On March 6th, 2023, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was selected as the presidential candidate for the six-party Turkish opposition bloc known as the Nation Alliance. He will be running against the current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for May 14th, 2023. The decision to select Kılıçdaroğlu as the opposition candidate followed a 72-hour crisis during which Meral Akşener, the leader of the Good Party and also a member of the Nation Alliance, initially refused to support Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, but later reconsidered and agreed to back him. This crisis raised doubts about Kılıçdaroğlu’s ability to win the presidential election and threatened to fracture the opposition alliance. Moreover, this situation helped increase the popularity of President Erdoğan, who is making every effort to secure a victory in the upcoming election.
The opposition in Turkey is confronted with various difficulties
A year ago, the Nation Alliance, also known as the Table of Six, was formed, comprising various Turkish political parties, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Felicity Party (SP), Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), Future Party (GP), Democrat Party (DP), and the Good Party (İYİ). The alliance aimed to select a consensus candidate to run against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the 2023 elections and take the top office from him. However, there are several challenges facing the opposition alliance in the lead-up to the elections.
One of these challenges is the ambiguous stance of the Good Party, the second strongest party in the alliance, whose leader, Meral Akşener, announced on 5 March 2023 that her party would withdraw from the alliance and not support the candidacy of the CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Akşener called for the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, to run for president and promised to support their candidacies, claiming that the Table of Six did not reflect the will of the people and was prioritizing personal ambitions over Turkey’s interests.
However, both mayors refused to run and instead continued to back Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. They even went to meet with Akşener to persuade her to support him as well. Eventually, Akşener agreed to rejoin the alliance on the condition that the two mayors would be appointed vice-presidents if Kılıçdaroğlu won the election. İmamoğlu and Yavaş may have decided not to run for the presidency to avoid competing with their party leader and Erdoğan, instead positioning themselves as potential rivals in the future. They are popular among the Turkish public and may also be hoping to increase their chances of being elected prime minister if the parliamentary system is restored.
Despite Akşener’s initial demands, the alliance ultimately agreed to her conditions to keep the Good Party within the alliance after several members resigned when she withdrew.
Challenges to Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy: Despite the Nation Alliance’s decision to support Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, there are several factors that could hinder his chances of winning the upcoming presidential elections. Firstly, Meral Akşener’s withdrawal from the alliance and her subsequent demand for Kılıçdaroğlu to appoint İstanbul and Ankara mayors as vice-presidents could damage his campaign. Additionally, Kılıçdaroğlu’s age, 74, makes him the oldest candidate in the elections, and his limited popular appeal, as demonstrated by his poor performance in opinion polls compared to Erdoğan, Yavaş, and İmamoğlu, could also work against him. Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu’s lack of charisma and political acumen has prevented him from beating Erdoğan in any election or opinion poll over the last two decades.
Vagueness of opposition’s political program: Kılıçdaroğlu’s political program for the presidency includes a return to a parliamentary system, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, protection of liberties, prevention of violence against women, ending the politicization of education, and non-intervention in other countries’ affairs. However, the lack of specifics on how these principles will be implemented and within what timeframe could make it difficult for him to convince the entire electorate of his plans, especially since the Nation Alliance has only recently settled on a candidate two months before the elections.
Limited agreement on governance: Prior to Kılıçdaroğlu’s nomination, the Nation Alliance unveiled a twelve-point plan for the election and post-election period. Among the proposals was the idea of rule by consensus, in which each party within the alliance would have at least one minister in the cabinet, and the appointment and dismissal of ministers would require the leader’s approval. Additionally, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara would serve as vice-presidents on certain issues as the president saw fit. However, this plan has sparked concerns about the governance model that would be adopted if Kılıçdaroğlu were to win the presidency, given that a less centralized approach would violate Turkey’s current constitution, which the opposition intends to amend. The proposal also raises questions about whether top-level decisions would require the input of all six Nation Alliance party leaders and the two vice-presidents. It remains unclear whether the Turkish public would embrace this new model of governance, and disagreements over decision-making could arise if Kılıçdaroğlu were to win.
Kurdish issues divide the Nation Alliance: While Mithat Sancar, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), welcomed Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, he has not committed to endorsing him in the presidential election. This is because the Nation Alliance is divided on Kurdish issues, with most parties in favor of forming a coalition with the HDP to gain their 7.8% of the vote and strengthen their chances against Erdoğan. However, Akşener remains opposed to this idea, stating that she would not collaborate with the HDP. The HDP has indicated support for Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, but any coalition would depend on clear agreements between the two sides. This could have positive implications for the HDP, but it remains to be seen whether Akşener will compromise on her hardline nationalist stance towards the Kurds, who she has prevented from joining the Nation Alliance.
The next president of Turkey will be faced with numerous challenges on the domestic front, especially in the aftermath of the devastating Kahramanmaraş earthquake that hit several Turkish provinces, affecting a significant portion of the country’s population. With damages estimated to exceed $100 billion USD and a death toll of 46,000, the disaster will have major economic and political implications.
As of now, there are three candidates vying for the presidency: the incumbent President Erdoğan, representing the People’s Alliance, Kılıçdaroğlu, running for the opposition Nation Alliance, and Muharrem İnce, leader of the Homeland Party, who has asked Akşener to be his prime minister if he wins. Based on the current slate of candidates, there are several potential outcomes for the upcoming elections, including:
- Erdoğan’s re-election: Despite a decline in his popularity since the previous elections and the mounting crises in Turkey, Erdoğan is the most probable candidate to win the elections, as he only needs to secure a simple majority (50% + 1). In recent months, Erdoğan has made some economic gains, raised the minimum wage, and ended Turkey’s international isolation through various regional and international agreements, injecting billions of dollars into the economy. Erdoğan has also taken advantage of the earthquake to bolster his support, emphasizing his government’s response to the disaster, while accusing his opponents of squabbling over power. With twenty years of political and electoral control, Erdoğan has a vast support base and can mobilize popular support. Recent opinion polls show that 36% of the electorate still back him, a number that could increase with the measures Erdoğan’s government is taking, such as the plan to build 100,000 temporary homes for those affected by the earthquake before the elections. The limited appeal of his main opponent, Kılıçdaroğlu, and the resources being poured into the elections could also contribute to Erdoğan’s victory.
- If the opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, wins, it will depend on his ability to organize and mobilize voters over the next two months, and whether the other parties in the Nation Alliance can rally their supporters behind his candidacy. Kılıçdaroğlu’s success will also be influenced by whether he can overcome the crisis caused by Meral Akşener’s initial skepticism of his candidacy, which could continue to have negative effects due to her comments about the alliance failing to represent the will of the people. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins, it will likely be due to widespread dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s policies and his long tenure as president. Kılıçdaroğlu may seek to capitalize on Erdoğan’s weaknesses, gain Kurdish support, and present himself as a strong leader for Turkey, rather than just a candidate from the Nation Party.
- However, there is a possibility that Kılıçdaroğlu could win the election but be unable to govern effectively, leading to early elections to replace him. This could occur if Erdoğan contests the election results in court or creates other political crises that quickly end Kılıçdaroğlu’s term. If Kılıçdaroğlu is unable to both win the election and govern effectively, this could lead to the dissolution of the opposition alliance or the exit of certain parties such as the Good Party from the alliance.
Overall, Turkey is searching for a strong president who can tackle the various domestic and international challenges facing the country, including the aftermath of the Kahramanmaraş earthquake, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and rising global tensions. Given the gravity of these issues, the Turkish people are unlikely to support a weak president or a presidential team. These factors may help Erdoğan’s chances of winning the election, particularly given the disagreements among the opposition alliance regarding their candidate.