After a dozen meetings between its half-dozen constituents, the Nation’s Alliance failed to reach a unanimous selection of a presidential candidate to challenge Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May’s national ballot. Exasperated IYI Party leader Meral Aksener walked out of talks on Friday, unable or unwilling to accept that Turkey's Gandhi Kemal Kilicdaroglu was the optimal choice to run as Erdogan’s opponent. She has a point. She’s not alone.
A loose coalition had been assembled to establish unity and prioritise the ousting of Erdogan at the expense of party fealty, but they neither came, saw nor conquered. Instead, as Erdogan crowed, ‘They sat, they talked and they dispersed’. The damage to the opposition’s electoral prospects is substantial but is it irreparable?
By rights, given the myriad crises besetting Turkey right now and the economic omnishambles over which Erdogan has presided for two decades, a united opposition should be able to nominate a chimpanzee or a block of feta cheese to stand against Erdogan and secure a landslide. If only it were that simple.
The charge sheet against Turkey’s authoritarian ruler is so long and comprehensive, his failings as manifest as they are legion, there is scarce need to reiterate.
The lobotomised half of the electorate that keeps voting him in is unswervingly loyal and prey to AKP propaganda. Even where the devotion is not religious, public opinion is clamped in the maw of state media control. No amount of government spin, though, can conceal the economic distress caused by triple-digit inflation and no market shenanigans can disguise the paralysing weakness of the lira.
In a functioning democracy, this slow-motion, multiple-vehicle car wreck would bring about the end of any government. This was before the criminal incompetence and moral turpitude on display in the government’s chaotic reaction to the earthquake in February and the subsequent revelation that its corruption and lax building regulations massively exacerbated the tragedy. For voters, it may not be the tragedy they can’t handle but the farce; the farce most succinctly illustrated by footage of the president handing out cash to quake victims like a drunken uncle home from the pub and dishing out fivers. Erdogan has a black belt in cynicism.
This, then, ought to have been the Ozymandian moment when the wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command was suddenly confronted with the decay of the colossal wreck of Gaziantep.
The initial signals emanating from Aksaray Palace suggested Erdogan might try to delay the elections from the scheduled date in May to a more propitious juncture. Once the eventual dimensions of the disaster became apparent, however, Erdogan realised that, far from improving in six months’ time, his problems with inflation and growth would only deteriorate. Erdogan has run out of reserves and sympathetic dictators who might replenish them. It’s a hit-and-run election.
Likewise, the chances of national focus moving on and away from the earthquake were reduced by the realisation that 1-2mn people would be displaced, and no one forgets they are living in a tent. The rage among many Turks (watch any footy match for confirmation) is palpable. So for Erdogan, it’s a precipice in front, and wolves behind.
Pick a politician – any politician
For the Nation’s Alliance, the task would seem straightforward: nominate one of its two extremely popular leaders, Imamoglu or Yavas, and start preparing to administrate. Polls unerringly predict both mayors would beat Erdogan handsomely in a national contest, having already triumphed against AKP shoo-ins in Istanbul and Ankara previously.
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Especially in Turkey. For months, political analysts assumed Kemal Kilicdaroglu would do the honourable thing, set aside his position as leader of the CHP and put forward a more dynamic, younger, telegenic candidate with a history of winning elections. Kilicdaroglu is plainly a decent man but it’s only as a failure that he’s been a success. There were no prizes for guessing Erdogan’s preferred opponent. Developments this weekend will have emboldened Erdogan, boosting his defiance, filling his sails with confidence. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take much.
Political analysts, your humble correspondent included, underestimated KK’s ambition and his doggedness, though. The Table of Six, as the opposition bloc became known, have obviously spent countless hours wargaming the campaign and reached different conclusions. Aksener, whose party might expect to command 10-15% of the vote, would only back Imamoglu or Yavas. Neither of these, however, would stand against the wishes of CHP boss, Kilicdaroglu. Aksener walked.
Imamoglu’s candidacy, however, was compromised by the legal case opened against him by the government on grounds so spurious even Alexei Navalny might judge them frivolous. In any case, the risk was clear: Imamoglu could be disbarred from office, leaving Erdogan the only horse left in the race. Yavas, a charismatic and thoughtful political operator, might also have been deemed risky because his nationalist past would have alienated the Kurdish HDP, whose support may be essential come a second round run-off with Erdogan.
The calculation Kilicdaroglu might have made, horse-trading behind the scenes, is perhaps twofold: first, that bereft of the nationalist Aksener, he may be able to lure the HDP and their 10-13% voting block into his coalition; second, that in the event of a run-off, Aksener and her supporters will back Anyone But Erdogan. This is a high-stakes gamble.
Beware the quiet man
Three years ago, the genial but less than robust Joe Biden was considered a weak challenger candidate to field against the incumbent, populist authoritarian, Trump. After the votes were tallied (or engineered by Dominion’s machine if you’re thick enough to believe Giuliani, Lindell, Marjorie Taylor Greene et al), Biden had proved himself the most successful presidential candidate in history with 84mn votes. Modesty and honesty defeated narcissism and mendacity. Inoffensive may not win votes but it won’t lose any. Is this a precedent from which democratic Turks can derive optimism?
It could well be that beating Erdogan at the ballot box is not Kilicdaroglu’s most difficult objective. If, and once, he wins, he must persuade Erdogan to concede defeat and move out. As with Trump, that may be easier said than done And if Turkey’s Gandhi can pull off those feats, then he faces the biggest job of all: he must repair the damage to Turkey’s economy, its democracy and its society.
Not that I’ve watched any, but when it was announced that ‘Mission Impossible 7’ was in the works one began to suspect that the premise of the franchise wasn’t really living up to its nomenclature. The missions were, it seems, all very possible. Kilicdaroglu only has three missions to prove whether he’s Tom Cruise or Gandhi. We know what Erdogan thinks. What do you think?