MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.

Four candidates to compete for the presidency

This week Turkey’s top electoral body confirmed that four candidates will be running in the presidential election: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, chair of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP); Muharrem İnce, chair of the newly established Homeland (Memleket) Party; and Sinan Oğan, a former MP from the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Support for Oğan languishes in the low single digits, but İnce might pose a real challenge to the opposition’s hopes of defeating Erdoğan in the first round of the election.

Kılıçdaroğlu meets with İnce

Ever since İnce announced that he was entering Turkey’s presidential race, election watchers have been waiting for him to meet with the opposition bloc’s candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu. İnce ran against Erdoğan in 2018 on the CHP ticket. He lost the election in the first round, but what infuriated his supporters most was his radio silence afterwards. Instead of making a statement as expected, İnce texted a TV host saying, “the man won.” He has remained an unpopular figure ever since. İnce is now back in the national spotlight, promising the country’s youth that he will get rid of not only Erdoğan but also the CHP-led opposition. He is trying to tap into frustration within the CHP base, particularly among young voters, who find Kılıçdaroğlu uninspiring.

İnce’s entry into the race at a time when the opposition’s chances to defeat Erdoğan in the first round are at an all-time high has ruffled feathers. Key opposition figures, academics, journalists, and opposition voters have all called on İnce to withdraw. Others who are nervous that İnce might chip away a significant bloc of the opposition’s votes have asked Kılıçdaroğlu to convince him not to run. Kılıçdaroğlu and İnce finally met on March 29, but there are no signs of a deal. Journalists report that Kılıçdaroğlu never offered İnce anything in return for his withdrawal, and İnce did not raise the issue. Kılıçdaroğlu might be betting that İnce’s popularity will die down before the elections. After all, it took İnce several days to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary to run as a presidential candidate. İnce, however, thinks he will attract a growing number of votes from CHP supporters frustrated by the party’s alliance with former Erdoğan allies as the election nears. As things stand today, polls suggest İnce has somewhere between 2% and 5% support, enough to deny the opposition a victory in the first round of the presidential election. Erdoğan must be thrilled that İnce is doing his job for him by weakening the opposition at a time when he is running out of ammunition.

Kılıçdaroğlu receives a warm welcome in an Erdoğan stronghold

İnce’s electoral prospects might give those who want to finish off Erdoğan in the first round nightmares, but Kılıçdaroğlu seems confident. He recently gave a speech in the central Anatolian city of Konya, one of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) strongholds. In the last elections, Erdoğan captured 74% of the vote there. But the sports center where Kılıçdaroğlu addressed his supporters was packed, with hundreds of people outside waiting to get in. Kılıçdaroğlu had to cut his visit to local businesses short due to the size of the crowds that had gathered. After seeing the more than warm welcome he received in Erdoğan’s most important stronghold in central Anatolia, Kılıçdaroğlu might be thinking that he can afford to lose a few points to İnce.

What’s up with Bahçeli?

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli has always been there for Erdoğan since the two struck an alliance in 2015, helping him win the controversial referendum that switched the country to an all-powerful presidential system and defending his most controversial policies. That stance has cost Bahçeli and his party a great deal. The MHP lost a lot of votes to the breakaway Good (İyi) Party, and a growing number of Turkish nationalists who are critical of Bahçeli’s support for Erdoğan have been joining the opposition ranks. In return for all the sacrifices he has made, all Bahçeli has asked of Erdoğan was to never give up the fight against the Kurds. Erdoğan’s decision to ally with the Kurdish Islamist party Hüda Par, whose charter calls for Kurdish to be recognized as the country’s second official language, must have made Bahçeli uncomfortable. He made a surprising announcement, saying his party would not compete under the AKP lists in the upcoming vote. Instead, he said, it would participate in the elections under its own name, just like Erdoğan’s other allies, the Great Unity Party (BBP) and the New Welfare Party (YRP). Bahçeli’s decision will pose a significant challenge to Erdoğan’s efforts to capture a parliamentary majority in the May elections. The two leaders had already laid the groundwork for that by amending the election laws to increase the advantage given to electoral lists, making it easier for them to win a majority. To Erdoğan, winning a majority in parliament is important. He is betting on a scenario where the presidential vote goes to the second round and his party captures the parliamentary majority. He will use that majority to rally support behind him in the run-off election by arguing that split government would create chaos and make governance difficult. That is why Bahçeli’s announcement is bad news for Erdoğan, especially if the opposition parties run on joint lists.  


Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow for the Frontier Europe Initiative. She is the author of Erdogan's War: A Strongman's Struggle at Home and in Syria. 

Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

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