On 3 March, the Turkish opposition IYI (Good) Party implicitly signalled its withdrawal from the so-called “Table of Six,” pushing the opposition bloc to a critical threshold.
In a meeting of the Table of Six the previous day, the IYI Party vehemently rejected the proposal of the bloc’s five other members to support Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as a joint candidate for president in the forthcoming elections scheduled for 14 May.
The party was faced with “a choice between death and malaria,” IYI Party leader Meral Aksener explained in an emergency meeting of her party’s general administrative board which she convened on 3 March. While the other five parties wanted Kilicdaroglu, she said “the IYI Party forwarded two names that had gained widespread popularity, leading Erdogan by a wide margin in the opinion polls” Mansur Yavas and Ekrem Imamoglu.
The party, she said, had argued that the joint presidential candidate should be determined in an empirical and rational manner, but to know avail: “They wanted to nominate Kemal Kilicdaroglu while we felt that Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas are more appropriate.” Both Yavas and Imamoglu are prominent members of the CHP.
Aksener’s stance could weaken the opposition front and damage her party and her own political standing. In addition to IYI and CHP, the Table of Six includes the Islamist Felicity (Saadat) Party (SP), led by Temel Karamollaoglu, the Democrat Party led by Gültekin Uysal, the DEVA Party founded by Ali Babacan and the Future Party founded by Ahmet Davutoglu. Babacan and Davutoglu had been prominent members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) before forming breakaway parties.
Some observers believe that the IYI party’s stance could precipitate a domino effect, leading to the collapse of the opposition bloc as a whole and the emergence of new but smaller and less effective blocs.
For example, the IYI might align with some smaller parties that share some of its conservative and nationalist outlooks and values and its opposition to Kurdish rights. The fragmentation would naturally work in favour of the electoral prospects of the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
An opinion poll conducted shortly before the devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey last month indicated that the opposition parties were failing to gain ground because of their inability to reach a consensus on a joint presidential candidate. Their inability to come up with concrete plans or proposals for reconstructing the areas decimated by the quake could erode popular support.
A more recent poll, conducted on 2 March, showed that the ruling AKP holds almost the same level of public support that it held before the earthquake despite the widespread and harsh criticisms that had been levelled against the government for its handling of the aftermath of the disaster and for not having taken the proper precautions to begin with.
The other Table of Six members played down the effect of Aksener’s position on the cohesion of the alliance. “Don’t worry. All the pieces will come together,” said CHP leader Kilicdaroglu, adding that the Table of Six “should not be a place for political games or rudeness.”
But there is no denying that the IYI Party’s decision delivered a blow to an alliance whose members agree on little apart from their determination to oust Erdogan and reinstate the parliamentary system. Although Kilicdaroglu, as leader of the main opposition party, is scrambling to hold the coalition together, internal differences and tensions are more likely to surface. This may explain why the five other members restricted their official reactions to brief and vague statements to the press downplaying Aksener’s remarks.
Perhaps the main factor that brought matters to a head in the Table of Six is the court verdict handed down against Ekrem Imamoglu for having insulted a senior election official following the municipal polls that elected him mayor of Istanbul.
The court sentenced him to two years and seven months in prison, and bans him from holding political office, but he is still appealing the ruling.
Imamoglu is a charismatic figure who outperformed Erdogan in some opinion polls last year. Although the ban would not go into effect unless the verdict is upheld, the ruling threw the Table of Six into a quandary that they had hoped to resolve in their meeting in early March.
The loss of the IYI Party from its ranks could reduce the opposition alliance’s prospects for winning support among large swathes of moderate nationalists and conservative secularists.
Meral Aksener, who founded the IYI in 2017, brought together a political gathering that was more liberal and enlightened, and less dogmatic and fanatic than the right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHK) that she had broken away from.
She thus succeeded in forging a new moderate nationalism situated on the moderate right of the Turkish political spectrum.
Although Imamoglu and Yavas both issued statements on 4 March, declaring their support for their party leader, Kilicdaroglu, as a candidate for president, this still may not be enough to enable the opposition bloc to weather the challenges that lie ahead.
Although Future Party leader Ahmet Davutoglu and DEVA leader Ali Babacan have indicated their continued support for Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, they are secretly concerned about the effect this could have on their standing among their respective constituencies.
Kilicdaroglu’s secularist liberal left outlooks will not sit with the DEVA and Future parties’ religious and conservative bases. Their support for his candidacy could expose them to criticism from both within their parties and from Erdogan and the AKP to which they had once belonged.
As firm as her opposition to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy is, Aksener’s implicit withdrawal from the Table of Six has not yet reached the point of formal rupture. She represents the second largest party in this opposition bloc and still shares its other members’ conviction of the need to overcome differences in order to remove Erdogan through the ballot box and reinstate the parliamentary system.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly