The Turkish opposition candidate faces an uphill battle to challenge Erdogan

Putting aside bitter rivalries, Turkey’s opposition parties scoured their ranks to find a common candidate ready to take on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a ruthless activist and gifted orator with near-total control over the media.

Their choice was revealed this week: Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a soft-spoken economist from a religious minority who has led the Republican People’s Party (CHP) through two referendum defeats and four mediocre general elections with worse results in a row.

The motives behind the selection were complex. But the gamble is that after years of turmoil, political repression, a failed coup, economic crisis and devastating once-in-a-century earthquake, Turkey’s voters may be ready for an even bleaker president.

“Some people, when they are standing in front of a crowd, it is normal for them to just communicate,” said Selim Kuru, an analyst at the Ankara-based think tank Tepav. When Kılıçdaroğlu stands in front of a crowd of people. . . Everyone looks at their phones in five minutes.”

The selection of Kilicdaroglu, who has led the country’s largest opposition party for 13 years, followed turbulent deliberations among six party leaders – the so-called table of six – who were best placed to confront Erdogan.

This points to the immediate challenge for Kilicdaroglu, who has to put together an unwieldy coalition of Islamists, nationalists and more liberal members. This is in addition to proving that he has what it takes to defeat the deeply entrenched Erdogan and run the country should he win.

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“Kılıçdaroğlu has limited popularity, that’s for sure,” said Ali Jarıkoğlu, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Koc University, pointing to his shortcomings as a speaker and public speaker, particularly in comparison to Erdoğan’s bombastic campaign style.

Berk Esen, associate professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabancı University, said Kilicdaroglu should show voters a “clear agenda”, rather than simply being the anti-Erdogan candidate.

However, doubts were raised about his candidacy even before it was revealed, as Meral Akşener, the leader of the Ilyi Party, the second largest party in the coalition, withdrew from the coalition due to concerns about his suitability.

It came back into the fold after the coalition agreed to a deal for the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, two of the country’s best-known politicians, to become the two vice-presidents of Kilicdaroglu, along with the five other opposition leaders, should he prevail on May 14.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu was seen as a viable presidential candidate before he was sentenced late last year to nearly three years in prison and banned from politics for that length of time, a sentence he said was politically motivated.

The coalition is now “most likely to win” after bringing the city’s popular mayors to the council, said Karakoglu, but creating a unified message with seven vice-presidential candidates with widely different ideologies will be “extremely difficult”.

“Their advantage depends on their numbers but only if the campaign messages are well formatted,” he said.

Kilicdaroglu was born in the eastern city of Tunceli, where his family was from the Alevi minority in a predominantly Sunni country. The 74-year-old started his career in the Ministry of Finance and later held managerial positions in the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. He was named Bureaucrat of the Year for Economic Trend magazine in 1994, according to his official bio.

The stakes are high as Kilicdaroglu and his associates seek to drag Turkey back into parliamentary democracy after Erdogan succeeded in transitioning to a regime that concentrated power in his hands after the 2016 coup attempt.

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The coalition has put out a wide range of policy proposals covering everything from corruption to central bank independence. Kilicdaroglu’s chances were also boosted by heavy criticism over Erdogan’s response to last month’s massive earthquake that devastated parts of southern Turkey, said Charkoglu of Koc University, which left the Turkish president’s political prospects “extremely seriously” wounded.

Nevertheless, Erdogan remains popular, especially among conservative and religious Turks, despite anger over soaring prices and a falling currency. The Turkish president, who has been in power for two decades, is a shrewd activist whose dominance of the media will make it difficult for the opposition to get its message across.

It has struggled in the polls for most of 2022 as inflation soared above 80 percent, eroding living standards. But his ratings improved modestly in the months leading up to the quake, as he unveiled grassroots measures such as a big increase in the minimum wage and public sector salaries.

The Kurdish elections will be central to the May ballot. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s third largest political group, is neither a member of the opposition coalition nor of an alliance between Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and the nationalist movement, making it a major player in the movement. election. Sabancı University’s Esen said the HDP, which has faced crackdowns by Erdogan’s government, will tend to endorse Kilicdaroglu’s liberal approach.

Esen said he still sees a “path” for Kilicdaroglu to win, especially since 10-15 percent of voters remain undecided. He added that the city’s two sheriffs introduced an American-style ticketing approach that added to its appeal.

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Kuru from Tepav noted that Kilicdaroglu has been doing better in public lately, including his triumphant speech to Parliament this week which “connected with the people”. “There was a lot of energy in the opposition circles now,” Currow said. He added that Kilicdaroglu had “the wind in his sails and you could really feel it”.

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