Istanbul, May 6, 2023, during the election campaign of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu © Dilara Acikgoz/Shutterstock

Istanbul, May 6, 2023, during the election campaign of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu © Dilara Acikgoz/Shutterstock

For the first time in over twenty years in power, Erdoğan is facing a coalition and an opponent who could give him a run for his money in the elections on Sunday 14 May. Polls put both the outgoing president and his main challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP, at 45%

12/05/2023 -  Fazıla Mat

(Originally published by Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale )


For the first time in twenty-one years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces a strong coalition and an opponent that could challenge his rule in the May 14 elections. Erdoğan's main challenger is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), who, according to the most reliable polls, would not only be able to rival, but also exceed the president's percentages.

Kılıçdaroğlu is the presidential candidate of the Alliance of the Nation (Millet İttifakı), composed of a coalition of six parties (the "Table of Six") that represents the main bloc of the opposition front in Turkey’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Beside the CHP, as the main party of the Alliance with centre-left positions, the coalition is composed of the nationalist Good Party (İYİ Parti), led by Meral Akşener, and four other parties, including the Democrat Party (DP), the pro-Islamist Felicity Party (SP), and two offshoots of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), namely the Future (GP) and DEVA parties.

Kılıçdaroğlu's electoral advantage is the result of a broad support that encompasses not just the Table of Six, which is expected to garner around the 40% of votes (mostly from the CHP and İYİ Parti), but also the pro-Kurdish and left-wing coalition led by the Democratic Party of Peoples (HDP), whose contribution is seen as being of critical importance for the CHP’s leader to succeed.

Democracy first

Since its formation, the Table of Six worked on the creation of a programme that would be implemented after the elections. The two most comprehensive themes of the Alliance’s programme could be summarised as upholding democracy and recovering the economy.

In 2022, the Table presented five documents and reports to the public, outlining a transition plan from Turkey’s executive presidential system – adopted in 2017 – to a “strengthened parliamentary system”. The current presidential system is considered a form of government that is “arbitrary and with no binding rules”, and the coalition has pledged to put an end to it, as also stated in the “Memorandum of Understanding of Common Policies ”, released earlier this year. In this voluminous document including nine chapters, 75 sub-chapters, and over 2300 concrete objectives, the parties stress that the new regime’s first objective would be to establish "a libertarian, participatory, and pluralist democracy".

While the transition to a strengthened parliamentary system is considered the only viable path towards achieving this objective, the roadmap indicated in the documents touches on several other elements that have been critical for Turkey in recent years, including the independence of the judiciary, the reform of public institutions, the violation of human rights, and the respect of international treaties of which Turkey is a signatory party. In this sense, the restoration of the rule of law is a common thread running through the National Alliance’s roadmap. This goal would be achieved by amending specific articles of the constitution, including, but not limited to, putting fundamental rights and freedoms under constitutional protection as well as broadening the scopes of the freedoms of expression, association, and freedom of the press. Other prospected areas of intervention include putting an end to all the injustices that have arisen from the emergency decrees following the 2016 attempted coup and to illegal imprisonments. Similarly, the Alliance intends to restructure public administration “in a citizen-oriented manner”, by privileging “principles of merit, legality, and transparency” while fighting corruption and prosecuting crooked officials.

“Leaving no citizen behind”

Another central factor in the National Alliance’s programme is the country’s economic recovery. In recent years, following the low interest-high exchange rate policies put forward by the “New Economy Model” announced by President Erdoğan in 2021, large swaths of society have come under pressure of rising costs and high inflation rates. The Alliance has pledged to relieve society from this oppressive economic condition while seeking to build an economic model based on permanent growth and prosperity. This includes “eradicating extreme poverty” and “leaving no citizen behind”, while making Turkey “a reliable, strong, and influential international player”. This programme would be based on orthodox monetary policies, an independent central bank, meritocracy, the return of the rule of law, and a system of checks and balances in economic policies. In connection to this, the Alliance stresses the importance of establishing an “inclusive education system” that guarantees equality of opportunity and an “inclusive development strategy” which would be guided by the green and digital transitions.

Kılıçdaroğlu's “first 100 days”  are also centred around economic issues, with a focus on the daily economic problems of citizens. The presidential candidate has made promises, such as Eid bonuses for pensioners, free meals in public schools, and gold-indexed social assistance to citizens with low household incomes, that are bound to make a quick and tangible difference in people’s daily lives. On this last point, he also made it clear that social assistance would be deposited in the bank accounts of the women of the household.

Given that low-income voters and women have long been key supporters of president Erdoğan and his AKP, Kılıçdaroğlu’s “fight against poverty” strategy is considered essential in the attempt to garner votes from pro-AKP groups. However, this might not be an easy endeavour.

The challenges ahead

Studies show that AKP voters do not change their preferences easily. This is apparent primarily in the low performance of the DEVA and GP, parties founded by two ex AKP politicians – that is former minister of Economy Ali Babacan and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – that were supposed to attract the Alliance part of the conservative AKP constituency, although the latest polls indicate a preference of less than 1% for each party. On the other hand, this trend might not be the case for female supporters of the AKP. A recent survey noted that more than 30% of the women who cast a vote for the AKP in the 2018 elections would not vote for the same party this time. But whether and to what extent this would translate into support for the Alliance remains to be seen. Most polls put Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu at around 45 percent, with neither having the certainty of being elected in the first round.

Finally, despite the forecasts favouring Kılıçdaroğlu, there needs to be some caution. Turkey’s rule of law has been significantly challenged over the past years and there is no guarantee that the AKP and its entourage will accept the defeat easily. Erdoğan’s recent accusations towards the National Alliance stating that it is “associated with the PKK” (the illegal Kurdish Workers’ Party) or Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s remarks about May 14 being “an attempted coup” are indicative of their aversion towards accepting defeat.

In the case of a victory for Kılıçdaroğlu, other challenges also remain. The implementation of the Alliance's roadmap remains a major question mark. The opposition’s plan entails the dismantling of a system that has been built over the last twenty years on the allegiance to the AKP of people both from the private and public sector, who have been benefiting from it and will not easily accept radical changes. Moreover, to carry out any constitutional amendment it will be crucial that the opposition secures the necessary majorities in the post-election parliamentary configuration. According to current polls this is an unlikely scenario.

Similarly, while the current strength of the opposition bloc stems from the decision of its different components to unite their forces, ensuring and maintaining political stability through a broad alliance would be another challenging task. Meral Akşener’s unsuccessful attempt to sabotage Kılıçdaroğlu's candidacy in March was an early warning in this respect. Nevertheless, it should also be remembered that Kılıçdaroğlu has earned a reputation for being a balanced figure who has managed to navigate conflicts by engaging in dialogue while still making some bold decisions. This seems also one of the elements that have carried him and his Alliance thus far and might determine the success of his presidential bid.

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