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Turkey’s bickering opposition seeks unity against Erdoğan

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On the face of it, the timing could not be better for Turkey’s fractured opposition to end President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two-decade grip on power in elections due by June.

Inflation is high, Erdoğan’s approval is down and anger is building at his Islamic-rooted party’s use of the courts to prosecute dissent and sideline political rivals.

Instead, the six allied opposition parties are running out of time, bickering about everything from policy and strategy to which candidate to field against the 68-year-old leader.

“The Turkish opposition seems very disorganized,” one Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. “What is their program?”

Kemal Kirişçi at the Washington-based Brookings Institution agreed.

The opposition’s campaign “appears abstract and distant” to voters, especially in a country where the media is heavily controlled by the government, he wrote last month.

Winning formula

Erdoğan’s formula for success rested on his ability to rally enough elements of Turkey’s multifaceted society — secular or religious, ethnically Turkish or Kurdish, nationalist or liberal — to keep winning at the polls.

A booming economy in the first decade of his rule helped.

But anger at a sweeping crackdown that followed a failed 2016 coup as well as a subsequent economic crisis broke Erdoğan’s run.

The opposition put aside their differences and united in the single task of unseating Erdogan’s allies in municipal elections in 2019.

They won mayoral races in Turkey’s three main cities — İstanbul, Ankara and Izmir — shattering Erdoğan’s aura of political invincibility.

Now, they hope to do it all over again.

“The gang of six is united by one thing: opposition to Erdogan,” Aaron Stein, a veteran US-based foreign policy analyst, said referring to the six opposition leaders.

“If you dig deeper, they are different. But they don’t really have to talk about policy. Instead, the campaign can focus on platitudes that mask differences,” Stein told AFP.

Personal rivalries

The troubled fate of Istanbul’s popular mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, one of Erdoğan’s most internationally recognized rivals, highlights the opposition’s plight.

A court banned him from politics last month for slander in a case stemming from his 2019 victory, which was initially annulled.

İmamoğlu can keep serving as mayor while the appeal process winds its way through the courts.

But a separate interior ministry probe into his office on “terrorism” charges threatens to sideline him sooner.

The twin cases make İmamoğlu’s candidacy extremely risky for the opposition, despite polls showing him beating Erdoğan in a head-to-head race.

Stein said İmamoğlu’s legal battles illustrate “how far Erdoğan is prepared to go to ensure he doesn’t lose.”

Yet they also expose the opposition’s internal rivalries.

The court’s verdict caught Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of İmamoğlu’s main opposition CHP party, in Berlin, where he was trying to rally Western backing for his own candidacy.

Bookish and less telegenic than the mayor, Kılıçdaroğlu has struggled to secure the support of the other five leaders, some of whom would rather see Imamoglu run.

The most prominent of these, nationalist İYİ (Good) Party head Meral Akşener, used Kılıçdaroğlu’s absence to full effect.

She rushed to İstanbul in a show of solidarity with the mayor, giving him a hug on stage and raising his hand in victory during an impromptu protest rally.

Kılıçdaroğlu ended up cutting short his Berlin stay, returning in time for a second rally at which the opposition leaders appeared on stage together for the first time.

Lost message

The İmamoğlu verdict “briefly energized the opposition,” said Berk Esen, an assistant professor at İstanbul’s Sabancı University.

But it did not last, Esen added.

Aksener’s support for the İstanbul mayor rankled Kılıçdaroğlu, who ended up scheduling a dinner with the İYİ Party leader two weeks later to try to win her back.

Her push for İmamoğlu’s candidacy appears to have stalled.

“But the opposition lost valuable time by postponing the announcement of a joint candidate,” Esen said.

Rumors are swirling that Erdoğan may push forward the election to late April or early May, giving the opposition even less time to prepare.

Kılıçdaroğlu says the six parties will announce their joint candidate once the election date is set.

Enis Berberoğlu, a CHP party lawmaker representing İstanbul, sounded uncertain this would give the opposition enough time to get their message out.

“Unfortunately, only a tiny bit of what we say reaches the public,” he said, referring to the government’s stranglehold on the media.

“We can reach out through a couple of channels, but that’s it,” he told AFP.

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