On 6 March 2023, the Nation Alliance, the six-party Turkish opposition bloc, selected Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as their presidential candidate. Kılıçdaroğlu will run against current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the upcoming presidential elections, which will be held on 14 May 2023. This decision came after a 72-hour crisis in which Meral Akşener, head of the Good Party, which is also part of the Nation Alliance, refused to back Kılıçdaroğlu. She later reconsidered and agreed to support his candidacy. However, this situation raised doubts about the new candidate’s ability to succeed in the national presidential elections and threatened to break apart the opposition alliance. This crisis also bolstered the popularity of Erdoğan, who is doing everything he can to win in the upcoming elections.
Opposition Faces Challenges
The Nation Alliance, which is also known as the Table of Six, was formed a year ago and includes various Turkish parties: the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Felicity Party (SP), the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), the Future Party (GP), the Democrat Party (DP) and the Good Party (İYİ). These parties aimed to come to a consensus on a single candidate who would represent their alliance and run against Erdoğan in the 2023 elections, in hopes of finally taking Turkey’s top office. Erdoğan has now been at the helm—first as prime minister, and then as president—for two decades. However, there are many challenges that the opposition alliance will face in the two months leading up to the presidential elections, including:
1. The Good Party’s ambiguous stance: Meral Akşener, leader of the Good Party, the second strongest party in the Nation Alliance, announced on 5 March 2023 that her party was withdrawing from the alliance and would not back Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. She called upon the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, to run for president and promised to support their candidacies. She stated that the Table of Six did not reflect the will of the people, and that it was putting personal ambitions before Turkey. The two mayors both refused to run, announced they would continue to back the CHP leader’s candidacy, and went to see Akşener to convince her to support him as well. Akşener eventually agreed to rejoin the alliance on the condition that the two mayors would be appointed vice-presidents if Kılıçdaroğlu was elected.
İmamoğlu and Yavaş might have similar reasons for not running for the presidency now, since both are interested in running in the future. They have adopted various stances that suggest they see themselves as potential rivals to the leader of their party, Kılıçdaroğlu, and of course to President Erdoğan. However, it seems that they want to give Kılıçdaroğlu the opportunity to run and to build support for a future run for office with the backing of the CHP, Turkey’s largest opposition party. İmamoğlu and Yavaş are the two most popular CHP leaders among the Turkish public. The two mayors are also perhaps hoping to increase the likelihood of being elected prime minister if the parliamentary system is restored. Akşener backed off her original demands and the alliance agreed to her conditions in order to keep her party together, after several figures resigned when she withdrew from the alliance.
2. Kılıçdaroğlu’s limited popular appeal: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is known to be a bureaucrat with high ethical standards, who worked for the Ministry of Finance starting in the 1970s. Despite the opposition alliance’s eventual consensus to back him in the upcoming elections, there are various factors that could undermine his chances of winning. Akşener’s stance will work against him, in addition to the fact that he is a relatively elderly candidate at 74, which makes him the oldest candidate in the elections. He has limited popular appeal and always performs poorly in opinion polls, coming in after Erdoğan, Yavaş, and İmamoğlu. During the two decades since Kılıçdaroğlu joined the CHP in 2002, he has never beat out Erdoğan in any election or opinion poll, because the former lacks the same charisma and political savvy.
3. Vague political program from the opposition: After Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy was announced, he spoke to several thousand supporters from the Nation Alliance and stated that the alliance would rule Turkey through consensus and deliberation. He has previously stated that his agenda would include a return to a parliamentary system of governance, independence of the judiciary, releasing journalists, protecting liberties, preventing violence against women, and ending the politicization of education. He said that he would also revamp foreign policy, including non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. However, he did not specify how these principles would be carried out in practice or within what timeframe. These are only general principles to which any party can agree, which will make the tasks at hand more difficult, particularly since the alliance has taken so long choose a candidate and only settled upon Kılıçdaroğlu two months before the elections. Will the opposition candidate be able to convince the entire electorate of these idealistic plans, not only members of his party and alliance?
4. Disagreements over governance: The day before announcing Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, the Nation Alliance also announced a twelve-point plan for the elections and post-elections period. This plan included: rule by consensus among the six parties, in which each party in the alliance would have at least one minister in the cabinet, that ministers would be appointed and dismissed with the approval of the leader of the party, and that the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara would serve as vice-presidents on certain issues as the president saw fit. This plan has raised concerns about the proposed form of governance that would be implemented if Kılıçdaroğlu took office, since a less centralized "team" at the helm would be in violation of the current Turkish constitution, which the opposition wants to amend. This proposal also raises questions about whether the leaders of the six Nation Alliance parties and the two vice-presidents would all have to be consulted as part of any top-level decisions. Would the Turkish public accept this new model of governance? There are likely to be various disputes and disagreements over governance and decision-making if Kılıçdaroğlu wins.
