Turkey’s opposition leader looks to emerge from Erdogan’s shadow

File photo. Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu addresses members of the ruling Republican People's Party (CHP) at their group meeting at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, 7 May 2019. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

A veteran Turkish political leader who has struggled for years to have President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan voted out of office says it is “very clear” that his dream is drawing nearer, even as doubts remain about whether he will be the main opposition candidate at presidential elections set for 2023.

In an interview, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), confidently predicted victory at the polls as Turkey suffers economic hardships brought on by Erdoğan’s unorthodox monetary policies.

Turkey's crisis rattles the faithful in Erdogan's heartland

Turkish President’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s single-handed policies have triggered a 56% fall in the lira this year and driving up the cost of living for ordinary Turks. Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s party still enjoys more support than any other.

The comments reinforce expectations Kılıçdaroğlu, 73, will be the presidential candidate of a six-party alliance in elections due by June 2023, though polls show several other opposition figures winning more support.

CHP is a social-democrat and secularist force. It is the oldest political party in Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president and founder of the modern Turkish Republic.

“Of course, five party leaders pronouncing me as candidate would be an honour. It also means they have trust,” he told Reuters in his office on the 12th floor of the CHP’s headquarters on the outskirts of Ankara.

The six anti-Erdoğan party leaders would discuss their candidate later, but first need to agree on economic, social and other policies for their joint platform. It is “very obvious and very clear” that whoever they choose will become president, he said.

Kılıçdaroğlu said he saw no reason for Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles that caused a rift with Washington. He also said he would overhaul the central bank’s leadership if elected.

A former economist and civil servant who lacks the president’s fiery charisma, Kılıçdaroğlu has lingered in Erdoğan’s shadow as the CHP, which he has chaired since 2010, suffered repeated defeats. Erdoğan’s favourite target, he has stoically absorbed near daily criticism and even scorn from the man who has dominated the country for nearly two decades.

Yet Kılıçdaroğlu and other critics of the country’s authoritarian and Islamist drift sense their time may have come.

Erdoğan’s polls have slid to multi-year lows after his unorthodox interest rate cuts sparked a currency crisis late last year, which in turn sent living costs soaring and deepened poverty especially among the president’s working class base.

The opposition bloc includes nationalists, liberals and conservatives – though not parliament’s third-biggest party, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.

Can Selcuki of Istanbul-based pollster Turkiye Raporu said Kılıçdaroğlu has grown “bolder and more aggressive”, showing his determination to be the bloc’s candidate. But he remains the “weakest nominee” of the opposition hopefuls and unless his support grows, Selcuki predicted he could still pull out before the vote.

Bespectacled and low-key, Kılıçdaroğlu earned the nickname “Gandhi Kemal” for his style, and for strategies such as his vow this month not to pay electricity bills in protest at price hikes in the face of near 50% inflation.

CHP parliamentarian Utku Cakirozer said Kılıçdaroğlu’s ability to build alliances was key to broadening the opposition platform. “He is open to building bridges with different parts of society,” he said.

Though the opposition bloc has not named a presidential candidate, surveys by Metropoll show Kılıçdaroğlu is far less popular, at 28.5%, than three other possible names and than Erdoğan himself, who 37.9% said they preferred in December.

Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, both of the CHP, had popularity of 60.4% and 50.7% respectively, while IYI Party leader and alliance bloc member Meral Aksener had 38.5%. A previous Metropoll survey showed Kılıçdaroğlu was the only potential candidate whom Erdoğan would beat.

“These surveys are of no importance for today,” Kılıçdaroğlu said, adding that Yavas and Imamoglu would continue running the country’s two biggest cities.

Soaring prices recently – including 50% increases for electricity and 55% for food – have pushed more Turks into poverty.

The central bank is widely seen to have bowed to Erdoğan after he replaced its monetary policy committee with like-minded members. Asked whether he would replace the committee to give it independence, Kılıçdaroğlu said: “We would do exactly that.”

Russian S-400S, Syria

Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 land-to-air defences badly strained US relations, prompting Washington to sanction Turkey’s defence industries and oust it from an F-35 production scheme.

US removing Turkey from F-35 program after its Russian missile defense purchase

The United States said on Wednesday (17 July) that it was removing Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, a move long threatened and expected after Ankara began accepting delivery of an advanced Russian missile defense system last week.

The first …

“Who will we use the S-400s for? We haven’t received the answer to this question yet,” Kılıçdaroğlu said. “A large amount of money was paid, and they are currently waiting in storage.”

Erdoğan has said Turkey is keeping the missiles despite US objections and the possibility of selling them.

Turkey will send home the millions of Syrian refugees it hosts and re-establish diplomatic ties with President Bashar al-Assad if the opposition alliance wins the elections, Kılıçdaroğlu said.

“If needed the United Nations needs to get involved, a 100% guarantee should be received from Assad. That guarantee needs to be tied to international accords, that he will not attack them, that their material and life security will be preserved,” he said.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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