Turkey’s Hapless Opposition

No wonder Erdogan keeps winning. His opponents aren't up to the challenge.

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The results of Turkey’s stunning Nov. 1 election, which marked a remarkable comeback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), came as a huge surprise to Turks and foreign observers alike. In the previous elections, held in June, the AKP lost its majority for the first time since 2002, and the president’s opponents had hoped that his ambitions would be curtailed. None of Turkey’s 23 polling companies came even close to predicting the voters’ swing back to the AKP, which gained nearly 9 percent (approximately 4.8 million votes) and 59 more seats in parliament. This outcome has inevitably invited a closer examination of the dismal state of Turkey’s opposition parties.

The Turkish opposition consists of three main parties: the large Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). All three have had great difficulty responding to Erdogan’s Machiavellian exploitation of the public’s fear of instability and the prospect of an economic downturn after the June election. While the CHP made modest gains on Nov. 1, both the MHP and HDP suffered heavy losses.

This hasn’t been the first disappointment for Turkey’s beleaguered opposition. Since 2002, Turkey’s three opposition parties have lost five consecutive parliamentary elections, three local elections, one presidential election, and two referenda.

There are many reasons for this, starting with Turkey’s electoral environment. Erdogan did everything he could to ensure that the conditions would be outrageously unfair. He blatantly played the ethnic, sectarian, and religious cards in such dirty ways it was hard for the opposition parties to respond. The AKP, which has access to state and municipal funds as well as generous business donations, also far outspent all three opposition parties.

But the opposition must share the blame for its dismal performance. Its members are badly organized and ill-qualified, leaving them poorly equipped to cope with the AKP’s savvy political machine. The CHP’s and MHP’s leaders, who are distinctly lacking in charisma, can scarcely compete in Turkey’s macho political culture. And while the HDP made notable progress in the last election, it is hobbled by perceptions that it is a primarily pro-Kurdish party with suspicious links to the PKK, a militant Kurdish group which has been battling the state since 1984.

The largest opposition party, the CHP, was established by the founding father of the Turkish Republic — Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — and remained a dominant force until 1950. The party carries considerable political baggage due to its associations with heavy-handed rule in the early decades of the republic and its closeness to the military, which has repeatedly intervened in Turkish politics to enforce Ataturk’s secular vision for the country. Today, the party is the natural home of Turkey’s educated secularists and moderate leftists. But it has had trouble reaching out to conservatives, which are the largest chunk of the electorate. Its secular slant doesn’t help — but neither do its older party functionaries, who are viewed as unfriendly to business and set in their ways. The AKP, on the other hand, is friendly to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. Big business, too, views the party as the devil they know and can influence.

Since 2010, the CHP has been led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a member of Turkey’s Alevi community, a minority group that practices a distinct form of Islam. Thanks to the country’s polarized identity politics, this ensures that the party enjoys outsized support from the Alevis, who comprise 10 to 20 percent of the population, or approximately 8 percent of the electorate.

But the CHP has been unable to make inroads with Turkey’s conservative voters. The party’s fundamental problem is that it caters to a narrow part of society, which roughly coincides to 25 percent of the electorate. Its institutional culture is static and not open to change. Consequently, the CHP has been unable to build an effective political machine needed to compete with the hard-working and results-oriented AKP.

The MHP, which has long been Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, saw its vote total reduced by nearly 2 million votes after Nov. 1, making it the biggest loser of the election. Its poor performance was due primarily to the uncompromising and erratic positions taken by its leader, Devlet Bahceli, who, on election night in June, outright rejected the prospect of joining a coalition with any other party. It appears he believed (quite wrongly, as it turned out) that the AKP would continue to slide in the polls and that the MHP could benefit from a repeat election after coalition talks failed.

Bahceli is also notorious for his sensitivity to potential internal rivals. He has repeatedly expelled from the party any other leaders who might challenge his dominance. Not surprisingly, the party’s disastrous election performance has triggered a number of credible leadership challenges — but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to wrest the MHP from Bahceli’s grasp.

Unlike the CHP or the MHP, the pro-Kurdish HDP does not suffer from sclerotic officials or authoritarian leadership. This relatively new party has a charismatic, effective leader in Selahattin Demirtas, a lawyer and human rights activist. In June, the party ran a pitch-perfect campaign marked by astute humor, energy, and strategic patience, which enabled it to win a historic 13.1 percent of the vote — something never before achieved by a pro-Kurdish party. The HDP’s success was rooted in its decision to abandon its predecessors’ exclusively Kurdish platform and become a party with a national message.

However, right after the June election, violence between the Turkish state and the militant PKK erupted under murky circumstances, effectively ending a three-year peace process. The PKK killed 167 security personnel in the lead-up to the November election, enabling Erdogan to link the HDP with violence and instability in the eyes of voters — a message amplified by the AKP-friendly media.The political climate became heavily securitized and depressive. The HDP suddenly found itself trapped between the AKP, who used the opportunity to demonize it, and the PKK, which seemed irritated by its sudden rise. This dynamic goes a long way to explaining why the HDP hemorrhaged almost a million votes on Nov. 1. Remarkably, the party was abandoned even by many ethnic Kurdish voters, who opted for the AKP’s promises of stability even as it waged an aggressive campaign against Kurdish nationalism. 

The opposition’s failure to form a coalition in the aftermath of the June election — when it had a chance to marginalize the temporarily demoralized AKP — further convinced the electorate that it was not up to the task of governing. Unwilling to risk another ambiguous election result amid a weakening economy, the Turkish electorate turned back to the AKP. Erdogan succeeded in presenting the electorate with a fateful choice: Either you give me back the majority, he implied, or you will be faced with PKK and Islamic State terror, recession, and chaos. All three opposition parties failed to acknowledge the electorate’s longing for political stability and economic predictability.

Both the CHP and the MHP are now in turmoil; Within hours of the election, dissidents within both parties launched challenges against their leaders. Yet the opposition as a whole faces more deep-seated problems. The CHP and MHP must fundamentally restructure and build effective political machines that will be able to compete with the AKP. The HDP, on the other hand, needs to clarify its relationship with the PKK and stand behind its promise to become a national Turkish party. While it had captured the imagination of many Turks before the June election, its inability to disassociate itself from the PKK’s violence has had a heavy toll.

Given the AKP’s absolute dominance of the political system and its extensive patronage networks, it will be hard to beat in coming electoral contests. Turkey’s opposition will need to reinvent itself in order to become a credible alternative. Until it does, Erdogan will keep running the show.

In the photo, Turkey’s CHP supporters wait for exit poll results outside the party’s headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 1 as the AKP party wins back its majority.

Photo credit: Burak Kara/Getty Images

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