Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power in Turkey for 20 years, first as prime minister and later as president. For a long time he was firmly in the saddle like hardly any of his predecessors and achieved the best election results. In recent years, however, his approval has been crumbling. Inflation, migration, a much-criticized crisis management after the devastating earthquakes in February: it seems that the president has passed his zenith.
Six opposition parties sensed their chance. They formed an alliance and showed a united front for months. In the spring, a new parliament and president will be elected. In the event of its victory, the “table of six”, as the group is called, wants to strengthen Turkish democracy and improve relations with the EU.
A joint candidate was selected in a secret round on Thursday, whose name was to be announced next Monday. But behind the scenes things were brewing. Now the alliance threatens to collapse – with an unexpected bang.
Meral Aksener, the leader of the nationalist party, the second largest in the six-party alliance, openly opposes the man who is said to be the candidate. She doesn't want to compete against Erdogan herself, but in the alliance she is considered a kingmaker. On Friday she indicated the withdrawal from the alliance. In a combative manner, she said it was "unable to reflect the will of the people since yesterday." That would have shattered the united opposition – and Erdogan would triumph.
The man Aksener doesn't want to become a presidential candidate is Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He is the head of the largest opposition party, the CHP, and the driving force behind the anti-Erdogan alliance. With his level-headed manner, he made his own party, long nationalist and anti-Kurdish, electable to a certain extent for a broader public.
He is seen as an experienced technocrat who many trust to reverse the presidential system introduced by Erdogan and return Turkey to a parliamentary democracy in which power is shared more widely than before. However, Kilicdaroglu, who has been opposition leader since 2010, has never won an election against the president.
He is known as an uncharismatic figure who fails to inspire masses - even though thousands took part in a "Justice March" he initiated in 2017, and hundreds of thousands at the final rally in Istanbul. However, polls show him as the weakest of three possible candidates against Erdogan.
Aksener said her party wanted to determine the personnel "according to a data-based, rational method". "Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected by the others."
The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, both of whom also belong to the CHP and have been traded as candidates for months, are actually more popular with the people than Kilicdaroglu. Aksener would support both, she announced - and called on the two politicians to run their own candidacy.
Imamoglu in particular is internationally known for a spectacular victory against Erdogan in 2019. In the local elections, he got the most votes in Istanbul, although the city was previously led by the ruling AKP party. A loyalist to Erdogan had competed against him. The President did not want to accept the result.
Erdogan himself began his career as Istanbul's mayor, and the city has great symbolic value for him. "Who wins Istanbul, wins Turkey," he once said. So he had the election repeated - and Imamoglu increased his lead so much that nobody could contest the victory.
Erdogan had realized how dangerous the new Istanbul mayor could be for him. Imamoglu was sentenced to prison and a ban on politics last year for allegedly insulting the members of the electoral authority around the local elections – his greatest weakness as a possible opposition candidate. He has appealed.
Yavas became mayor of Ankara in the same year as his Istanbul counterpart. He made himself popular with the people by improving public services. His high approval ratings, coupled with his statesmanlike manner, make him a suitable candidate in the eyes of some.
At the same time, he is the least known of the three men because he shuns the limelight and international media. He also began his political career in the ultra-nationalist milieu, which is likely to make him unelectable for many Kurds. But you could be an important tip of the scales in the battle for the presidency.
After meeting on Thursday, the leaders of the six opposition parties released a document saying they have a "common understanding" about their presidential candidate. The fact that Aksener is now interfering seems to leave Kilicdaroglu unimpressed. "Don't worry, all the pieces will fall into place," he said. Further developments are completely open. As Aksener put it, “We will either make history or become history.”