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Turkey’s opposition chooses candidate to challenge Erdogan in May election

Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu greets his supporters at the party's headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday after the six-party Nation Alliance announced him as its presidential candidate. (Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters)
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ISTANBUL — After days of public infighting, an alliance of Turkish opposition parties announced Monday that they had chosen a veteran political leader to face President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a pivotal election scheduled for May.

The candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74, a former civil servant, has been chairman of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Turkey’s largest opposition party, since 2010.

The announcement followed several days of bickering by the opposition bloc that threatened to derail what analysts have said is a rare opportunity to unseat Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for two decades while seeking to boost his country’s regional and international profile, including as a power broker during Syria’s civil war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At home, Erdogan’s poll numbers have suffered in recent years amid an economic crisis that has slashed the value of the currency and sent inflation soaring. More recently, his government has faced mounting public criticism for its slow response after two catastrophic earthquakes struck the south of the country on Feb. 6, devastating cities and killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria.

Years of warnings and inaction in Turkish city destroyed by earthquakes

In the wake of the tragedy, Erdogan has acknowledged delays in rescue efforts and asked for the public’s forgiveness. Last week, in the ruined city of Adiyaman, he appealed to residents for their “blessing.”

“Unfortunately, we could not carry out the activity we wanted in Adiyaman for the first few days due to the devastating effect of the tremors, adverse weather conditions and the difficulties brought by the damaged infrastructure,” he said. “We are aware of everything.”

Erdogan’s opponents have criticized his rapid accumulation of power and crackdown on political dissent over the years, and have vowed to restore democracy to Turkey. As the elections for parliament and president approach, the opposition must contend with Erdogan’s significant and loyal base of supporters, as well as his chokehold on the media and state institutions, along with the opposition’s own glaring divisions over ideology and tactics, analysts said.

Erdogan has unleashed a wave of public spending in recent months to woo voters, including cheap loans, energy subsidies, tax relief and a lowering of the retirement age, allowing more than 2 million people to retire early and collect pensions.

The opposition alliance, called the Nation Alliance, was supposed to name its candidate last month but delayed the announcement, it said, because of the earthquake. On Friday, Meral Aksener, the chairwoman of the right-wing Good Party, the second-largest party in the bloc, withdrew from the alliance after disagreeing with the choice of Kilicdaroglu, as long-simmering tensions burst into public view.

The opposition would be better served, she said in a speech Friday, by selecting more popular figures from Kilicdaroglu’s party: either Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara, or Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, names she said her party had “heard frequently in the streets, shops and squares for over three years.”

The mayors came to office after an election in 2019 that saw a wave of opposition victories and dented Erdogan’s aura of invincibility at the ballot box.

Opinion polls have shown both men would fare better than Kilicdaroglu in an election against Erdogan. “We understood that personal ambitions were preferred,” Aksener said, referring to the CHP leader.

But on Monday, she rejoined the opposition bloc after meeting with the two mayors. The alliance released what it called a “road map” that laid out a transition of power that includes a return to a “strengthened” parliamentary system, meant to reverse sweeping powers Erdogan assumed after a referendum in 2017.

The road map also called for the appointment of vice presidents, including Yavas and Imamoglu, a measure apparently aimed at bringing Aksener back into the fold.

“We will rule Turkey through consultation and consensus,” Kilicdaroglu said during brief remarks in Ankara, the capital. “We will establish the power of morality and justice together.” The Nation Alliance does not include a powerful Kurdish-led opposition party whose support is considered pivotal in Turkish elections.

Erdogan had portrayed the opposition bickering over the past few days as a sideshow while he focused on earthquake relief. On Monday, he announced that the death toll in Turkey had surpassed 46,000 people.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the country are still in temporary housing and the United Nations said Monday that its $1 billion appeal to assist survivors was only about 10 percent funded.

Without more funding, “the U.N. and its partners will not be able to meet the humanitarian needs,” Alvaro Rodriguez, the U.N. resident coordinator in Turkey, warned in an interview with the Associated Press.