What if Kemal Kilicdaroglu Wins Turkey’s Election?

It seems that only an act of God could dislodge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Maybe the Feb. 6 earthquake was just that.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A large crowd waves Turkish flags in front of a billboard for Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the side of an apartment building.
A large crowd waves Turkish flags in front of a billboard for Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the side of an apartment building.
Supporters wave Turkish flags at a rally for Turkey’s Republican People's Party chairman and presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Canakkale, Turkey, on April 11. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

During Turkey’s 2018 presidential election campaign, the New York Times ran an editorial expressing support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponent at the time, Muharrem Ince. After a few paragraphs, it was clear that the Times editorial board knew that it disliked Erdogan more than it knew about Ince and his views.

During Turkey’s 2018 presidential election campaign, the New York Times ran an editorial expressing support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponent at the time, Muharrem Ince. After a few paragraphs, it was clear that the Times editorial board knew that it disliked Erdogan more than it knew about Ince and his views.

Read more of FPs coverage of Turkey’s pivotal elections.

And so it goes with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a six-party coalition’s pick to challenge Erdogan for the presidency on May 14. With just a month to go before the election, Kilicdaroglu is up by between 7 and 10 points.

Yet even with Kilicdaroglu’s commanding lead, it seems hard to believe that Erdogan will lose. This is perhaps a lack of imagination, but he has been in power—first as prime minister and then as president—since 2003. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have hollowed out, bent, and fashioned political institutions to ensure their grip on power. The Turkish president has used the apparatus of the state to undermine his opponents, and the vast majority of Turkey’s once boisterous, if not always responsible, media can now be relied on to recite the government line. The judiciary that was once a redoubt of the secular nationalist establishment is now the preserve of AKP supporters. Erdogan has remade the military command, which previously was loyal only to the principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Under these circumstances, it seems that only an act of God could dislodge Erdogan. Maybe the earthquake on Feb. 6 was just that.

What would it mean for Turkish politics and foreign policy if Kilicdaroglu won? Some Turkish and Western commentators believe Turkey can once again be democratic, prosperous, ready to pursue membership in the European Union, and better aligned with its NATO allies. Without a doubt, it will be a sigh of relief for millions of Turks if Erdogan is vanquished and relinquishes his office. But it is unlikely that Turkey will revert to a past that never existed.


It is hard to tell what Kilicdaroglu and his partners believe or how they would govern. The Nation Alliance (also known as the “Table of Six”) that Kilicdaroglu leads is an ideologically disparate coalition united in their loathing of Erdogan. In addition to Kilicdaroglu’s CHP, which occupies the left-center/social democrat and nationalist space, the alliance includes an offshoot of Turkey’s hard-right nationalists called the Good Party; two center-right parties led by AKP defectors Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu, respectively; and another center-right group, the Democrat Party. The other member is the religious nationalist conservative Felicity Party, which, along with the AKP, was established in 2001 after the government banned another Islamist party.

The Nation Alliance has published a lengthy “Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies,” which, given the unwieldy nature of the coalition, is an ideological grab bag of initiatives with nine main sections and a variety of subsections that touch on the judiciary, mining, tourism, and much more. Besides the opposition to Erdogan and the AKP, the centerpiece of the alliance’s appeal to Turks is its stated determination to shift away from the “executive presidency” that Erdogan wrought six years ago—and which greatly enhanced his power—in favor of what the Nation Alliance calls the “Strengthened Parliamentary System.” The passages on this issue get A’s for intentions but also seem woefully devoid of reality and, oddly, politics.

Making fundamental changes to Turkey’s political institutions will not be as easy as “urgently implement[ing] … constitutional and legislative amendments,” as Kilicdaroglu and company suggest. The AKP has had 20 years to abuse Turkey’s political institutions for its benefit. Having captured the state, neither the party’s leaders nor their activists throughout the bureaucracy and the judiciary are likely to give it up so quickly. That sets up the country for a titanic struggle in which either the Nation Alliance has raised expectations too high, forcing it to back off and pay a high political price, or Turkey’s new leaders purge AKP activists within the government in order to smooth the transformation the alliance seeks.

These outcomes are not unprecedented in Turkish politics. In recent decades, Turks have had their hopes raised about EU membership and, in particular, the economy, only to have their hopes dashed. The latter especially sowed political instability in the late 1990s. Purges have now become a feature of Turkish politics. In February 1997, the military issued “recommendations” to the government that sought the purge of followers of one of the AKP’s predecessor parties from government positions. And there has been an ongoing purge since 2014, when the AKP began cleansing the bureaucracy of its erstwhile partners in the Gulenist, or Hizmet, movement.


There is some reason to believe that the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu’s heart is in the right place when it comes to wanting a more just and democratic political system. As noted, it’s hard to know precisely what Kilicdaroglu believes, but during his tenure as leader of the main opposition, he has positioned himself as a responsible politician and democrat against the backdrop of Erdogan’s power grab. He once led a march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul.

