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Erdogan's election challenge: Could Turkey's opposition win?

Erdogan's election challenge: Could Turkey's opposition win?
5 min read
01 May, 2023
In-depth: In an increasingly polarised political climate, Turkey's opposition parties have joined forces in their best shot at unseating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promising reconciliation and change.

As Turkey heads to the polls on 14 May in its most consequential vote in decades, a united Turkish opposition has its best chance yet of winning a national election and unseating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after his more than twenty years in office as both prime minister and president.

Six opposition parties have banded together to form the Nation Alliance, which is running against Erdogan's People's Alliance bloc. The main players in the latter are Erdogan's own Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right, ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The Nation Alliance, known informally as the Table of Six, is a coalition of parties that have little in common other than the need to rally around the common goal of unseating Erdogan and ending what critics see as his increasingly autocratic rule.

It includes Turkish nationalists loyal to the ideology of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who see the state as staunchly secular, as well as Islamists, social democrats, liberal conservatives, and former Erdogan allies.

Despite their differences, the opposition picked as its unity candidate 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) - Turkey's first political party - which has been out of power centrally since the 1990s.

The coalition has also published a 240-page memorandum of understanding, whose main promise is to return Turkey to a parliamentary system, reversing constitutional changes that allowed Erdogan to expand his powers after a 2017 referendum which won with just over 51 percent of the votes.

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It also pledges to fight corruption and restore the independence of the judiciary. On foreign policy, it promises Turkey will complete the EU accession process and revise the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal, among other issues.

To Erdogan's bombastic and personalised style of leadership, Kilicdaroglu juxtaposes the image of a softly spoken former civil servant whose campaign speeches address the nation from his own old-fashioned kitchen.

An election billboard for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate and leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday, 30 April 2023. [Getty]

De-polarising message

Turkish citizens are voting for both a new president and for their local representatives in parliament. With the country highly polarised after two decades of Erdogan's rule, it is a neck-and-neck race.

“The Turkish political system is considered competitive authoritarianism,” Salim Cevik, a Researcher at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told The New Arab.

“That basically means that everything is organised so that the government would win, but the opposition still has a real chance of winning,” he explained.

According to an average of opinion polls in late April, Kilicdaroglu has a slight lead over Erdogan - but cannot exceed the 50 percent threshold needed to win the presidential election in the first round.

This will see four candidates compete for the job with only two – Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu – having a real shot at winning. Eight out of ten polls suggested the election will go to a second round, which would take place on 28 May.

“One message that Kilicdaroglu continuously uses [in his campaign] is that he will be a conciliatory figure, he will depolarise society, and if he comes to power, he will not seek vengeance from conservative people,” Cevik said

A deep economic crisis that critics blame on Erdogan's unorthodox policies, as well as widespread criticism of the government's initial response to the devastating 6 February earthquake, make Erdogan more vulnerable than ever before.

“The opposition has a significant chance of winning primarily because of the bad economics, so [its message] focuses on so-called bread and butter issues, including fighting inflation, rising wages, and rising living standards of the population,” Cevik added.

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The opposition also vows to restore checks and balances and the independence of Turkey's key institutions, including the central bank and the judiciary.

On foreign policy, experts generally agree there will be some continuity, particularly when it comes to Turkey's relations with Russia and the Turkic states in central Asia.

But a government led by the opposition would also work to “restore Turkey's NATO identity,” as well as the role of the foreign ministry, says Tuba Eldem, associate professor of political science at Istanbul's Fenerbahce University.

“Turkey now is following a very personalised foreign policy, meaning the role of the foreign ministry has really weakened,” Eldem told The New Arab. “So this can also change in the very short term,” she added.

Supporters of the ruling AKP display a giant poster of Turkey's President Erdogan during a stadium rally on 27 November 2022 in Istanbul, Turkey. [Getty]

“With a simple majority, [the Nation Alliance bloc] can change some legislation, but constitutional reforms will require a qualified majority, 3/5 of the parliament,” Eldem explained.

“The Labor and Freedom Alliance Party will play a critical role in enacting some of the constitutional changes, including the change from a presidential to a parliamentary system,” she said referring to a smaller, left-wing coalition led by the Green Left Party (YSP).

The YSP is fielding candidates on behalf of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the main pro-Kurdish party and Turkey's second-largest opposition party, following an ongoing closure case against the latter.

The HDP is accused of ties with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, as well as the US and EU – but it denies those accusations. Many of the party's members, including former joint leader Selahattin Demirtas, are in prison.

In late April, the Turkish government detained at least 126 people, including lawyers, journalists and politicians including HPD members, on suspicion of links to the PKK.

The HDP, which is officially supporting Kilicdaroglu as a candidate for the presidential election, has condemned the arrests as “intimidation” ahead of the elections.

“The Kurdish opposition is not free, but the rest of the opposition is at least free to run, free to field candidates,” Cevik said. “Now if they lose [the election], there is a high possibility that will be further undermined.”

Ylenia Gostoli is a reporter currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has covered politics, social change, and conflict across the Middle East and Europe. Her work on refugees, migration and human trafficking has won awards and grants

Follow her on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli