The well-known journalist Kadri Gürsel put it in a nutshell: There is no larger political movement in this country than “anti-Erdoğanism”.
Türkiye’s elections on May 14 are like fighting a battered boss. Never since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in power has the opposition been so sure of victory. And at the same time you can tell how nervous it is: Erdoğan, the eternal president, the old tactician, could still turn it around. Might surprise the country, as he has often done.
Erdoğan should be beatable this time. Actually. Everything points to it. The hyperinflation, the bad crisis management after the earthquakes. The corruption behind the building permits that can be seen by anyone who wants to see them. The President seems weakened, both politically and personally. You can see it in his performances: he’s no longer the crowd whip he was a few years ago. His best days are behind him and he should be easy to beat. only by whom?
The opposing candidate
Opposition to Erdoğan was what united the opposition until the right-wing and nationalist IYI party left the opposition alliance. That, too, had to do with Erdoğan, with the question of who is likely to beat him in the May 14 elections. Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu from the main opposition party CHP? He is seen as an experienced technocrat who many trust to reverse the presidential system introduced by Erdoğan and return Türkiye to a parliamentary democracy where power is shared more widely than before. However, Kiliçdaroğlu, who has been opposition leader since 2010, has never won an election against the president. Despite resistance, however, he asserted his candidacy and restored the opposition’s unity, without which it would have little chance of defeating President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kiliçdaroğlu had already demonstrated his political skills in the past two years when he brought together six parties with a wide range of ideological views into an alliance. In addition to the two largest parties, the left-secular CHP and the national conservative Iyi party, it also includes a small Islamist party and two branches of Erdoğan’s AKP.
The opposition’s gray wolf
For the IYI leader Meral Akşener, Kiliçdaroğlu was always too leftist, he belongs to the Alevi religious minority. Referring to the polls, she doubts his chances of winning the elections. She used to put it more politely, but when she withdrew from the alliance for the time being, it sounded like this: A choice between Erdoğan and Kiliçdaroğlu is one “between death and malaria.” Akşener believes the CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara have better prospects. The CHP says that Akşener has turned out to be Erdoğan’s Trojan horse in the alliance. Her suggestion for Imamoğlu could ensure Erdogan’s stay in office if the non-independent judiciary imposes a political ban on Imamoğlu, as threatened. In Akşener’s favour, however, it is argued that many voters from the nationalist Iyi party will not vote in the first round should Kiliçdaroğlu be the opposition candidate. Therefore, she must present another candidate. Kiliçdaroğlu showed himself combative and indirectly made the pro-Kurdish HDP, which does not belong to the opposition alliance due to the resistance of the nationalist Iyi party, an offer of cooperation.
Akşener said her party wanted to determine the personnel “according to a data-based, rational method”. “Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected by the others.” After internal consultations and talks with the other parties, however, Akşener was persuaded to return to the opposition table. The option of becoming a partner in the government after the May 14 elections – and thus being able to defend her position as chairwoman – may also have played a role in her return to the opposition alliance. Recently, tensions between the three wings in her party have increased. The weight of the nationalist wing, made up of the members who left the MHP with Akşener in 2017, had declined in favor of the free-market, technocratic and conservative wing. The fact that her suggestion from the weekend to make the lawyer Ersan Sen the presidential candidate met with no response could also have played a role in Akşener’s calculations.
The beacons of hope for the future
On the day Akşener withdrew, the representatives of all six parties tried to put the alliance back together. When the alliance parties CHP, Deva and Saadet did not come to an agreement with the Iyi party – both sides stuck to their original demands, Akşener rejected Kiliçdaroğlu as a candidate – and the search for a compromise formula began. According to Turkish media reports, the CHP’s top committees agreed to propose the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Imamoğlu and Yavas, as candidates for the office of vice president. The other four parties agreed and Imamoğlu arrived from Istanbul. During the night, Imamoğlu and Yavas met Akşener.
