequences for the old guard in both parties. Having witnessed how conservatives and the Kurds constructed a post-Kemalist order in Turkey against all odds, the former guardians of the state now have to come to terms with the fact that they need to make an effort, and revisit some of their core ideological principles in order to compete in the new marketplace of Turkish politics. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, much like Ronald Reagan in the United States, has radically transformed conservative politics in his country, and presented the opposition with a great challenge to make peace with the people or become history.