Turkey's opposition plots fightback against Erdogan

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C) the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People's Party, or CHP, leaves after a press conference in Ankara on 15 May, 2023AFP

Turkey's opposition tried on Wednesday to recover from a crushingly disappointing election performance and launch a new attack aimed at beating president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a 28 May runoff.

Secular leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu huddled with the other five heads of his alliance on Wednesday to plot a harder-edged strategy for ending Erdogan's two-decade domination of Turkey.

Media reports said he had fired his PR team and planned to tap Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu -- a feisty figure with a history of bad blood with Erdogan -- to spearhead his campaign.

The reported promotion of Imamoglu and the mayor's lauded strategist Canan Kaftancioglu marks a reversal for Turkey's grandfatherly opposition leader.

The 74-year-old former civil servant tried to run an inclusive campaign that addressed voters in chatty clips recorded from his kitchen and ignored Erdogan's personal barbs.

That approach worked -- up to a point.

The opposition deprived Erdogan of a first-round victory for the first time and collected more votes than in any point of his rule.

But Kilicdaroglu's 44.9 per cent still trailed Erdogan's 49.5 per cent of the votes.

Pre-election polls showed Kilicdaroglu leading and possibly even winning outright last Sunday.

'Fake world leader'

Kilicdaroglu's fightback began with a video in which he stared straight into the camera and slapped his desk a few times after banging his heart with his fist.

"I am here! I am here!" he shouted. "I am here!"

He doubled down on Wednesday by calling Erdogan a "fake world leader" who "is now guided by Russia" -- a reference to Erdogan's increasingly close relationship with Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the campaign.

It did not take Turkey's 69-year-old leader long to strike back.

"All they do is bang on the table," he said in a nationally televised appearance.

Erdogan then thanked "my precious friend, Russian president Putin" for agreeing a two-month extension of a deal under which Ukraine can send grain to world markets along the Black Sea.

The UN-backed agreement represented one of Erdogan's crowning diplomatic achievements when he helped seal it in Istanbul last July.

He mentioned it often in the campaign to show off his ability to raise Turkey's stature and influence on global events.

"Putin gives Erdogan another diplomatic win ahead of the 28 May presidential election run-off," Eurasia Group director Emre Peker said on Twitter.

Powers of incumbency

Erdogan is entering the runoff as the overwhelming favourite.

The advantage of incumbency gives him ample television airtime as well as support from local officials and government-aligned businesses.

Sunday's remaining votes went to a little-known ultra-nationalist who has much more in common with the right-wing Erdogan than the leftist Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan said he would visit southeastern regions this weekend that were hit by a catastrophic February quake in which more than 50,000 lost their lives.

The president retained strong support in the area despite initial anger at the government's delayed search and rescue work.

Erdogan added that his team will be meeting with younger voters in Istanbul and Ankara to try and win in Turkey's two most important cities.

Imamoglu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas beat out Erdogan's allies in 2019 municipal polls.

'Credible and consistent'

The campaign's second stage is being accompanied by Turkish market turmoil that has seen the lira near historic lows against the dollar.

Investors are starting to price in an Erdogan victory and the long-term continuation of his unconventional economic policies.

The cost of insuring exposure to Turkey's debt is rising out of fears that the country's once-vibrant banking sector could soon experience serious difficulties.

Erdogan's decision to force Turkey's central bank to fight historically high inflation with lower interest rates has put unprecedented pressure on the lira.

Analysts believe Erdogan tried to prop up the lira ahead of elections through indirect market interventions that drained Turkey's hard currency reserves.

His government also introduced rules that required banks to purchase more and more liras with their foreign currencies.

Some analysts warn Turkey might have to impose capital controls if Erdogan -- who has pledged to keep interest rates low as long as he remains in office -- does not reverse course.

"Our focus after the election will be whether the policy mix becomes more credible and consistent," the ratings agency Fitch said.