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Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu pulls ahead of Erdogan in latest polls as campaign heats up

As the latest polls show a close race against the opposition, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has returned to the hectic campaign trail and confronted his main rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the opposition stronghold city of Izmir.
Supporters wave flags and chant slogans while waiting for the arrival of CHP Party presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a campaign rally on April 30, 2023 in Izmir, Turkey.

IZMIR, Turkey — The latest polls released in Turkey over the weekend give the opposition’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu a slight edge over incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as they held dueling rallies in the opposition stronghold of Izmir with only 13 days to go till elections.

The long strip of greenery on Kordon, the waterfront at the western city of Izmir, was filled with crowds twice over the weekend. First they came to see Erdogan, who returned to the campaign trail Saturday after a four-day illness. The next day Kilicdaroglu, flanked by the heavyweights of the opposition’s Nation Alliance, made his way to the same spot to call on Erdogan to retire.

The dueling rallies of the incumbent and the opposition in Turkey’s third-largest city come amid recent polls that put Kilcdaroglu slightly ahead of Erdogan. The Istanbul-based pollster TEAM, which released its April report over the weekend, places the opposition’s presidential candidate at 47.4% and Erdogan at 44.4% in the first round on May 14. According to the poll, a runoff two weeks later will likely end with Kilicdaroglu beating Erdogan by 5%. 

All pollsters maintain that the votes are gravitating toward the two leading candidates in the presidential polls, and the percentage of undecided — in both the presidential and the parliamentary contests — is decreasing. 

Erdogan returns after health scare

The effect of Erdogan’s four-day absence due to his reported gastroenteritis during the tight race is unclear, but the president’s appearance at the TEKNOFEST in Istanbul early Saturday and then in Izmir in the afternoon marked a return to his energetic campaigning before huge crowds. Speaking from the city’s largest square, Erdogan attacked the local social administration for failing to cope with the city’s infrastructure problems, especially persistent floods.

"What happens to Izmir in every rain?" he shouted at the audience of the gender-segregated rally, an unusual event for the liberal port city where women feature prominently in business, politics and academia. Kilicdaroglu, he said, “couldn't save Izmir from mud, pits and garbage.” 

The president boasted that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had brought megaprojects to the city, such as a new route to Istanbul that halved the travel time, an upgrade of Izmir’s airport and a vast stadium.

Identity politics still rules

But for Can Selcuki, an economist and pollster from Izmir, these things have little pull on the local electorate. “For the voters of Izmir, it is all about identity politics,” Selcuki, the director of Turkiye Raporu, told Al-Monitor. “They think that their liberal lifestyle and values are under threat by the conservative AKP. As long as the AKP is in power, they will vote for the opposition, mainly the Republican People’s Party [CHP]. But once the AKP government changes, Izmir may well be the birthplace of new and more modernist political movements.” 

A trade port since the fourth century, multiethnic and multifaith Izmir has been the stronghold of the opposition. In the last 20 years, Erdogan’s AKP alternatively wooed the city by fielding senior statesmen — including a former prime minister — as candidates for mayor or slighted it as “infidel” Izmir, a name given during the Ottoman Empire due to the city’s non-Muslim majority.

The city has been ruled by social democrat mayors since 1999. In the last elections, half of the 28 deputies elected from the city were from Kilicdaroglu’s CHP — twice as much as the AKP, though one defected to the ruling party last year. There is little support for the AKP in the Izmir city center and coastal areas, but the party garners some votes in the agricultural heartlands and among the new migrant areas. 

AKP brings in outside support

While pro-AKP pundits have shared slightly doctored photos playing up the crowd size at Erdogan’s rally, pro-opposition commentators mocked the AKP for paying to bring supporters from the city’s periphery to create a crowd for the president. The truth lay in between. The audience was about the same size as in Erdogan’s presidential campaign in 2018, when many people were also brought in from nearby towns with the help of pro-Erdogan local groups.

A headscarved woman who identified herself only as Zehra told Al-Monitor that she and her teen daughter came from nearby Torbali, a district that voted predominantly for Erdogan in the 2018 presidential polls. “The local party branch organized the buses, but we came willingly,” she said. “I wanted to see with my own eyes that he was well.” 

Opposition show of unity

The opposition’s Nation Alliance made a strong showing in Izmir, as if in reply to Erdogan’s salvos that the opposition parties could not speak with a single voice. 

The CHP mayors of Ankara and Istanbul, pivotal figures that appeal to nationalist and Kurdish voters, respectively, also attended the meeting and addressed the crowds.

"The upcoming polls are critical for rebuilding our democracy," said Kilicdaroglu alongside his media-shy wife Selvi. "We will bring peace to this country; I will bring brotherhood to this country." His gesture of making a heart with his hands went viral on social media, alongside the other leaders who joined him at the platform and delivered speeches on different policy areas. For example, the Deva Party’s Ali Babacan, the youngest among them, focused on youth policies. 

“It was the first time that the members of the so-called Table of Six came together with their spouses and danced on a common platform,” Selcuki said. “They spoke of reconciliation, of tolerance, rather than using a harsher tone, because they are confident in being at the opposition’s fortress.” 

Coup comparisons

The opposition speakers criticized Erdogan for failing to bring prosperity, justice and democracy. They also took aim at Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who claimed last week that the May 14 elections are a “political coup” led by Westerners.

Soylu compared May 14 to the unsuccessful putsch against the government on July 15, 2016, which Turkey claims was masterminded by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. “July 15 was their actual coup attempt. May 14 is the West’s political coup attempt. It’s as clear as that,” said Soylu, calling the opposition “the children of America.”

The interior minister accused Washington of interfering in Turkey’s political system and once called on the United States to “take its filthy hands off Turkey.” This time, however, many Turkish commentators noted that Soylu’s implications of a Western plot aimed to pave the way for AKP supporters to contest the elections in case of an opposition victory — fueling fears that Erdogan will not leave even if he loses. 

Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, who has a political background in the nationalist movement just like Soylu, attacked the minister in his speech at the Izmir rally. “What do you mean it would be a coup if the AKP loses? Isn’t that what elections are about? Stop such threatening remarks,” he said. 

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