Argument

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Turkey’s Left-Wing ‘Squad’ Is Coming for Erdogan

A new party is betting that unabashed leftist politics is the only way to defeat the president.

By , a doctoral student in political science at Brown University.
A poster of Mustafa Hayrullahoglu, late member of the Socialist Workers Party of Turkey, in the Bakirkoy district of Istanbul as part of a May Day rally on May 1, 2017.
A poster of Mustafa Hayrullahoglu, late member of the Socialist Workers Party of Turkey, in the Bakirkoy district of Istanbul as part of a May Day rally on May 1, 2017. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

Until recently, Sera Kadigil was one of the rising stars of Turkey’s main opposition party, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). A U.K.-educated lawyer in her late-30s, Kadigil had developed a nationwide following for her impassioned speeches in parliament, no-holds-barred style on nightly news shows, and tireless activism on women’s issues. In 2018, she even won a highly coveted seat in the CHP’s party assembly, receiving more votes than many party veterans.

So it came as a surprise when Kadigil resigned from the CHP in late June to join the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), reviving a legacy brand in Turkish politics and setting out to replicate with it the success of Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. Kadigil will be the party’s fourth deputy alongside the party’s leader, Erkan Bas; the award-winning investigative journalist Ahmet Sik; and the actor-turned-politician Baris Atay. The rumor in Ankara is several other lawmakers are currently in talks to follow suit.

While a member of the CHP, Kadigil was popularly likened to the progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, in the United States. In her new party, Kadigil and her party mates draw comparisons to the group of young, progressive U.S. representatives known as “The Squad.” Whether they stand any chance of influencing Turkish politics to the same extent, however, is another question entirely.

Until recently, Sera Kadigil was one of the rising stars of Turkey’s main opposition party, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). A U.K.-educated lawyer in her late-30s, Kadigil had developed a nationwide following for her impassioned speeches in parliament, no-holds-barred style on nightly news shows, and tireless activism on women’s issues. In 2018, she even won a highly coveted seat in the CHP’s party assembly, receiving more votes than many party veterans.

So it came as a surprise when Kadigil resigned from the CHP in late June to join the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), reviving a legacy brand in Turkish politics and setting out to replicate with it the success of Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. Kadigil will be the party’s fourth deputy alongside the party’s leader, Erkan Bas; the award-winning investigative journalist Ahmet Sik; and the actor-turned-politician Baris Atay. The rumor in Ankara is several other lawmakers are currently in talks to follow suit.

While a member of the CHP, Kadigil was popularly likened to the progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, in the United States. In her new party, Kadigil and her party mates draw comparisons to the group of young, progressive U.S. representatives known as “The Squad.” Whether they stand any chance of influencing Turkish politics to the same extent, however, is another question entirely.

Founded in 1961 by a group of trade union leaders and including in its ranks left intellectuals such as the world-acclaimed novelist Yasar Kemal and the provocative satirist Aziz Nesin, the original TIP scored a surprise victory in 1965 and got 15 deputies elected, becoming the first left-wing party to enter the Turkish parliament. The party proved short-lived, and it eventually dissolved into the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) in 1987 under the pressure of police crackdowns, factional fighting, and the left’s global decline. Nonetheless, the TIP’s success left a lasting legacy in the Turkish left’s collective memory.

Any new entrant is exciting news in Turkish politics, where the plot keeps changing but the cast largely remains the same. Had politics been an actual profession, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his coalition partner Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the leaders of the opposition, the CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the Good Party’s Meral Aksener, would have already reached mandatory retirement age, while the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar, would be just a few years shy. In contrast, the TIP squad’s average age is only 40.

Turkey is a gerontocracy by design, not accident. Three features of Turkey’s electoral system pose a practically insurmountable barrier for political upstarts while entrenching incumbent politicians. Firstly, the political parties law effectively allows party leaders to write the rules on how they are selected, so leadership rarely changes unless the leaders vacate their seats. Erdogan and Bahceli have been at their parties’ helms for more than two decades, while Kilicdaroglu has been in his seat for over eleven years and counting. His predecessor, Deniz Baykal, had a similarly long tenure that started in the early 1990s and ended only after he was involved in a sex tape scandal with his former chief of staff. Even then, replacing him required a fierce political battle, and Baykal still holds his seat in the parliament, despite having been left half-paralyzed after a debilitating stroke. In the MHP, Bahceli blocked the leadership elections for over two years to prevent a challenge from the dissidents led by Aksener, who ultimately left and started their own splinter party, the Good Party.

Secondly, Turkey has perhaps the most unfair electoral system in the world. The country tallies its elections using the “d’Hondt method,” which makes it easier to form fairly stable governments as it neither favors the top scorer nor gives minority parties disproportionate bargaining power. At the same time, it enforces a 10 percent national barrier that is higher than anywhere else in the world. Under this system, a party needs more than 5 million votes to enter the parliament. Hence, most voters prefer larger parties over smaller ones because of worries that their votes might be wasted, as happened in 2002, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) received only one-third of the overall vote but won two-thirds of the seats in the parliament because 46 percent of the votes were cast for parties that failed to clear the threshold (two of which fell short by only about 1 percent).

