Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the toughest challenge of his political life, running neck and neck with challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu – 44 to 44 percent as of Thursday. And Thursday night was possibly the worst in Erdogan’s career when he started choking during a live TV interview. The camera was quickly turned away from the suffering president to a blank, orange wall, and the feed was promptly cut.
Erdogan reappeared 20 minutes later to apologize for the incident, saying he had been suffering from “serious stomach flu” that contributed to his exhaustion after intense campaigning. He later tweeted: “Today I will rest at home upon the advice of my doctors,” and “With God’s permission, we will continue our campaign from tomorrow onwards.”
Turkey’s presidential vote will take place on May 14 and will include, in addition to voters in Turkey, migrant Turks living in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. If neither candidate wins 50% of the votes, there would be a run-off election two weeks later.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, has been the leader of the Main Opposition in Turkey since 2010. An economist by trade and a life-long civil servant, Kilicdaroglu has none of his opponent’s charisma, and perhaps this is the secret of his prevailing in the race more than any other challenger to Erdogan’s rule. He is the exact opposite of Erdogan. The president spends millions on building a golden residential palace – Kilicdaroglu adheres to strict financial discipline. A close associate told BBC: “He is very careful about not spending any extra for anything unnecessary.”
In his decade as the leader of the opposition (his party is the second-largest in Turkey), Kilicdaroglu has made inroads with the Islamists, who have been Erdogan’s backbone, with women’s rights activists who loathe the president, and with the Kurds, who have been persecuted by Erdogan who considers them an enemy within (the Kurds constitute close to a third of Turkey’s population).
Erdogan canceled three campaign appearances on Wednesday, before the TV mishap, on the advice of his doctors. And on Thursday he didn’t show up for the inauguration of Turkey’s first nuclear power station on the Mediterranean coast, and appeared instead on Zoom, “looking pale and tired,” according to the BBC, alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. And then he showed up and collapsed on live TV.
Two other candidates are running against the incumbent, Muharrem Ince, who ran in 2018 and received only 30%, who used to belong to Kilicdaroglu’s party but left it to start the “Homeland Party,” blaming Kilicdaroglu for not supporting him enough; and Sinan Ogan, a nationalist whose foreign policy includes not celebrating Greece’s Independence Day.
The six Turkish opposition parties united behind Kilicdaroglu are concerned that these two candidates would deny their man the needed 50% and throw the election to Erdogan. But can the incumbent rise from his current 44% in the polls to 50% with his health condition?
Kilicdaroglu’s foreign policy includes strong support for Israel’s ally in the Caucasian region, Azerbaijan, in its conflict with Armenia. However, he also vowed to establish the “Organization of Peace and Cooperation in the Middle East” with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. So, he’s a mixed bag.