Erdogan’s Motley Opponents Have United to Take Him Down
Turkey’s strongman might not be strong enough to survive the early elections he wanted.
ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the dominant figure of Turkish political life for the last 15 years, stunned his country last week by moving up crucial presidential and parliamentary elections from November 2019 to June 24. Erdogan hopes to complete his transformation of the government from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and he succeeded at catching the opposition off guard.
But Erdogan’s opponents have quickly rallied, showing fresh energy and unanticipated strategic thinking. Erdogan now faces the very real possibility of being democratically unseated. “Bring it on,” a spokesman for the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) publicly announced about the early elections.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are strong but not all powerful in a highly polarized Turkey. A poll by the leftist Sozcu newspaper showed Erdogan with 43.5 percent of the vote, falling short of a majority he would need to win the presidential vote in the first round, and less than the 51.8 percent he won in the 2014 election.
The timing of the elections, less than two weeks after the end of monthlong Ramadan holidays, gives organizers scant time to set up voting procedures abroad and in far-flung places. Candidates will find it equally challenging to mount campaigns. “You can’t even organize a wedding by June 24,” one journalist quipped on Twitter.
But Erdogan’s opponents have responded by forming an unlikely alliance against him centered on two potential candidates: Meral Aksener, the charismatic leader of the newly formed Iyi Party, and former President Abdullah Gul. It remains unclear which presidential candidate the combined opposition will rally around.
On Sunday, 15 of the 131 CHP members in parliament switched their allegiance to Iyi (which means “good” in Turkish), giving it a large enough block to overcome rules that could have prevented the party and Aksener — a former history professor and staunch nationalist who has been critical of Turkey’s crackdown on the press and dissent under Erdogan — from running for office.
Then, on Monday, CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu met with his ideological opposite, the leader of the hard-line Islamist Felicity Party, to win his support for the motley cross-party alliance. On Tuesday, Kilicdaroglu started courting Gul, a onetime deputy of Erdogan.
“Democracy is for everyone,” CHP Deputy Chair Engin Altay said, according to local media. “For that reason, 15 deputies resigned from our party and joined the Iyi Party not with a political but with a democratic goal for democracy to win.”
Erdogan and his allies in politics and the press have mocked the opposition maneuvers. On Wednesday, Erdogan goaded Kilicdaroglu into running himself for the president, challenging his bravery. But Erdogan’s sudden call for a snap vote has his opponents smelling weakness. He has repeatedly over the years resisted calls for early elections and up until recently insisted the vote would take place in November 2019 as designated by the constitutional referendum last year.
His reversal comes amid rising economic troubles. The Turkish lira has been falling and inflation steadily increasing, rattling investor confidence and forcing Turkey to lift interest rates. On Wednesday, facing pressure, the Central Bank raised interest rates by 75 basis points. The move will boost the lira but hurt Turkey’s real estate sector, as well as the struggling, newly urbanized lower middle classes living off easy credit instruments. Both constituencies are pillars of Erdogan and AKP power.
“The main motivation for the early emergency elections is really related to the prospects of the economy,” says Sinan Ulgen, a Turkey specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, told Foreign Policy. “I think there is an acknowledgement within the government that the economy will enter a more turbulent period ahead. Obviously, a slowdown would affect the popularity of Erdogan.”
In addition, one of Turkey’s largest banks, Halkbank, is subject to potentially draconian U.S. fines for violating international Iran sanctions in a salacious case involving huge piles of gold exchanged for illicit cash now being wrapped up by federal prosecutors in New York. On May 7, a judge will sentence a former deputy general director of the bank convicted in January of violating U.S. laws. Penalties against the majority state-owned bank could further damage the economy by spooking investors and could harm Erdogan’s reputation.
“The view of the Treasury Department will be: This is the chance to send a massive message to Turkish financial regulators, Turkish banks, and banks outside of Turkey,” says Richard Nephew, a former State Department sanctions specialist now teaching at Columbia University.
Turkey’s shifting political landscape may have also prompted the early election call. Iyi is an offshoot of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is the AKP’s partner. The new party’s emergence and apparent momentum threaten to draw in MHP supporters disillusioned with party leader Devlet Bahceli’s chummy relationship with Erdogan. Quick elections could stem the bleeding.
Erdogan and his supporters, for their part, have mentioned regional uncertainty and the crisis in Syria as justification for early elections. A newly formed government, they say, would be better able to make tough foreign-policy choices without worrying about political consequences. “We must remove the election issue from the country’s agenda as soon as possible,” Erdogan said last week, a day after Bahceli called for early elections in what was likely a choreographed move.
“There was every chance that the elections will be held in 2018, because of Syria and economic and political vulnerabilities that the AKP has,” says Ziya Meral, a researcher at the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, a think tank tied to the U.K. armed forces. “Even within Erdogan’s party, not everything is OK. Even his constituents have questions about what direction the country is going.”
But more surprising than the date of the vote has been the opposition’s response. Few expected Kilicdaroglu, a staid former pencil pusher in the Finance Ministry, to come up with a strategy to challenge Erdogan, though he has in recent months showed uncharacteristic creativity, spearheading a high-profile march from Ankara to Istanbul to challenge the country’s authoritarian drift.
The success of Kilicdaroglu’s strategy ultimately may turn on the response of Turkey’s Kurds. Arguably Erdogan’s most steadfast opponents, they have responded negatively to Aksener’s candidacy; she served briefly as interior minister during the 1990s, at the time of the dirty war against Kurds and leftists. “Our grassroots will not vote [for Aksener],” Sezai Temelli, the co-chair of the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), told the daily Hurriyet, describing Gul as a “respected politician” who should be considered.
The Kurds have long been divided in their political sympathies between Islamism and the leftism espoused by the HDP. The Felicity Party has previously sought to woo Kurds at the local level with some success; that may bode well for the CHP, Iyi, and Felicity alliance with either Gul or Aksener as the standard-bearer.
The fraught history underscores the seemingly insurmountable contradictions that have bedeviled Erdogan’s opponents and worked in his favor. But if the CHP-led alliance manages to draw Kurds into the fold, it could pose a formidable challenge against Erdogan and the AKP. There are already calls for the opposition parties to lay aside decades of prejudice and mistrust to unite against Erdogan.
Any such campaign will face formidable challenges. The AKP controls much of the media. Erdogan has been in campaign mode since a year ago. He has restructured the AKP, ditching politicians he perceives as weak or incompetent. A recently reimposed state of emergency dating back to Turkey’s July 2016 failed coup attempt restricts public assembly. But there are also glimmers of hope for the opposition.
“For the first time, we see the CHP displaying a genuine strategy and sacrificing for the good of Turkish democracy rather than behaving in its usual static way,” Meral says. “It caught the AKP off guard. The AKP could always count on the fact that no matter what they do, they will always have a substantial number of votes and the opposition will be always be divided and unable to mount a united challenge.”