At the same time, some party members have been critical of the CHP’s internal workings for its apparent lack of democracy. Also, the way he thrust himself on the Nation Alliance as its presidential candidate, despite the fact that he was the weakest of the realistic competitors to Erdogan, raises questions about his disposition and democratic credentials.

And, of course, institutions—frameworks for social action and political conduct in a society—can do funny things to people when they are in power. How can anyone be sure that, once firmly ensconced in the presidency, Kilicdaroglu will want to give up the powers of the executive presidency? After all, politicians generally like to accumulate power, not cede it. In addition, the new Turkish president would be likely to confront a vicious and vengeful opposition determined to see him fail. The executive presidency would be an advantage in a knife fight with the AKP and its partner, the Nationalist Movement Party.

And even if Kilicdaroglu wants to follow through on the Nation Alliance’s promise to do away with the executive presidency, there is no guarantee that his ambitious vice presidents Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas will agree. As Istanbul’s mayor, Imamoglu in particular has at times acted in a highhanded manner similar to his nemesis, Erdogan.

Both Imamoglu and Yavas, who is Ankara’s mayor, are skillful and successful politicians, but are they democrats? Maybe. A lot of people (including me) believed that Erdogan was a reformer and the leading edge of an Islamist Third Way in which parties like the AKP could accumulate power without triggering an authoritarian backlash and resolving the problem of one person, one vote, one time.

On other big issues, the Nation Alliance does not instill a lot of confidence. For example, it promises to “strengthen the freedoms of thought, opinion and expression.” It is unclear, however, whether this new liberal openness would extend to Kurdish nationalists and Gulenists. On this, the alliance is silent. Perhaps that is good politics, but it is striking that Kilicdaroglu cannot straightforwardly say that the legions of academics, lawyers, journalists, and everyday people who have been accused unfairly of being terrorists should be released and rehabilitated.

Like the AKP (which appropriated the issue from the opposition), Kilicdaroglu and co. also want to transfer Syrian refugees back to their home country. Although it is a popular position in Turkey, imagine the poor Syrians who fled for their lives and who have contributed to Turkish society. At Kilicdaroglu’s direction, they would be returned to Syria’s merciless regime.

On the Kurdish issue, which has been a central drama of Turkey’s politics since the republic’s founding a century ago, Kilicdaroglu has led positive change within his party, making it open to cooperation with Kurds. Yet he does not seem to have any creative policy solutions. His proposal for a so-called council of wise men to address and ostensibly offer recommendations is uninspired and may be an effort to kick the can down the road.


When it comes to foreign policy, the Nation Alliance says it will end Turkey’s foreign-policy activism, which is an implicit rebuke of one of its members—Davutoglu, who served as Erdogan’s foreign minister—and declares that “domestic political calculations and ideological approaches” will no longer be factors of foreign policy. It is not clear whom the alliance is trying to fool with these words, but they are nonsense that run counter to the way politics and foreign policy intersect.

The good news is that the Nation Alliance wants to restart the EU accession process and commit Turkey to complying with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which would include the release from detention of, among others, Osman Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist who has been wrongly imprisoned since 2017. The platform also says it will “take initiatives” to return to the F-35 joint strike fighter program, presumably by returning to Russia the S-400 air defense systems that Turkey purchased—but it does not commit to that. The Turkish government had planned to purchase 100 of the warplanes and was part of an international consortium building the fighter, but with the addition of the Russian system to Turkey’s arsenal, the United States terminated both the sale and Ankara’s participation in the program.

At the same time, Kilicdaroglu wants to normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Erdogan has moved toward normalizing ties with Assad as well—but only in response to pressure from the opposition, which throughout the Syrian conflict has been pro-Assad. No one should be surprised if Damascus is one of Kilicdaroglu’s first visits as Turkish head of state if he wins.

Also, in one jarring bullet point, the platform declares that it “will pursue the objectives of protecting the acquired rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” which is an international pariah that only Turkey recognizes. This is sure to complicate Ankara’s relations with the EU, as it seems to call for the continued occupation and potential partition of an EU member state.

Interestingly, the Nation Alliance’s platform does not mention the United States. This is likely because Turks have long held demonstrably negative views of U.S. foreign policy. It is a phenomenon that Turkish politicians, including Kilicdaroglu, have reinforced and extended because they derive political benefit from it. In private, they may say all the right things to U.S. interlocutors, but they cannot resist assailing the United States publicly. It is notable that Kilicdaroglu visited Washington twice in the last 10 years. Both times, it was hard not to sense that he was trying to downplay or even hide his trip from the Turkish press and his opponents. These furtive visits reflect the way Kilicdaroglu would be likely to handle Ankara’s most important relationship and do not augur well for bilateral ties.

Turks seem fed up with Erdogan and the AKP, which are overbearing, corrupt, and anti-democratic. They will rejoice if he is defeated, but no one should expect it to be morning in Ankara.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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