Turkish opposition bloc faces split over joint candidate

ISTANBUL (AP) — One of Turkey’s leading opposition politicians indicated Friday that her party is breaking with a major alliance formed to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in elections scheduled for May.

A split in the opposition bloc ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections would be a major boost for Erdogan, whose popularity has been battered by a weak economy and his government's response to a catastrophic earthquake.

Meral Aksener, head of the nationalist Iyi Party, said she was distancing herself from the six-party group, known as the Table of Six, over a dispute about selecting the candidate to run against Erdogan.

“I’m sorry to say that, as of yesterday, the Table of Six has lost its ability to reflect the will of the nation in its decisions,” she told a news conference in Ankara, referring to a failed Thursday meeting to nominate a joint opposition candidate.

Erdogan is facing what many consider the toughest challenge of his 20-year rule amid economic turmoil and criticism of the government’s response to the Feb. 6 earthquake in southern Turkey that killed tens of thousands.

It has been clear for months that the leader of the largest opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had put himself forward to stand in the May 14 vote.

That was despite two other CHP figures, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, showing more favorable poll ratings against Erdogan.

Aksener, a former interior minister whose party is the second largest in the opposition bloc, was reported to have favored either of the mayors instead of Kilicdaroglu, who has failed to win a national election in the 13 years he has led the CHP.

She said the five other parties had selected Kilicdaroglu in Thursday’s meeting as a candidate. “Personal ambitions were preferred to Turkey,” Aksener said after meeting senior Iyi Party officials.

“We have expressed our opinion in favor of the candidacy of two names that we have heard frequently in the streets and squares for three years," she said. "These two names were Mansur Yavas and Ekrem İmamoglu.”

Aksener made a direct appeal to Yavas and Imamoglu. “Our nation is calling you to duty,” she said. “We will either march with millions in the glorious struggle or act as extras in a tragic story. We will either make history or become history.”

Kilicdaroglu seemed unruffled by Aksener’s speech as he left a meeting in Ankara. “Don’t worry, all the pieces will fall into place,” he told journalists.

A leading lawmaker from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, signaled the ruling group’s delight over division within the opposition. “12 months, 12 meetings, (yet) he could not convince his closest partner or his own mayors; will he convince our nation?!” Bulent Turan tweeted, referring to Kilicdaroglu.

The Table of Six is made up of CHP, Iyi , the Saadet Party, the Democrat Party, the Deva Party and the Gelecek Party. The latter two are led by politicians who formerly held office under Erdogan — ex-Economy Minister Ali Babacan and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The coalition is due to meet on Monday. It was unclear whether Aksener would attend that meeting to press for the candidacies of either Yavas or Imamoglu, who were elected to lead their cities in 2019.

While polling well, there are issues with either mayor running for the presidency. Yavas comes from a nationalist background, which many believe would discourage Kurdish voters. Istanbul’s Imamoglu is appealing a court decision which, if upheld, would see him barred from politics.

He was sentenced in December to more than two years' imprisonment and a ban from political office for allegedly insulting election officials following his win four years ago.

Andrew Wilks, The Associated Press