What Turkey’s Opposition Should Keep In Mind When Selecting A Presidential Nominee

Turkey’s opposition parties have taken important steps to present a united front against Erdogan in next year’s presidential elections. Still, in and of themselves, these measures won’t be enough to secure them an electoral victory in 2023 if they fail to wisely select their presidential candidate.
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In a little over a year, in June 2023, Turkey will hold presidential elections. Parties’ nominees for the post will certainly draw attention, especially considering that the presidency was granted expanded, unchecked powers with the 2017 referendum. Two primary hopefuls for the post will be nominated by the country’s two main political blocs, namely the ruling People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) and the opposition’s Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı).

While some fringe commentators have poorly argued that Erdogan will not seek the nomination as he anticipates defeat, most expect him to be put forward as the candidate of the People’s Alliance. Despite legal controversies surrounding Erdogan’s potential candidacy, the opposition is avoiding unnecessary conflict with him due to their practical and political disadvantage. If the opposition were to pursue legal action in challenging his candidacy, the constitutional court – primarily consisting of Erdogan and former President Abdullah Gul’s appointees – would be unlikely to decide in their favor. Besides, the opposition wants to avoid the potential political backlash that could arise should they attempt to prevent Erdogan’s candidacy.

Against this backdrop, the Nation Alliance’s process of selecting a candidate is a bit more complicated, with discussions falling under three main headings:

Timing: Debates are currently raging as to what would be the best time to announce the candidate. Recently, Ali Babacan, a junior partner of the opposition bloc, asserted that the opposition would avoid announcing a name before the date of elections was officially declared. The main reason to conceal the identity of the candidate would be to protect his/her name from government attacks. After all, the government enjoys vast information gathering and propaganda dissemination capabilities thanks to strong pro-government media. In this vein, recent calls by some opposition party members for Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas to announce his candidacy were refuted and even perceived as attempted sabotage.

While concerns are justified that the ruling party would use all tools in its toolbox to discredit the opposition candidate, there is also an argument to be made that the opposition candidate should be announced sooner rather than later in order to garner support in case early elections are called. The candidate will need to establish name recognition and cultivate the image of a strong leader; but perhaps more importantly, he/she would be much better equipped to stave off potential scandals this far out from the elections rather than directly before them.

Dependability: The opposition bloc agrees that they would do away with the presidential system of government and revert back to the parliamentary system. Therefore, their candidate would need to readily give up his/her expansive executive powers and assume a more symbolic presidential role. A new president who is popular enough to defeat Erdogan may resist giving up these inherited powers and the opposition bloc would have a hard time convincing him/her to do so. It should be noted here that it is unlikely the opposition will be able to win a parliamentary supermajority in the 2023 parliamentary elections.

In this context, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) wants to put forward a candidate who will unite the country and exhibit a profile that aligns with the values of the new parliamentary system. Here, they are arguing for the candidacy of CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as he is the central leading figure of the Nation Alliance’s six-party agreement. Kilicdaroglu himself has also hinted at a potential candidacy, asserting that the Nation Alliance is not looking for a popstar but a presidential candidate. He also underlined that holding Ankara and Istanbul is vital for the opposition, and that they cannot afford to lose them by nominating their CHP mayors for the presidential post. Another major indication in this direction came from Good Party (IYI) leader Meral Aksener’s announcement that she would not seek a nomination for the presidency, thereby further opening the path for Kilicdaroglu.

Electability: Skyrocketing inflation and the Turkish lira’s 60 percent loss of value against the US dollar by the end of 2021 has been regarded as a major blow to Erdogan’s chances of reelection. Against this backdrop, the opposition started to think that any candidate could win against Erdogan, but the tables swiftly turned as the Russian invasion of Ukraine saw security once again become a priority, prompting many to rally around Erdogan. Within this context, Turkey’s opposition was shaken by the recent electoral victory of Victor Orban in Hungary. Some may even argue that the opposition is currently taking the electorate for granted.

Previous presidential elections provide important lessons on the desirable profile of an electable candidate. Even if the candidate is popular among left-leaning voters, he/she will undoubtedly fail if they don’t appeal to voters on the right. Such was the case with the opposition’s 2018 presidential candidate Muharrem Ince. Even candidates that appeal to the right may still fail if they are perceived as a symbolic figure as opposed to a strong executive; as was the case for Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu in the 2014 presidential race. Thus, the candidate must overcome the right/left barrier, clearly communicate his/her plans, and explain why he/she is the right person to solve the problems of the country. Currently, the opposition figures whose names are floated as the most electable are the respective mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas.

 

Ultimately, despite Turkey’s economic downturn and the recent decline in Erdogan’s popularity, it is still too early to celebrate the dawning of a post-Erdogan era. The opposition has two difficult tasks before it. One is to defeat Erdogan, and the other is to democratize the system. These two aims complicate the opposition’s nomination of a presidential candidate. The opposition bloc needs to respond to public expectations and nominate a candidate who can deliver, particularly when it comes to the economy. It must also put forward a candidate who will respect democracy and be willing to establish checks to his/her own powers.