Turkey’s six-party opposition alliance declared Thursday that it had “reached a common understanding” on a candidate to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s crucial presidential elections in May, but it delayed an official announcement on who he is until next week.
The candidate is likely to be main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is upheld by the five parties in the opposition platform. The stumbling block appears to be right-wing Iyi Party, the second-largest party in the coalition, which is not entirely persuaded that Kilicdaroglu is the right man to defeat Erdogan. Meral Aksener, the leader of Iyi, was in a meeting with her party members as of this writing.
“We have reached a common understanding on our presidential candidate and on a roadmap for the transition process,” their joint statement said, adding they would make a “final statement” on the topic on Monday.
The cryptic statement from the Table of Six, which brings the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Iyi together with Future and DEVA, offshoots of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Democrat Party and pro-Islamist Felicity Party, said that the leaders had agreed upon a common candidate and an action plan for the elections. It added that six leaders would come together Monday to make an official declaration after informing their party organs over the weekend.
The decision of the Table of Six on a common candidate, which has been awaited for months, comes after Erdogan indicated that he would stick with May 14 for Turkey’s crucial dual presidential and parliamentary elections. The president’s statement on Wednesday ended the speculation of postponing the polls following the killer quakes that devastated one-seventh of Turkey and affected the lives of more than 13 million people.
The earthquakes have also upended the opposition's plans to announce its presidential candidate in mid-February. But many pundits say that the delay was caused by Aksener, who has been dragging her feet because she thought Kilicdaroglu was unlikely to appeal to her right-wing voter base and win against Erdogan. Others opine that Aksener was simply bargaining for critical positions for her party in case of a win. Aksener repeatedly says she wants to be the prime minister after Turkey returns to the parliamentary system.
Pro-governmental media and members of the ruling AKP persistently highlighted disarray in the Table of Six, claiming that it was on the point of collapse. The opposition platform failed to appear as a bloc in responding to the earthquake, with each leader touring the region separately.
“Despite claims of discord, we are working harmoniously,” Kilicdaroglu, the CHP leader, told journalists earlier this week. “There are differences, but we work them out in a civilized manner.”
A Metropoll survey in December showed that Kilicdaroglu had increased his popularity and would likely win by a 4% margin against Erdogan in the second vote.
Kilicdaroglu’s fans praise him for balanced, unemotional leadership, pointing out that the ex-bureaucrat has shown insight and longevity after he took the reins from Deniz Baykal, his Machiavellian predecessor who resigned over a sex scandal in 2010. In 2017, Kilicdaroglu challenged Erdogan with a 20-day “Justice March” to protest the intensifying climate of repression after the unsuccessful 2016 coup.
Under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, the CHP snatched the municipalities of the capital, Ankara, and the commercial center, Istanbul, from the ruling party's grip in the local elections in 2019. In both cities, the CHP has appealed to the voters with dark horse candidates: Ekrem Imamoglu, a real estate developer from the Black Sea region who started his political life with a center-right party, and Mansur Yavas, a lawyer who was previously a member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In 2022, Kilicdaroglu was the driving force to establish the Table of Six.
His critics claim that one of the two mayors — the fiery and bombastic Imamoglu or the slow but reliable Yavas — would be a better choice, as both did better than Kilicdaroglu in the Metropoll surveys. Particularly Aksener, whose Iyi Party is expected to garner 10% of the votes, appeared to favor Yavas, who’d appeal more to her right-wing nationalist electorate. Some party insiders say, however, that she is leaning towards the Istanbul mayor. In the meeting Thursday, Aksener reportedly mentioned the two men as possible candidates.
But Kilicdaroglu appears keen to present his candidacy. Over the weekend, the CHP parliamentary group endorsed Kilicdaroglu “with full powers and support” to determine the presidential candidate on behalf of the CHP. Before the earthquake, Kilicdaroglu announced that “Bay Kemal” ("Mr. Kemal" in Turkish, Erdogan’s mocking reference to the opposition leader) was on his way to power. Erdogan retorted with a rare Anglicist irony. “His slogan should be ‘bye-bye Kemal,” said the president, brushing aside any chance of victory for the opposition in the elections.
“Go, Bay Kemal, go,” tweeted Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), in jail since 2016 on terror-related charges. After his tweet was interpreted as his party's support of Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, he sought to clarify his remarks. “I did not mean to endorse any candidate or alliance,” he said. “What I meant was that all political alliances should come together to help the people in the region … and that Kilicdaroglu can play a leading and unifying role.”
How HDP and its Labor and Freedom Alliance would vote in the presidential and parliamentary votes may be decisive in the close two-horse race. They likely back up Kilicdaroglu, who is an Alevi from Dersim, but not Yavas. According to several polls, the HDP may get between 8% to 12% of the vote if it is not closed before the election.
The alliance has already announced its 2,300-point program to wipe Erdogan’s stamp off of the Turkish political system. They promise a return to the parliamentary system, which was replaced with an executive presidency system in 2017. It limits the president to a seven-year term and makes an empowered new prime minister accountable to lawmakers.