Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu has ‘wind in his sails’ in election battle against Erdogan argues analyst

Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu has ‘wind in his sails’ in election battle against Erdogan argues analyst
Kilicdaroglu has won some good reviews in his first week as the opposition coalition's selected challenger to the incumbent. / CHP
By bne IntelIiNews March 9, 2023

When it comes to the question of whether Turkey’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu can defeat president of two decades Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the country’s upcoming mid-May elections, one analyst argues that the challenger has the “wind in his sails and you can really feel it”.

Kilicdaroglu, known as “Gandhi Kemal” given his resemblance to the Indian civil rights leader, was on March 6 selected as the opposition coalition’s candidate for the May 14 showdown despite worries that the quietly-spoken 74-year-old economist has never won a major election in his long political career and is widely described as suffering from something of a charisma deficit.

However, the six-party coalition, known as the Nation Alliance or “Table of Six”, is billing its challenge to Erdogan as a package that includes Kilicdaroglu and the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara—Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, respectively—who would become vice presidents in the event that the authoritarian Erdogan is sent packing.

Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based Tepav think tank, speaking to the Financial Times, conceded that in stark contrast to Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu is known as a dull speech-giver, saying: “Some people, when they get in front of a crowd, it’s natural, they just connect. When Kilicdaroglu gets in front of a crowd … everyone looks at their phones within five minutes.”

However, he noted that Kilicdaroglu had been performing better in public of late, including his victorious speech to parliament this week, following his selection as the challenger to Erdogan, which “connected with people”. There was “lots of energy in opposition circles now,” Koru said.

Kilicdaroglu—a member of the minority Alevi sect in what is a mainly Sunni Muslim country—has led Turkey’s biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), for 13 years. The Table of Six is an unwieldy coalition. It includes Islamists, nationalists and more liberal-leaning members. To keep everyone united and on board for the campaign, Kilicdaroglu has agreed that not only the CHP’s Imamoglu and Yavas should become vice presidents, but also the leaders of the other five parties in the coalition.

The Table of Six was “now more likely to win” after bringing the popular city mayors into the picture, but forming a unified message with seven vice-presidential candidates with widely varying ideologies would be “extremely difficult”, Ali Carkoglu, a political-science professor at Istanbul’s Koc University, told the FT.

The coalition’s advantage, he added, “relies on their numbers but only if the campaign messages are well co-ordinated.”

Pro-Kurdish party possible kingmaker

The kingmaker in both the parliamentary and presidential polls could prove to be the pro-Kurdish minority Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the third biggest party in parliament. Given that the opposition bloc includes the nationalist IYI Party (Good Party) and Saadet Party (Felicity Party), there is some concern that working closely with the HDP could drive some voters away from the Table of Six, but on March 9 the two parties in the opposition alliance indicated that they would support talks with the HDP on the party backing Kilicdaroglu as the challenger to Erdogan.

A victory in the first round of the presidential election, which would require more than 50% of vote cast, looks unreachable without support from the HDP. The contest goes to a run-off between the two top-placed candidates if that threshold is not attained.

HDP co-leader Mithat Sancar called on March 6 for talks with the Table of Six "about principles" that may open the way for the party to support Kilicdaroglu.

Birol Aydin, a spokesperson for the Saadet Party, told broadcaster Haberturk that Kilicdaroglu should speak with the HDP.

IYI Party leader Meral Aksener said she would not object to other parties forming a dialogue with the HDP, but would not join such discussions herself.

Two other alliance parties, DEVA Party and Future Party, would also welcome talks with the HDP, sources told Reuters.

The HDP previously said it would field its own challenger to Erdogan along with a different alliance of left-wing and pro-Kurdish parties, but it is now re-evaluating that approach.

Turkey's Constitutional Court is hearing a case aimed at closing the HDP over alleged ties to Kurdish militants, which the party denies.

One big problem for Erdogan in the elections ahead is the anger in Turkey over how a huge number of shoddy buildings—widely viewed as having been erected because of corruption, ineptitude or incompetence on the part of officials over many years—were “pancaked” by the February 6 earthquake disaster, meaning the Turkish death toll from the earthquakes is heading towards 50,000 and could rise far higher.

Various media reports have looked at how Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) increasingly realise they cannot take past votes for granted given the fury and dismay over the sheer number of fatalities caused by the disaster.