The process of finding a nominee to represent Turkey’s opposition in the 2023 presidential elections has been fraught from the start. The various opposition factions have engaged in vigorous debate over who the nominee will be, when they will announce their candidacy, and whether they should act as a executive or symbolic leader in the role. Naturally, finding the right candidate has been the most difficult decision. Some have argued that Mayor of Ankara Mansur Yavaş or Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem İmamoğlu would be the most competitive given that they have both been polling higher than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Others have been advocating for the role to be filled by CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, arguing that he is well positioned to unite the country and safely oversee a democratic transition. The CHP and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu himself have grown more vocal about pursuing this path recently. Indeed, if İmamoğlu hadn’t been subjected to this controversial court judgement, Kılıçdaroğlu’s nomination would likely have soon been announced without major opposition.
The conviction of İmamoğlu on spurious charges has galvanized calls for him to be named the opposition’s nominee for president. The court sentenced him to two years and seven months in prison and banned him from running for political office, all due to his use of the word “fools” in what the judge deemed a grave insult to Turkey’s top electoral body, the Supreme Election Council. Some have surmised that Erdoğan was behind the judgment, aiming to keep a potential contender out of the race. Still, according to a poll by Metropoll, the charges are seen as political by 30 percent of voters from Erdoğan’s own AKP party and 40 percent of voters from the ruling coalition partner MHP. The extent to which the ruling party is worried about İmamoğlu’s candidacy is highlighted by this judgement, but sadly, such behavior is not unprecedented. Former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş is still in prison, even after having run a campaign from behind bars.
In order for the political ban to go into effect, the trial court’s judgement must be confirmed by the appeals court. Typically, this would take a considerable amount of time, but past experience in Demirtaş’ case suggests that it may be completed in as little as forty days. This sheds further uncertainty over İmamoğlu’s potential nomination to run for the presidency. The Turkish Supreme Election Council declared that if the appeals court upholds the original decision after a potential win by İmamoğlu, then he will be unable to assume the office of the presidency and elections will be held again. It goes without saying that Erdoğan has the power to affect the timing of the appeals court decision. If public reaction to the initial court decision grows, then he may wait; but if there is no credible reaction, then he may proceed with haste. The most essential point is that, if nominated, İmamoğlu can easily be driven out of the race by Erdoğan in a way that is extremely beneficial to the latter.
Public outrage over the conviction and obvious meddling in the opposition’s nomination process was apparent from the outset. Over 70,000 people gathered to condemn the decision. Many even expected the opposition to swiftly announce İmamoğlu’s nomination as a symbol of rejecting the decision’s validity. Nonetheless, Kılıçdaroğlu and the heads of the CHP deliberately compartmentalized the problem, preferring to see it as an infringement of Istanbul’s political will rather than the nation’s. The calls to nominate İmamoğlu are growing, but the CHP leadership is sending signals that it won’t. Kılıçdaroğlu will likely wait for the public outcry to die down before he officially nominates himself. In this case, many would interpret such a move as a betrayal of the extremely popular Mayor of Istanbul. Indeed, the ramifications could be severe; it could cause the opposition to split, and many voters could stay home on election day in protest. This reality further weakens the opposition’s chances to win the elections.
The Good Party, the second largest opposition party of the opposition block, supports İmamoğlu’s nomination. Its leader Meral Akşener, was present throughout the entirety of İmamoğlu’s court proceedings. Some believe that Akşener aims to exert pressure on Kılıçdaroğlu to abandon his desire to be nominated, but he has resisted. Still, if there is strong public backlash against Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, it could be possible that Akşener abandons the six-party opposition coalition to fight for İmamoğlu’s nomination. Alternatively, she may encourage the coalition to nominate multiple candidates, Kılıçdaroğlu and İmamoğlu. But how would Akşener benefit from splitting the opposition in such a way? If İmamoğlu survives as a candidate until the elections, people voting for İmamoğlu may support her Good Party – as opposed to the CHP – in the parliamentary elections.
There is no simple solution, and Kılıçdaroğlu and Akşener seem to be steadfast in their approaches. While it is clear that the upcoming presidential elections offer an unprecedented opportunity for the opposition to energize and mobilize the public, they instead appear to be engaging in an internal power struggle that undermines their chances of defeating Erdoğan. According to a statement made by İmamoğlu on a television program, “from now on, the ruling coalition cannot win if just the opposition loses”. Since Turkey’s very democracy is at stake, the opposition must find a way to work together, otherwise they will forfeit this crucial opportunity to restore democracy in the country. The current internal power struggle and disingenuous posturing within the opposition coalition diminishes its moral superiority. In addition, if the conviction of İmamoğlu proves successful in splitting the united opposition, it encourages the ruling party to continue to use legal proceedings as a tool to undermine free and fair elections.