There were truly remarkable, or certainly unexpected, developments in the Turkish opposition alliance on March 3, with a party leader pulling her support for Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the single candidate for the opposition Table of Six coalition in the looming presidential election, due on May 14. Initially, at least, the news seemed likely to cheer Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his bid to hold onto power.
It seems that Meral Akşener of the nationalist IYI (the Good party) made the call that Kılıçdaroğlu, just could not beat Erdoğan. Akşener seems now to be backing Kilicdaroglu’s party colleagues, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu or Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş to run against Erdoğan. But İmamoğlu would probably be disbarred after his conviction for deriding election officials in their conduct of the 2019 Istanbul municipal elections. Yavaş has hinted that he might want to run, but it is unclear if he would be prepared to stab his party leader, Kılıçdaroğlu, in the back.
Regardless, Akşener looks set to leave the Table of Six coalition, thereby severely weakening the opposition’s standing ahead of May’s joint presidential and parliamentary elections.
Until now, Erdoğan had been lagging in the polls. But the new developments mean that Kılıçdaroğlu’s likelihood of beating the incumbent — polls had given him about an even chance in a head-to-head — has slumped. After all, if even his former coalition partners do not think he can win, then what hope has he?
It is possible that Yavaş will decide to fight both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. But would he really be able to reach the second round for a one-on-one against Erdoğan? And even then, little is really known about Yavaş in terms of his broader national politics; he has kept his head down running Ankara and focusing on service delivery. His past nationalist track record might mean that Kurdish voters would spurn him in any second-round vote.
If Yavas did reach the second-round run-off, it is likely (based on past form) that Erdoğan would offer some carefully targeted inducements. He might offer concessions to Kurds, who likely are nervous anyway about voting for Yavaş. He might even look to offer Akşener a deal of a move away from the current presidential system back to a parliamentary system where she might then aspire to be a hands-on prime minister under a more ceremonial (if that is ever imaginable) Erdoğan presidency.
The executive presidency has had its challenges for Erdoğan, particularly the much higher vote bar for retaining the office of 50% plus 1, whereas in previous elections under the parliamentary system, his AK party was able to retain power with as little as 34% of the vote. A deal with Akşener — with whose family he has a friendly relationship —would also protect the president’s clan from the risk of legal action for wrongdoing while in office, a real risk if they were to lose power.
All told, the big winner of today’s shenanigans appears to be Teflon Tayyip, as some long-standing observers refer to him. After the events of March 3, he looks well set to win another term in office.
Timothy Ash is a Senior Emerging Markets Sovereign Strategist at RBC BlueBay Asset Management. He is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House on their Russia and Eurasian program.
The opinions in this article are those of the author.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.