Turkey’s Opposition Lost to Erdogan, Then It Lost Its Mind

Since the June election, the country’s various opposition parties have collapsed into chaos, leaving the president without a credible challenger.

The chairman of Turkey's  Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R), speaks with Muharrem Ince (L), as they attend the Party's 36th ordinary congress in Ankara, on February on 3, 2018.
The chairman of Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R), speaks with Muharrem Ince (L), as they attend the Party's 36th ordinary congress in Ankara, on February on 3, 2018. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Since June 24, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated his thirteenth consecutive electoral victory, his opponents have been in a headfirst free fall. Their sad state captures the fundamental problem of Turkish politics: The opposition is out of ideas and lacking in inspiration and its leaders care more about keeping their seats than keeping their country afloat.

Turkey’s opposition went into the June presidential and parliamentary elections with a sense of urgency. In April 2017, Erdogan had won a narrow victory in a constitutional referendum that reduced parliament to a formality and opened the path for the imperial presidency he had long coveted. As a young mayor, Erdogan had ominously compared democracy to a tram that he could simply ride until his destination and then step off. With his latest victory, it seems like the proverbial tram of democracy has finally arrived at Erdogan’s stop.

As this year’s campaign season kicked off, many Turks had the feeling that a change was afoot. The opposition fought off Erdogan’s gambit to push them out of contention by adding to their ranks Meral Aksener’s Good Party (IYI)—which broke away from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) after the latter allied itself with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the months before the election, the opposition alliance managed to rise above their differences and come together in their shared desire to oust Erdogan. The alliance brought together secularists, nationalists, conservatives, and liberals who, under ordinary circumstances, would have never joined forces.

They even found a David to challenge Erdogan’s Goliath in the form of Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince, a former physics teacher whose folksy charm, sharp-tongued wit, and straight-talking style proved to be the rare match for Erdogan’s political savvy. Ince’s tireless campaigning, spirited speeches, and bridge-building message won him many fans. His eleventh-hour campaign marathon in Turkey’s three largest metropolises drew more than a million supporters abuzz with optimism that victory was nigh.

With the first exit polls, the opposition’s high hopes came crashing down. They had been confident that they would at least keep Erdogan below 50 percent and force a runoff; instead, Erdogan won with 52.5 percent of the votes. Ince received almost 31 percent and the other two opposition candidates combined for less than 16 percent.

In retrospect, taking on Erdogan was always an honorable but doomed effort. The opposition groups were up against insurmountable odds. Erdogan used every advantage of incumbency; he had all the state’s resources at his disposal and the media was almost entirely under his control.

Former President Abdullah Gul, who was mulling a run, dropped out after Turkey’s top general showed up at his doorstep. Even though Gul insists that it was simply a courtesy visit, it is difficult to escape the impression that he was hectored out of the race. For other candidates, the pressure was even more overt. Aksener saw mayors block her convoys with garbage trucks and cut power to her rallies. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, who is detained on trumped-up terrorism charges, led his campaign from behind bars. In such circumstances, an opposition victory was as impossible a task as boring a tunnel with a teaspoon.

Since the election, the broad-based opposition alliance that coalesced around Ince has collapsed. Among opposition voters, patience has worn thin. They want to see heads roll, starting from the very top—and no one will be spared their wrath.

For secularists, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has become the bête noire. Kilicdaroglu has been the leader of the main opposition party since 2010. Last month’s election is the ninth lost under his watch, and it seems like he has finally run out of sympathy.

Also in the crosshairs are two of his many vice chairs: Bulent Tezcan and Onursal Adiguzel. Tezcan drew scorn for prematurely announcing on election night that there would be a runoff vote, which proved to be incorrect. Adiguzel, a young hotshot once viewed as one of the party’s rising stars, was in charge of the party’s much-touted online election monitoring platform—a live-stream network from voting stations across the country that was designed to prevent electoral fraud and provide an alternative information channel—that crashed less than an hour into election night, never to recover.

Ince’s allies were hopeful that he could ride the wave of his presidential candidacy to defeat Kilicdaroglu in a rematch of last February’s competition to take the party’s helm, which Ince lost, but that will be an uphill battle because Kilicdaroglu’s fate will be decided by the “superdelegates” he himself has chosen.

Within a few days of announcing his candidacy, Ince had gathered enough support to force a leadership election. Over the past week, however, the tides have turned; many delegates have been retracting their support, allegedly under coercion from the party leadership, and Ince’s supporters are vowing to take the race to court.

