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Who is going to compete with Erdogan in 2023?

ANKARA, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 09: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an opening ceremony of Energy Market Regulatory Authority (EMRA) additional service building and power plants after completion of constructions in Ankara, Turkey on November 09, 2021. ( Doğukan Keskinkılıç - Anadolu Agency )
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on 9 November 2021 [Doğukan Keskinkılıç/Anadolu Agency]

Since the 2019 municipal elections, talk of early elections in Turkey has not subsided, as the opposition has repeatedly demanded them, leaning on its relative progress in those elections and promoting an image of confidence for itself in achieving a similar victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections.

On the other hand, the People's Alliance consisting of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) confirm that the elections will not be held early and will take place as scheduled in mid-2023. However, this does not discourage the opposition from its repeated calls, especially since this allows it to claim that its popularity is on the rise and that the popularity of the ruling party is deteriorating continuously and that the party is afraid of the ballot boxes.

Therefore, despite the People's Alliance's emphasis on keeping the election date as is, Turkey has recently been living in an atmosphere of elections without organising them, in terms of intensity of polarisation, bickering, clashes and discussing candidates for the presidential elections, in particular.

Since Erdogan is the natural and expected candidate for the Justice and Development Party and the People's Alliance, the most pressing question regarding the upcoming elections is the name of the opposition candidate who will compete against him.

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First, it must be noted that elections derive a good part of their importance from the context in which they occur, which inevitably affects their results to one degree or another. It is not possible to talk about elections and anticipate their results without taking into consideration the circumstances during which they will take place, especially the internal economic situation and the most important developments in foreign policy, as well as electoral alliances, the number of candidates and their names, the preferences of voters, etc.

Secondly, it is important to stress that the chances of winning against Erdogan are not necessarily the only, nor the most important, criterion for selecting the competing candidate(s).

In the last presidential elections in 2014, the opposition did not agree on a common candidate and, if they had, their chances would certainly have been better against Erdogan than when votes are distributed to more than one opposition candidate.

The head of the Good Party, Meral Aksener, insisted on running because it would have boosted her party's chances of running in parliamentary elections for the first time after its founding.

The Republican People's Party's (CHP) choice of candidate was also governed by other factors, other than the chances of winning. Kemal Kilicdaroglu was fed up with the leader of the party, Muharrem Ince, who had long competed with him for the leadership of the party and lost many times against Erdogan, so Kilicdaroglu wanted Ince to run to get rid of him in the party, and then for him to lose to Erdogan. On his part, Ince accepted the candidacy because he intended to use his result in the elections against Kilicdaroglu within the party, which is what happened later and exacerbated the dispute between them, leading to Ince leaving the party and founding the Homeland party recently.

Third, and based on the aforementioned, one of the most important factors that will affect the outcome of the presidential elections is the extent of the opposition's ability to agree on a joint or consensual candidate. If it does so, it increases its chances in the competition, and if it fails, these chances decline. So far, it seems that the two most important opposition parties, the CHP and the Good Party, are in agreement on the need to present a consensual candidate, and it is believed that the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) will support that candidate from afar, without an official and public position.

Thus, the main criterion for this consensual candidate is that he is acceptable to the CHP and the Good Party, in particular, as well as to other segments of the voters, and therefore preferably from a right-wing background (national or conservative) or gives this impression. At the very least, they must be accepted by these groups, which leads to proposing the names of Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively.

In theory, former President Abdullah Gul is still the strongest figure to face Erdogan, as he seems able— again in theory—to win votes from different parties and spectra, including the new parties that emerged from the womb of Justice and Development. However, the experience of the 2014 elections clearly tells us that Kilicdaroglu could not convince his party's leadership, let alone his base, to make this choice, something that will likely be repeated in the upcoming elections.

While it seems to many that a figure like Ekrem Imamoglu will be the most likely to compete with Erdogan in 2023 after his victory in the Greater Istanbul Municipality, we remind them that the calculations of the municipalities differ from that of the presidential elections and, therefore, we ruled out his candidacy against Erdogan. Today, party leader Kilicdaroglu basically says that Imamoglu and Yavas should remain as mayors in both Istanbul and Ankara, so as not to lose them again to the Justice and Development Party. This means that he does not prefer to nominate either of them for the presidential elections, and perhaps he will want to nominate himself, but the latter two may not accept this decision, which may open the door to differences within the CHP regarding the elections.

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In summary, the two main factors affecting the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections are the extent to which the opposition is able to present a consensus candidate, and the name of this candidate. This, in itself, is a major challenge to the opposition, as it is not easy to find a candidate who will win the votes of the Good Party (Turkish nationalist) and Peoples Democratic Party (Kurdish nationalist) accused of organic and organisational ties with the PKK.

Matters become more complicated when new parties are added to the equation, and we still do not know exactly what their choice will be in the upcoming elections: the participation of each party individually, joining one of the two existing coalitions, or forming a third coalition of small parties.

Finally, and for all the aforementioned reasons and others, it is not possible to talk as of today about the results of the upcoming elections in Turkey, as the elections must occur in their context. However, it is understandable that the various parties, especially the opposition, are spreading the elections atmosphere because this would mobilise supporters and secure their rallying behind their parties and leaderships. This means that this is a partisan interest in the current stage prior to the elections.

As for the question of the winner of the Turkish presidential elections in 2023, it is still a very premature question, and it should be preceded by the question of the candidates and the question of the existing electoral alliances, along with other questions that we have already discussed in this article. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the upcoming elections will be more difficult for Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party than the previous ones. Therefore, everyone views them as exceptional elections that will paint Turkey's image for many years to come.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 8 November 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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