The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavas, both of whom are also members of the CHP and have been traded as candidates for months, are actually more popular with the people than Kiliçdaroğlu. Akşener would support both, she announced – and called on the two politicians to run their own candidacy.
Imamoğlu in particular is internationally known for a spectacular victory against Erdoğan in 2019. In the local elections, he got the most votes in Istanbul, although the city was previously led by the ruling AKP party. A loyalist to Erdoğan had competed against him. The President did not want to accept the result. Erdoğan himself began his career as Istanbul’s mayor, and the city has great symbolic value for him. “Who wins Istanbul, wins Türkiye,” he once said. So he had the election repeated – and Imamoğlu increased his lead so much that nobody could contest the victory.
Erdoğan had realized how dangerous the new Istanbul mayor could be for him. Imamoğlu was sentenced to prison and a ban on politics last year for allegedly insulting members of the electoral authority around the local elections – his greatest weakness as a possible opposition candidate. He has appealed.
Yavas became mayor of Ankara in the same year as his Istanbul counterpart. He made himself popular with the people by improving public services. His high approval ratings, coupled with his statesmanlike manner, make him a suitable candidate in the eyes of some.
At the same time, he is the least known of the three men because he shuns the limelight and international media. He also began his political career in the ultra-nationalist milieu, which is likely to make him unelectable for many Kurds. But you could be an important tip of the scales in the battle for the presidency.
The Kurdish question
One party never found a place in the opposition alliance: the pro-Kurdish HDP. According to Akşener, she will never sit at a table with an HDP representative. At a table with Akşener, an HDP spokeswoman replied, they didn’t want to at all. The HDP has been criminalized by Erdoğan’s government for years, and its former leader Selahattin Demirtaş is in prison.
The opposition believed that supporters of the HDP would vote against Erdoğan anyway – even if their party was not at the table. Now the CHP leader could seek proximity to the Kurds and create a new, more left-wing alliance with them. Such an alliance would be risky, because not only Erdoğan considers the HDP to be the political arm of the PKK. Many in Türkiye see it that way. In their eyes, the opposition would be an alliance with terrorists. Erdoğan would certainly like to take advantage of this in the election campaign.
The co-chairman of the HDP, Mithat Sancar, has now declared that his party is also examining whether it will forgo its own candidate in the presidential election and support the opposition’s joint candidate. The aim is to initiate democratic change. In January, the HDP still signaled that it could nominate its own candidate.
The new constellation now increases the opposition’s prospects not only of securing a majority in parliament, but also of replacing Erdoğan as president. The alliance’s plan to use the new formula to attract voters who are not convinced of Kiliçdaroğlu could well work. The opposition is determined to use people’s dissatisfaction with the economic situation and the poor crisis management after the earthquake to change government. But the outcome of the election will depend heavily on the behavior of the Kurdish HDP and whether they choose their own candidate after all.
Ultimately, the conflicts in Turkish society, which intensified during the Erdoğan years, are reflected in the opposition. The Kurdish-dominated HDP announced that it would support Kiliçdaroğlu or Imamoğlu – but would nominate its own candidate in the case of Mansur Yavas. However, in the run-off election, the candidate of the alliance of six is sure of the votes of everyone who wants to get rid of Erdoğan. At least since the earthquake, that’s the majority.
The incumbent president has followed the split in the opposition with glee. He always knew, said Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “that they would meet, talk and disperse.” He continues to work “on his roadmap”, no matter what the opposition is up to. Nothing has changed in Erdoğan’s problem, he is far from the at least 50 percent he needs for re-election. It’s now easier for him to play off his opponents against each other. He’s a master at it. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan still speaks the language of his voters. When he promises the earthquake victims new houses, when he asks for forgiveness at the same time. But the people he addresses are no longer in the majority. The opposition, on the other hand, this unlikely alliance of left and right, of Kemalists and Islamists, would have to do a lot wrong to lose these elections.
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