By Daniel Thorpe, The Spectator,
After months of negotiations and a week of drama, the Turkish opposition bloc has announced Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as their joint presidential candidate. The general election in May looks set to be the biggest challenge president Erdoğan has faced since coming to power in 2002.
An unusual scene unfolded in Ankara on Monday night. A huge portrait of Atatürk, the radically secular founding father of modern Turkey, fluttered in the breeze over the headquarters of an Islamist party. Outside, thousands gathered, chanting the name Kılıçdaroğlu, a politician from a religious minority, the Alevis, who have faced persecution for most of the Turkish Republic’s 100 year history. Inside the party headquarters, alongside their hosts, the centre-left CHP, the ultranationalist Good Party (IYI Party), and two breakaway parties from Erdoğan’s government were finalising the nomination of their joint candidate, and a road map for the next general elections, due to be held on 14 May.
The Nation Alliance consists of six opposition parties, and was created last year to put an end to Erdoğan’s two-decades-long rule. Despite their common objective, for months the alliance failed to agree on a joint presidential candidate. The IYI Party leader, Meral Akşener, strongly objected to Kılıçdaroğlu, and campaigned for either the mayor of Istanbul or of Ankara, both figures more on the right of the CHP.
The heated debates peaked on 3 March, when five of the six party leaders agreed on Kılıçdaroğlu. Akşener stormed out, and announced that her party will run separately with their own candidate. A public backlash among opposition voters and a wave of resignations from the IYI Party, forced Akşener to return to the table and accept the nomination of Kılıçdaroğlu.
Kılıçdaroğlu has made his name as a politician of a very different calibre to president Erdoğan. His supporters often call him ‘the bureaucrat’, due to his career in the civil service and rather humble character. But his patient, determined negotiating style has proven a rare unifying force in Turkish politics.
The impact of the 6 February earthquake, which killed over 45,000 people and displaced millions, has also shaken Erdogan’s chances in an election he was widely forecast to win with a comfortable margin. There’s a widespread feeling in Turkish society that the government was at least partly to blame for the high death toll, fuelled by corruption and negligence in construction regulations, the slow response of the emergency services, and the lack of coordination in the rescue and aid missions.
The opposition has strongly criticised the government’s response to the catastrophe. Some polls suggest that the earthquake has tipped the electoral balance in favour of the opposition.
Since 2018, Turkey has been engulfed in a major economic crisis. Unemployment has grown, the Turkish Lira has lost almost 500 per cent of its value against the US dollar in the last five years, and the standard of living and purchasing power of citizens continues to deteriorate. Instead of increasing interest rates to tackle high inflation, the usual median of central banks around the world, Erdoğan has stuck to his own unorthodox economic policies, claiming high interest rates lead to even higher inflation.
In recent months, the government embarked on a major pre-election spending spree, almost doubling the minimum wage and introducing a new social housing programme that promises the construction of 500,000 new homes. The projects were backed by tens of billions of dollars from Gulf states, and by increasing the country’s trade with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, despite Western sanctions.
The opposition Nation Alliance has vowed to reorient the country’s economy to the Western market and attract more foreign investment by clamping down on corruption and strengthening the country’s democratic institutions. They have also promised to restore the independence of the central bank so it can focus on its primary objective: tackling inflation.
The next government, whoever forms it, must face the worst inflation in decades and a record trade deficit. Economists forecast harsh austerity measures and a worsening cost of living crisis, before any hope of a recovery.
Public dissatisfaction with the high number of refugees has risen constantly. A survey carried out by the Social Democracy Foundation (SODEV) suggested that 66 per cent of Turkish citizens want Syrians to be ‘sent back to their country’.
While the government has no long-term plan for the refugees, the opposition was quick to suggest a solution. Kılıçdaroğlu promises that, if elected, the new government will reopen direct diplomatic channels with the Assad regime in Damascus and facilitate the safe and voluntary return of millions of Syrians to their country, with the financial and logistical help they expect from the EU. Although many doubt this could work, the promise of a solution of any kind looks set to swing many votes from Erdoğan to the opposition.
Both Erdoğan and his People’s Alliance, and the opposition Nation Alliance, need the support of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, to win the elections. Recent polls suggest neither can secure a clear victory in the first round. This would result in a second round between the two strongest presidential candidates – Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), currently the third biggest party in parliament, has the highest support among the Kurdish electorate. Their support for Erdoğan is highly unlikely: the party has faced constant persecution, with dozens of their mayors removed from office and hundreds of party members imprisoned. Prosecutors in an ongoing case at the constitutional court demand the closure of the party over alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), viewed as a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the EU, and the US.
HDP’s support for the opposition Nation Alliance is not guaranteed either. Kılıçdaroğlu’s ally, the nationalist IYI Party have repeatedly expressed their unwillingness to collaborate with the pro-Kurdish movement, pushing the HDP to form its own opposition alliance with smaller socialist parties. But since the main opposition bloc nominated Kılıçdaroğlu, the co-leaders of HDP say that under certain circumstances they could consider withdrawing their own presidential candidate and supporting Kılıçdaroğlu instead.
In 2018, all major opposition parties ran their own presidential candidates, landing Erdoğan a clear victory in the first round. In local elections the following year, the opposition joined ranks against Erdoğan, and the governing AKP lost control of 11 provinces, including Istanbul and Ankara. Should Kılıçdaroğlu be able to hold the fragile alliance together and secure the support of the Kurds, the opposition will have its best chance ever of toppling Erdoğan.
Erdoğan came to power on the back of the 1999 earthquake and ensuing economic crisis. The 6 February quake was at least twice as deadly and the current economic crisis is worse than that of the early 2000s. The same factors that helped Erdoğan win the elections 21 years ago, could bring him crashing down in May.