Turkey’s opposition fails to agree on election challenger to Erdogan and falls apart

Turkey’s opposition fails to agree on election challenger to Erdogan and falls apart
Aksener: Refused to back Kilicdaroglu. / Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu (VOA)
By bne IntelIiNews March 4, 2023

Turkey’s opposition coalition fell to pieces on March 3 as the leaders of its six parties proved unable to agree on a joint candidate to take on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the upcoming mid-May elections.

Kilicdaroglu: Critics complain of a charisma deficit.

Meral Aksener, leader of the nationalist centre-right IYI Party (Good Party), said she could not back Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main Republican People’s Party (CHP), as the challenger and indicated that her grouping would leave the coalition, known as the Table of Six. Throughout the past year, pundits and opinion pollsters have painted the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu, leader of the CHP since 2010, as a politician who lacks charisma and as a serial loser. Aksener has indicated she agrees with that analysis. Nevertheless, the other coalition parties, she said, went ahead and rubber-stamped his candidacy.

“What happened today is a major blow to [the opposition’s] effort” to unseat Erdogan, Wolfango Piccoli at political consultancy Teneo, was cited as saying by the Financial Times, adding that the fractured opposition had become Erdogan’s “greatest asset”.

Imamoglu: Popular but conviction might stop any intended run (Credit: www.ekremimamoglu.com).

Looking to rescue the situation, Aksener called on Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the popular CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively, to stand against the president. “Our people are calling you for duty,” she said.

Yavas (right): A run would mean stabbing his party leader in the back (Credit: Yildiz Yazicioglu, VoA). 

Piccoli described the appeal to Imamoglu and Yavas as, in effect, a call for a “rebellion” within the CHP.

Polls have suggested that both Imamoglu and Yavas would stand a good chance of defeating Erdogan in a run-off (in the election, if no candidate secures at least 50% support plus one vote in the first round of voting, the contest will proceed to a head-to-head of the candidates who place first and second). However, Imamoglu could find himself disbarred from running if he cannot on appeal overturn a conviction for insulting Istanbul election officials with the word “fools”. On the other hand, outrage over the conviction and disqualification of Imamoglu could prove a growing problem for the autocratic Erdogan.

Criticising the Table of Six, Aksener also remarked that the alliance had “lost its skill of reflecting people’s will”.

For his part, Kilicdaroglu pledged that the coalition would “continue on our path” even without the support of Aksener’s party.

The fact that the opposition is in disarray may prove a fortunate outcome for Erdogan who, after two decades as Turkey’s leader, has been looking to build momentum for another election victory despite poll ratings that are at an all-time low.

Many Turks are furious at the Erdogan administration’s lack of preparation for, and inadequate response to, the February 6 twin earthquakes that killed tens of thousands. But even before the natural disaster, Erdogan was already in trouble, facing widespread accusations of economic mismanagement that has impoverished many millions of Turks by generating rampant inflation and destroying the value of the Turkish lira.

The loss of the IYI Party will deal the Table of Six, also known as the Nation Alliance, a grievous blow. In the last parliamentary elections (in Turkey the parliamentary contest takes place in parallel with the parliamentary poll) in 2018, IYI won almost 10% of the vote. Though the CHP took 23%, the remaining four members of the coalition are minor entities. They are not expected to win more than around 1% of the vote each in the coming elections, which Erdogan intends to hold on May 14.

The only substantial opposition party that is not part of the Table of Six, the pro-Kurdish minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), attracted nearly 11% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary election, making it the second largest party in parliament.

Looking at whether Ankara mayor Yavas might answer Aksener’s call to run against Erdogan, Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at RBC BlueBay Asset Management, wrote in an assessment for the Center for European Policy Analysis: “Yavas has hinted that he might want to run, but it is unclear if he would be prepared to stab his party leader, Kilicdaroglu, in the back.”

Weighing up any remaining chance of Kilicdaroglu winning the presidency, Ash observed that “if even his former coalition partners do not think he can win, then what hope has he?”

In further remarks on Yavas, Ash added: “It is possible that Yavas will decide to fight both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. But would he really be able to reach the second round for a one-on-one against Erdogan? And even then, little is really known about Yavas in terms of his broader national politics; he has kept his head down running Ankara and focusing on service delivery. His past nationalist track record might mean that Kurdish voters would spurn him in any second-round vote.

“If Yavas did reach the second-round run-off, it is likely (based on past form) that Erdogan would offer some carefully targeted inducements. He might offer concessions to Kurds, who likely are nervous anyway about voting for Yavas. He might even look to offer Aksener a deal of a move away from the current presidential system back to a parliamentary system where she might then aspire to be a hands-on prime minister under a more ceremonial (if that is ever imaginable) Erdogan presidency.”

He also concluded: “A deal with Aksener — with whose family he [Erdogan] has a friendly relationship — would also protect the president’s clan from the risk of legal action for wrongdoing while in office, a real risk if they were to lose power.”