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Turkey's opposition desperately seeks an electable leader

Burak Ünveren
September 14, 2022

Ahead of Turkey's 2023 elections, six opposition parties have joined forces to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the alliance still needs to decide on a leader.

Kombobild Kemal Kilicdaroglu und Ekrem Imamoglu und Mansur Yavas
All in the running (from left): CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu, mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, Ankara's mayor

After years of talking about it, Turkey's opposition finally managed to form an alliance at the end of 2021. The name of the alliance, which is made up of six political parties, translates as Table of Six. Such a cooperation would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

The goal of the new alliance is to counter the yearslong dominance of the ruling AKP party, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The alliance also wants to bring the country back to a parliamentary system rather than the presidential one that has been imposed on it by an increasingly autocratic Erdogan.

It appears that this is something that many Turkish voters may want, too. In a recent survey by Turkish pollster Yoneylem, 65% of all respondents wanted to see the return to a parliamentary system while only around 30% wanted to stick with the presidential system.

In the same survey, some 63% of those who responded said that the AKP was ruling Turkey badly. A further 58% said that under no circumstances would they vote for Erdogan in the next election.

Six opposition leaders sit around a table in a formal setting
Six Turkish opposition parties have formed the Table of Six allianceImage: DHA

Impressive alliance

So the chances of the AKP being pushed out of office after the June 2023 elections look better than ever — of course, that is if the opposition can maintain its current unity until then.

The six parties who have formed the alliance are: the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), the nationalist Good Party, the conservative Islamist Felicity Party, the Future Party, the Democracy and Progress Party and the Democrat Party, which has been around for decades but hasn't made much impact over the past few years.

The Felicity party was Erdogan's first political home while the Democracy and Progress Party and the Future Party were both founded by former colleagues of his. The Future Party's Ahmet Davutoglu was once Turkey's foreign minister and then its prime minister. Ali Babacan of the Democracy and Progress Party also held several senior ministerial roles. Both were founding members of the AKP with Erdogan until critical of Erdogan's policies, they broke away from the party.

Second-largest opposition party out

As impressive as this alliance of opposition parties is, it is also true that the country's second largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) was officially excluded.

Involving any Kurdish affiliated political party remains controversial in Turkey. In the past, there have been attempts to outlaw the HDP because of alleged ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK. The latter has used violence in its fight for Kurdish rights and is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

As yet it is unclear which of the senior politicians in the Table of Six alliance will end up leading its campaign efforts.

Not charismatic enough

Three names are thought to be in contention for the job.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP, is considered the favorite and he has signaled that he would be willing to take on the role.

Under his leadership, the CHP achieved historic results in 2019 district elections. A CHP candidate was elected in both of Turkey's two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, where Erdogan's AKP had previously held sway for decades.

On the other hand, Kilicdaroglu has never managed to win an election himself and his critics doubt whether he can make a big enough impression on voters, especially when competing with such a strong personality as Erdogan.

This is why another of Kilicdaroglu's CHP colleagues might be a better candidate for the role.

Ekrem Imamoglu is one of the CHP's urban-vote-winning mayors. He's been running Istanbul for the past three years and is well liked by many locals regardless of their political affiliation. In his city of over 15 million people, Imamoglu presents himself as a mayor for all of the city's inhabitants.

One of the main criticisms directed at him, however, is that he seems to often be away on holidays during recent crises or catastrophes — something that hasn't gone down well with the general public.

Ekrem Imamoglu is the mayor of Istanbul.
Ekrem Imamoglu is the mayor of Istanbul, a city of over 15 millionImage: İBB

Ankara's Mansur Yavas, the CHP's other winning mayor, is also popular. Since he took office, he has made it his job to tackle corruption and he has also placed much emphasis on environmental protection. His focus on these topics has been appreciated by his constituents.

However Yavas also happens to be a staunch nationalist, which makes him an unpalatable choice for many Kurdish voters, whose ballots play an important role in Turkish elections. That isn't to say that some Kurds wouldn't choose him for strategic reasons, and perhaps also because of a lack of a better options.

The country's most influential Kurdish Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtas, formerly co-leader of the HDP, and many of his fellow party members are in jail. A number of Kurdish voters harbor tremendous resentment against the AKP leadership because of this and, one imagines, would perhaps vote strategically just to get them out of power.

A photograph of Selahattin Demirtas standing in front of trees
Europe has urged Turkey to release jailed HDP politician Selahattin DemirtasImage: HDP

There's another argument that speaks against having one of the two successful CHP mayors head the new opposition alliance. If they did take on the role, they would have to resign from their current mayorships, giving these two cities back to the AKP party. Erdogan's party still has a majority on the city councils there and would certainly choose the next mayors from within their own ranks.

Name recognition

Political scientist Seren Selvin Korkmaz says that for many voters, it is as much about who a politician is as what party or policies they stand for.

"For citizens here, it is all important who the leader is and what their name is," said Korkmaz, director of IstanPol, an independent institute for research and political studies.

"Within our current system, there is only one person who really stands out. So who will have all of these powers in the future? Who is capable of governing? That's what people are asking," she said.

Heads of the six opposition parties in Turkey.
The six opposition parties want to end President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 20 year ruleImage: Anka Nachrichten Agentur

No doubt the alliance is also discussing who could lead the opposition bloc. But the name of the alliance's potential leader is only likely to be announced at the beginning of 2023.

Then again, it might not matter too much who represents the Table of Six alliance and runs against Erdogan. Whoever it is probably has a realistic chance of winning the 2023 elections.

Of course, that's assuming the Table of Six alliance only puts up a single candidate and that the fragile alliance holds until the next presidental election.

Gulsen Solaker, DW Turkish's correspondent in Ankara, contributed to this article.

This article was originally published in German.