Ince’s more serious problem, however, is that he hasn’t emerged from the elections unscathed either. On election night, Ince, who had promised to “fight until the bitter end,” instead conceded the race by sending a TV journalist a one-sentence WhatsApp message referring to Erdogan: “The man has won.” He then vanished into thin air, prompting a Twitter hysteria.

Ince was the opposite of camera-shy. So he must have conceded under duress, his supporters assumed. Wild rumors arose that he had been arrested, kidnapped, or even killed. Social media was abuzz with sightings—plainclothes officers walking him down a hotel corridor, a secret service convoy heading to his apartment, a grainy image on an airport tarmac. The opposition voters had staked so much on him and held such high hopes that most couldn’t come to terms with having lost. Thus, when Ince resurfaced the next day, as if nothing had happened, many of his supporters were livid. In most countries, an early and simple concession would be seen as honorable; in Turkey, it was akin to treason.

Things are no less bleak in IYI, whose post-election huddle last weekend devolved into a shouting match. A former cabinet minister, Aksener had risen to prominence after she led a mutiny against Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the hard-line MHP, party that used to be in the opposition but has since moved ever deeper into Erdogan’s orbit. During the elections, Aksener irked many of her ex-MHP allies when she nominated them to run in challenging competitive districts (where many ended up losing) and instead reserved the top of the ticket for figures with mainstream appeal. Her wager was that the party would fare better as a center-right alternative, but it didn’t pay off. Indeed, Bahceli’s MHP emerged stronger than ever while IYI’s showing underperformed all of the polls, leaving many Turkey experts scratching their heads.

All of this dirty laundry was aired at the IYI retreat. The tensions reached a climax when the ex-leader of the party’s youth wing, Osman Erturk Ozel, who resigned before the elections in protest of his placement on the ticket, was attacked on stage by the supporters of his successor, leading to a fistfight. Ultimately, Aksener tendered her resignation. Although Aksener declared she has no intention of running again for party chair, there is a concerted effort by her allies to secure enough votes for her nomination, which, if they succeed, would effectively amount to her re-election by acclamation. (Aksener’s critics argue that this has been her plan all along.)

Meanwhile, the HDP is also in crisis, not least because most of its leaders are in prison. The party is caught in a tug-of-war between its left and right factions. The HDP’s left wing sees an opportunity in the CHP’s leadership crisis, and is arguing that a pivot from a platform of Kurdish nationalism to leftist progressivism would significantly expand its nationwide appeal, particularly among disgruntled young voters, and perhaps turn it into the country’s leading opposition party. The party’s de facto leader, Selahattin Demirtas, earned a devout following among urban left-leaning voters, especially youth and women. His charisma and generational appeal has drawn comparisons to former U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as European left-populists such as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias Turrión, the leader of Spain’s Podemos party.

But many on the party’s right, longtime veterans of the Kurdish nationalist movement, consider the calls for a leftward pivot an abandonment of the party’s actual mission: Kurdish emancipation. Even though the party denies any ties to militant groups, is it hard to deny that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) casts a long shadow over the HDP. The PKK’s longstanding armed campaign for an independent Kurdistan has earned it the enmity of many in Turkey, as well as a place on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.

The PKK’s politics are socially conservative, in line with the views of most Kurds, who are the party’s natural constituency. Indeed, PKK leaders like Cemil Bayik have long lamented that the HDP is pandering to “Cihangir marginalism”—a thinly veiled jab against the party’s cosmopolitan-left elements in a hip Istanbul neighborhood and their influence on issues like LGBT rights, which don’t fly among tribal, agrarian Kurds in the country’s southeast.

With Erdogan firmly in control of the legislative and executive branches of government, Turkey’s democratic erosion is now barreling ahead at full steam. The economy is tanking, prices are rising, violence is worsening, and the country is careening ever further from the West. The United States indicted Turkey’s former economy minister for conspiring to violate Iran sanctions and one of its state-owned banks is facing fines for the same reason. On Tuesday, the United States levied sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act on the Turkish interior and justice ministers over the controversial arrest of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson.

Meanwhile, the politicians who could slow or halt Turkey’s tailspin are busy trading barbs, hurling insults, and pointing fingers at one another. While they bicker, they seem oblivious to the gathering storm: the anger of millions of voters who are sick and tired of having their hopes washed away by feckless politicians. If they carry on as usual, they might soon be out of voters to woo.

Turkey’s opposition is fighting for its life. Unfortunately, its leaders seem resigned to its death—so long as they die in their seats.

Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University. Twitter: @scsazak

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