When Kemal Kilicdaroglu was once elected leader of Turkey's main opposition party, he was seen as a beacon of hope, as a potential alternative to long-term ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Today, thirteen years later, he is closer to this goal than ever before: As the joint presidential candidate of six opposition parties, he will soon be running against incumbent Erdogan.
If he wins the election, Kilicdaroglu wants to reverse the Erdogan era and democratize Turkey. But the hurdles are high. And Erdogan has at least one ace up his sleeve.
Despite a few setbacks, Kilicdaroglu has managed to unite the Turkish opposition, whose weakness has always been a guarantor of Erdogan's power. Five years ago, he mobilized hundreds of thousands to a government-critical rally, which he called for after a three-week protest march from Ankara to Istanbul. In the process, he gained in stature and popularity.
Because of the action and the slight resemblance, some supporters even referred to him as the Mahatma Gandhi of Turkey - in reference to the leader of the Indian freedom movement. Observers also credit him with the necessary skills to return the presidential system, with its far-reaching powers, to a parliamentary democracy. This requires a personality of integrity who can resist the lure of the powerful presidency that Erdogan has created for himself.
But not everyone sees the 74-year-old as the best candidate. As leader of the secular centre-left CHP party, he has never won a national election. Critics bemoan his lack of charismatic nature, which makes it difficult for him to rally a broad majority of Turkish voters behind him. While polls predict a neck-and-neck race between Erdogan and his challenger, two men within the opposition are credited with better odds: Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the respective mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.
It was precisely because of this personality that there had been a rift in the opposition alliance in the past few days. The final decision on the joint candidate was preceded by a political thriller that lasted for days and kept people in Turkey in suspense. TV stations reported non-stop on the crisis, in which the leader of the second largest opposition party, Meral Aksener, first broke out of the alliance in dramatic fashion, but returned on Monday - on the condition that their preferred candidates - Imamoglu and Yavas - as candidates for the vice presidency be set up. On Monday, the chairmen of the parties met for several hours before presenting the personnel. To what extent the dispute has damaged the alliance is not yet clear.
The consequences of the devastating earthquakes in south-eastern Turkey seemed at times to have reshuffled the cards in the run-up to the elections, as the Erdogan government had been widely criticized for its crisis management. "If anyone is primarily responsible for this course of events, it's Erdogan," Kilicdaroglu said two days after the quake, when many people in the affected regions were still waiting for help.
According to the opposition politician, Erdogan failed to prepare the country for such an earthquake during his 20-year reign and wasted the earthquake tax intended for preparedness. He himself had traveled to the region shortly after the earthquake; Erdogan only visited the affected areas after him.
Apparently, the events did not harm Erdogan. A first survey by the Center for Social Impact Research TEAM indicates "that the earthquake has not (yet) caused any serious change in voting preferences," wrote political scientist Evren Balta, who analyzed the results, on Twitter.
Erdogan has been gaining ground in polls for months - even if his approval ratings are significantly lower than when he was in power. The President recently raised the minimum wage and lowered the retirement age, allowing two million Turks to retire earlier. Although many people in Turkey are dissatisfied with the high inflation, they still seem to trust Erdogan.
The parliamentary and presidential elections would actually be in June. However, Erdogan has announced that it will be brought forward to May 14th. In the event of victory, the opposition promises a stricter separation of powers, including a greater role for parliament and an independent judiciary, as well as respect for freedom of the press. In terms of foreign policy, they want to return to the pro-European course that Erdogan abandoned years ago.
"Our greatest goal is to bring peaceful and joyful days to Turkey. With God's help, we will all get through this together," Kilicdaroglu said after announcing his candidacy. However, Kilicdaroglu now has to earn the trust that Erdogan still seems to enjoy among voters.
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