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Turkey’s fractured opposition unites to unseat Erdoğan

Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) speaking after he was confirmed as the Turkish opposition's joint candidate to run against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey's presidential election in May in Ankara, Turkey, on March 6, 2023. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Turkey’s bickering opposition leaders ended months of fierce debate Monday and agreed to name the head of the main secular party as their joint candidate against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May 14 polls, Agence France-Presse reported.

A last-ditch deal aimed at averting a split of the opposition vote will see Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu name the popular mayors of İstanbul and Ankara as vice presidents should he end Erdoğan’s two-decade rule.

“We would have been eliminated had we split up,” Kılıçdaroğlu told huge crowds of cheering supporters after emerging from hours of tense talks.

Erdoğan faces the fight of his political life in what many view as Turkey’s most consequential election since its birth as a post-Ottoman republic 100 years ago.

The 68-year-old leader needs to overcome the twin hurdles of an economic crisis and that aftermath of a devastating earthquake as he seeks to extend his Islamic style of rule until 2028.

Opinion polls point to a tight race that remains far too close to call.

But Erdoğan’s task had appeared to become a little easier when one of the main leaders of the six-party opposition alliance walked out of the talks on Friday.

‘The nation won’

Meral Akşener has argued that Kılıçdaroğlu — a soft-spoken 74-year-old from Turkey’s long-marginalized Alevi community — lacked the public appeal to defeat Erdoğan in the presidential ballot.

She has instead urged the popular CHP mayors of either İstanbul or Ankara to step into the race.

The two met Akşener on Monday in a make-or-break attempt to bring her nationalist İYİ Party back into the opposition fold.

“Our nation cannot tolerate a split,” Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş told reporters after the meeting.

The opposition last united in an effort to unseat Erdoğan’s allies in municipal elections held in 2019.

Their ability to regain control of Turkey’s two main cities shattered Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility and set the stage for the possible return to power by the party of the secular state’s revered founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

But Kılıçdaroğlu wanted Yavaş and İstanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu to keep their posts to avoid the threat of handing back control of either city to Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted party.

A 12-point text hammered out Monday committed Kılıçdaroğlu to naming the other five party leaders as vice president for a post-election transition period should he win.

Kılıçdaroğlu would then appoint the two mayors as vice president “at a time deemed appropriate by the president.”

Party leaders said Akşener made the two appointments her main condition for rejoining the opposition bloc.

“The nation won,” İYİ Party deputy leader Bahadir Erdem tweeted after the announcements.

Economic hopes

Analysts viewed the opposition’s failure to put aside their differences just two months before the vote as one of the main factors working in Erdoğan’s favor.

Erdoğan’s public approval plunged after he unleashed an unusual economic experiment in late 2021 that tried to fight inflation by drastically cutting interest rates.

A resulting currency crisis erased people’s savings and pushed the annual inflation rate to an eye-watering 85 percent.

Turkish stocks and eurobonds both rallied on rising investor hopes that the joint candidate will be able to beat Erdoğan and restore economic orthodoxy after years of tumult.

Kılıçdaroğlu is now also expected to hold separate talks with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) — parliament’s third-largest party — to see if he can further expand his appeal.

The HDP had been excluded from the opposition talks because of Akşener’s more hawkish policy views.

“We embrace the people’s desire for change,” HDP co-leader Mithat Sancar said after Kılıçdaroğlu’s name was announced.

“The HDP will do its part.”

Erdoğan seeks forgiveness

Erdoğan’s widely praised handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped reverse the slide in his approval rating and set him up with a chance to secure a come-from-behind win.

But a catastrophic earthquake last month that killed more than 46,000 people in Turkey and nearly 6,000 in Syria threatened to doom Erdoğan’s entire political career.

Erdoğan conceded that his government had been slow to respond in the first critical days of the crisis and asked voters to forgive him for rescue delays.

He also brushed aside rumors that he would try to delay the May vote to a more politically favorable date.

“We are not hiding behind excuses,” he said last week.

He told a weekly cabinet that he will announce the formal start of the election campaign on Friday.

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