The man dubbed “Turkey’s Ghandhi” is set to take on Turkey’s hardman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a May poll that could be this year’s most crucial election.
A victory by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, dubbed “Ghandhi Kemal” – for both his physical resemblance to India’s Mahatma Ghandhi as well as modest demeanour – over his polar opposite Erdogan, could radically alter Turkey’s domestic course, impede Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and setback the cause of authoritarian leaders in the region and beyond, experts say.
A new, broad alliance of opposition parties announced this week, and led by Kilicdaroglu, believes it can push the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan out of power – as premier and then president – he has held for more than two decades.
The poll, touted for 14 May, will come just months after the deadly 6 February earthquake that rocked the country’s southeast, killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria. The incumbent has not been helped by the quake deaths, which were largely blamed on shoddy building practices and corruption.
There is also anger among Turks over soaring inflation and a currency crisis that last year saw nearly 30 per cent slashed off the lira’s value against the dollar.
As a result, AK Party leader Erdogan, 69, faces the fiercest opposition yet to his rule. Polls suggest a very tight race.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, represents the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), formed 100 years ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey and a die-hard secularist. In contrast, Erdogan’s stance as an authoritarian and Islamist have degraded Turkey’s status as a secular state, to the chagrin of its many, young, educated, Western-looking citizens. Erdogan retains strong support, however, in the country’s conservative heartlands.
Erdogan has constantly sought to increase his own power. Three years ago he assumed wider powers under a new executive presidency that critics say created a hyper-centralised system ill-equipped to tackle Turkey’s economic, political and security challenges.
Kilicdaroglu’s opposition has vowed to reverse Erdogan’s presidential system, and move towards a more inclusive parliamentary system.
The opposition leader is also expected to take a more amenable approach to ties with the West, analysts say, and will probably take a tougher line against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. “Kilicdaroglu is a strong believer that Turkey belongs to the West,” one of his advisers told CNN this week.
But despite high inflation, anger over lack of preparedness for the recent earthquake and his polarising politics, Erdogan is not finished.
Some observers noted that his cynical reaction to the invasion of Ukraine – nominally sympathising with Ukraine, while boosting trade with Russia and seeing the huge injection of cash brought by Russian emigres fleeing the war – could provide him with a pre-election boost.
William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks that if Erdogan were defeated, this could be “transformative for European and Eurasian security”.
Ukraine would be an immediate beneficiary. Erdogan officially condemned Russia’s invasion and sent limited supplies of arms to Kyiv, but it has also boosted trade with Russia, as it seeks to exploit its pivotal geographical and geopolitical position between East and West.
Last year, trade between Moscow and Ankara was $70bn, with Turkey one of Russia’s biggest trading partners. And hundreds of Western companies are looking at circumventing sanctions by opening up offices in Turkey to continue trade with Russia, according to Turkish press reports.
A more Western-looking government in Ankara could change all that.
Albuquerque notes that without Turkish co-operation in controlling which vessels come in and out of the Black Sea, Russia’s military power in the Eastern Mediterranean would fade.
“I would put Russia on the backfoot. Orban in Hungary would be left very exposed, too,” he says.
It would also reduce tensions in northern Syria.
And even before the election, Erdogan might ease up on his hostility to Sweden’s membership of Nato, if he thinks it will appeal to pro-Western sections of the electorate, some pundits suggest. But this prediction is based on logic. And Erdogan’s decisions – from building pointless, bombastic public buildings to cutting interest rates at a time of soaring inflation – have not always made sense.
The Turkish opposition faces its own dilemmas. There has been unease among some nationalist elements in the diverse opposition grouping on approaches by Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for a degrees of collaboration ahead of the May elections.
Signalling his desire to replace Erdogan’s dogmatism with discourse, Kilicdaroglu said he would talk to HDP.
“I will definitely visit the HDP. As a presidential candidate, as someone who claims to be the president of all of Turkey, of 85 million, it is a requirement of democracy for me to visit all parties,” he told Turkish media this week.
But this indicates a degree of pragmatism as well as principle. A victory in the first round of the presidential poll, which would require more than 50 percent of the vote, is unlikely without support from the HDP, widely seen as playing a kingmaker role in the votes that could end Erdogan’s two-decade political reign.
It appears that a mixture of corruption, oppression and natural disaster have left Erdogan’s hold on power weaker than it has ever been. The opposition, if it can remain united, has the chance to change Turkey – and possibly, the world.