5. Nation Alliance split on Kurdish issues: Mithat Sancar, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), welcomed Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. He said that he looked forward to meeting with Kılıçdaroğlu when he visited the party headquarters to form electoral coalitions. Sancar has not yet said whether he will directly back Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential elections. This is because the Nation Alliance has been split on Kurdish issues. Most Nation Alliance parties support forming a coalition with the HDP and gaining their at least 7.8 percent of the vote. This would bolster the Nation Alliance’s ability to defeat Erdoğan, but Akşener still remains opposed. She has previously stated that she would not sit at a table with the HDP. Although the HDP has previously indicated that it would support Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy if he ran for the presidency and that it would not back a rival candidate, such a coalition would depend upon clear agreements between the two sides. Offering such support would have positive ramifications for the HDP in the future. Will Akşener agree to this coalition despite her hardline nationalist position towards the Kurds, who she has prevented from joining the Nation Alliance?
The thirteenth president of Turkey will face many domestic challenges especially in the wake of the catastrophic Kahramanmaraş earthquake, which hit eleven Turkish provinces where 15 percent of the country’s 85 million people reside. Damages from the quake are estimated to be upwards of $100 billion USD, while 46,000 people lost their lives in the disaster. There are many other economic and political repercussions of this earthquake.
Three candidates have officially announced that they will run in the upcoming presidential elections: current President Erdoğan, the People’s Alliance candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu, the Nation Alliance’s opposition candidate, and Muharrem İnce, leader of the Homeland Party, who has asked Akşener to serve as prime minister if he should win. Given the current roster of candidates, there are several potential scenarios for the elections, including the following:
1. President Erdoğan wins: Despite Erdoğan’s diminishing popularity since the previous elections, and the increasing number of domestic crises in Turkey, he remains the most likely candidate to win the upcoming elections. This is especially true since he only has to win a simple majority (50 percent + 1). Erdoğanhas achieved some economic gains in recent months, raised the minimum wage, and ended Ankara’s international isolation through various agreements at the international and regional level that have pumped billions of dollars into the Turkish economy. Erdoğan emphasized these points during his comments on the crisis around Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, pointing out that the People’s Alliance has remained strong, and exploited the earthquake to drum up support. He stated that Turkey was experiencing a true catastrophe and that his government was working to save people’s lives and provide for their needs, while the other side was just fighting over seats.
Erdoğan’s victory is perhaps the most likely outcome, given that he has maintained control over the political and electoral process for twenty years. He is also able to mobilize popular support. The most recent opinion polls show that Erdoğan still has a strong base of support, with 36 percent of the electorate backing him. These numbers are likely to increase with plans that Erdoğan might announce leading up to the elections. Erdoğan might also emerge victorious as a result of the limited appeal of his opponent Kılıçdaroğlu and due to the resources that Erdoğan’s government is pouring into the elections, particularly regarding earthquake relief efforts. For example, Erdoğan recently unveiled plans to build 100,000 temporary homes and to move affected citizens there within two months, i.e., before the upcoming presidential elections. There are also other economic measures that Erdoğan’s government can take to bolster his popularity.
2. Opposition candidate wins: In this scenario, the Nation Alliance’s opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wins. Such an outcome would depend upon political organizing during the next two months to convince voters to back him, and on whether the other five parties in the alliance can mobilize their bases to support his candidacy. Kılıçdaroğlu’s chances are also contingent upon whether the crisis regarding Akşener’s skepticism of his candidacy can be contained. Her initial stance could continue to have negative repercussions, especially with regard to her comments about the alliance failing to represent the will of the people, based on opinion polls that show limited support for Kılıçdaroğlu. If he were to win, this would likely be due to popular discontent with Erdoğan’s policies and the latter’s extended time in office. Kılıçdaroğlu could try to exploit the current president’s weaknesses and policy errors, win Kurdish support, ramp up his campaign, and paint himself as a strong president for Turkey rather than the Nation Party candidate.
3. Kılıçdaroğlu wins but is unable to govern: In this scenario, the Nation Party candidate wins the elections and takes office, but then fails to successfully govern, and early elections are held to replace him. This could happen if Erdoğan loses the election but appeals the outcome in court, or if Erdoğan concocts other political crises that could quickly bring Kılıçdaroğlu’s term to an end. If Kılıçdaroğlu does not manage to both win the election and govern successfully, this could lead to the dissolution of the opposition alliance, or certain parties such as the Good Party exiting the alliance.
In conclusion, we can see that Turkey is looking for a strong president to deal with the domestic crises in Turkey given the human and economic repercussions of a devastating earthquake, and with international and regional issues including the fallout of the ongoing war in Ukraine and escalating tensions about reshuffling the international order. Under such circumstances, the Turkish people will not want a weak president or a presidential "team." This could help Erdoğan’s chances of victory, especially in light of disagreements among the opposition alliance about naming their candidate.