Lastly, it is difficult for smaller parties even to enter elections. To be eligible, a party has to have offices in more than half of the country’s 81 provinces or more than 20 deputies in the parliament, which they should have entered either on another ticket or as an independent. To circumvent these challenges, parties have devised creative workarounds. The HDP’s support was concentrated in 12 provinces in the Kurdish-majority southeast, so its candidates won their races as independents and later regrouped inside the parliament. In contrast, the Good Party literally borrowed 15 deputies from the CHP to enter its first elections. In 2018, Turkey officially legalized the formation of multiparty electoral blocs, which opened up space for political cross-pollination—and for the rebirth of the TIP.

When the TIP was officially reborn in 2017 out of a split in the TKP, it appeared destined for the same fate as more than a dozen fringe parties on the left, whose activity is mostly limited to university councils, wall posters, and protest marches. What made the difference was Erkan Bas’s entry into the parliament on the HDP ticket. A lifelong activist who rose to become the TKP’s chairman, Bas was already a figure whose personal popularity outshone his party’s. While in the parliament, he managed to win over Atay and Sik, both political neophytes who developed reputations and fanbases as anti-establishment figures and did not blend in with the HDP, which had shifted to a more hard-line stance after the charismatic leader of the party’s moderate wing, Selahattin Demirtas, was imprisoned.

Kadigil was less of a misfit. At least, so she appeared. She had gained prominence as a defense lawyer in some high-profile cases the government opened against key opposition figures, secured a leadership position with the CHP’s women’s organization, and had been steadily rising in the party since. Reading between the lines of Kadigil’s resignation, however, indicates that the party’s glass ceiling proved too thick to crack. It is not a coincidence that Kadigil cited as a key factor for her decision the sense of duty she feels toward the legacy of Behice Boran, the ex-TIP chair and the first woman to lead a political party in Turkey. The CHP is a deeply fractious party divided into fiefdoms among feuding factions based on ethnic, regional, or sectarian ties. This power game often excludes women. Despite recent measures such as gender quotas and the appointment of a female secretary-general, the CHP’s leadership remains dominated by men. Only 4 of its 15 vice chairs and about 10 percent of its deputies are women. Even Erdogan’s AKP has almost double the percentage of women deputies than the supposedly progressive CHP.

The party’s proponents believe the quartet’s personal popularity, combined with the country’s economic downturn and authoritarian drift, can spark a grassroots left-wing movement, reflecting a global trend in the same direction, and create a formidable force in both defeating Erdogan and determining what comes after him. Achieving this potential, however, will require clearing some significant hurdles. First, the TIP must find a way of striking a chord with Generation Z, which polls show to be overwhelmingly opposed to the Erdogan regime. Second, it has to win support from the working classes, large swaths of which are religiously conservative and dependent on the AKP’s welfare machine. Third, it must convince the left-wing factions of CHP and the HDP that it is a viable alternative to their current parties. A key variable here is whether Erdogan can manage to pull away from the nationalists and rekindle his relationship with the Kurds. Earlier this week, Erdogan visited Diyarbakir, the HDP’s stronghold, for the first time in three years, and signaled his openness to relaunch his failed campaign to broker peace with the Kurds. The mere talk of such a prospect, however, has already divided the HDP. If it does come true, many of the party faithful might not take kindly to such a realignment, and the TIP would be a likely haven for those disgruntled Kurds.

This will all be easier said than done. The political ground is a challenge by itself. The Turkish electorate skews right, the left is highly divided, and building the infrastructure the party would need to secure a place in the political arena will require time, money, and energy. The Erdogan regime’s vindictiveness also presents a barrier. If the party is too aggressive against the president, Erdogan will demonize its members as radicals and use his presidential powers to crack down on them. If the party is more passive, it is unlikely to gain the traction it hopes from the angry masses. Furthermore, the TIP will also have to be careful not to fracture the existing opposition alliance by antagonizing its conservative factions. AKP renegades like Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu or nationalist politicians like Aksener will be loath to be seen as embracing a communist-sympathizing party.

These divisions can surface as the opposition picks its candidate against Erdogan. According to the polls, the Good Party’s Aksener and two recently elected opposition mayors, Ankara’s Mansur Yavas and Istanbul’s Ekrem Imamoglu, are the only figures with a chance of winning against Erdogan. Two of the three, Aksener and Yavas, are dissident nationalists with a history of anti-communist activism, while Imamoglu is a pragmatist who shares Erdogan’s hometown roots and belongs in the same power networks as he does, which was a key reason behind his surprise victory. Given Turkey’s demographics, it is unlikely that the opposition’s leftist factions can field a viable candidate. But they can acquire sufficient support to wield de facto veto power over the collective opposition.

If the opposition looks in disarray as a result, that would be fodder to Erdogan’s winning argument: No matter how bad he is, the alternative is much worse. Many believe that the presidential elections in 2023 will be the opposition’s last exit before the bridge to outright authoritarianism. If it gets caught in a fight over who controls the steering wheel, Turkey might miss its off-ramp to political normalcy.

Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University.

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