In April 2017, Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, won a narrow victory in a constitutional referendum that reduced the country’s parliament to a formality and opened the path for the imperial presidency Erdogan long coveted. With Erdogan suddenly announcing last week that the presidential elections initially scheduled for November 2019 will be held this June instead, Turkey has entered the fast lane toward autocracy, and is about to blow by the country’s last exit.
Turkey today is run under Erdogan’s executive fiat on all matters, grand and mundane. From the ideal number of foreign-born players on soccer squads, to whether tinted car windows are a threat to public safety, to whether TV dating shows should be allowed, there is no issue Erdogan has not weighed in on.
Many rightly fear that an Erdogan victory in the upcoming election will likely be the coup de grace to Turkey’s secular, democratic republic. Thus, since the 2017 elections, opposition-minded Turks have been in a frantic search for the David to Erdogan’s Goliath. The outlook is far from rosy. Erdogan is a charismatic figure with savvy political instincts, a gift for oratory, and a formidable campaign machine. His opponents are divided, dysfunctional, and in disarray.
The insurmountable challenge facing opposition members is that they have a repeal-and-replace problem. Erdogan’s opponents are united in their desire to replace him, but are divided in their visions of what shall come next. As the 2017 referendum showed, a united opposition does have the potential to send him packing. Even with all the stops pulled out, Erdogan barely won 50 percent, and if one is to believe the claims he didn’t win fair and square, even that much is in doubt.
Turkey’s Flailing Opposition
The protectionist nature of Turkey’s electoral system is part of the problem. To enter the parliament, parties have to receive at least 10 percent of the ballots cast. The so-called 10 percent threshold––which translates to around five million votes––is the highest of its kind around the world, and leaves newcomers facing insurmountable difficulties. A new entrant has to both build a political machine that would reach out to millions of voters, and then overcome their fears that the party won’t clear the bar and their ballots will be wasted.
Such worries are not misplaced. When Erdogan first rose to power, his party had won only one-third of the vote. Factoring in the turnout rate, only a quarter of eligible voters had cast their ballot for Erdogan. Yet his party received two-thirds of the parliament seats, because only two parties cleared the threshold.
A system like Turkey’s favors legacy parties and base-friendly politics. Grand maneuvers to reach across the aisle carry the potential for high returns, but also high risk. If they succeed, they can carry a party to power. If they fail, they can push a party out of the parliament. Hence, it is the reason why the four parties currently in the parliament are strongly ideological—Islamist (Erdogan’s AKP), secular (Republican People’s Party, CHP), Turkish nationalist (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP), and Kurdish nationalist (Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP)—and their dislike for one another is as potent as the one they share for Erdogan.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that a decade and a half of one defeat after another had left the opposition parties on their last legs. A sudden schism among Turkish nationalists, however, led to some reconfigurations that gave the opposition a jolt of life. At the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a mass of party elders mutinied against the septuagenarian Devlet Bahceli’s tepid, two-decade tenure and rallied behind Meral Aksener, deputy speaker of the parliament and a former cabinet minister. As Bahceli dug in his heels and pulled his party ever closer to Erdogan, who Bahceli had recently endorsed for president, his opponents start leaving en masse, and eventually formed their own party, IYI, a pun on the Turkish word for “good,” and took five parliament seats with them—short of the twenty seats required to form a caucus, but enough to give them a voice.
Meanwhile, the pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) kept things together with duct tape and baling wire. The former was divided between progressives wanting to move the party further to the left and the secular-nationalist old guard pulling it ever closer to the center. HDP was marred by a similar fight between left-wing activists trying to change it into a mainstream-left party, and Kurdish ethno-nationalists, who viewed and treated it as the political wing of the outlawed terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Indeed, HDP’s inability to come out of the PKK’s shadow eroded its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas’s popularity among urban, upper-middle-class, non-Kurdish voters and gave Erdogan the license he needed to come at the party with full force. Most of HDP’s leadership is currently behind bars—its co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are facing trial in more than one hundred different cases, and facing over one hundred years in jail.
If the opposition is to win, its leaders need to come up with a grand bargain that allows them to unite and rally behind one name. Until recently, it was a mere fantasy to expect that they can: like false messiahs, they all proclaimed themselves as Turkey’s sole redeemer. Events of the past few weeks, however, changed the game in ways no one could have anticipated.
Why Erdogan Snapped
The thinly veiled motive behind the sudden decision to reschedule the elections was to block IYI from participating in them. Parties are only allowed to participate in elections if they have opened offices in more than half of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces at least six months before the date of the election, or if they have formed a caucus in the parliament, which requires at least twenty seats. By pulling the vote up earlier, Erdogan was trying to put IYI out of contention, which Turkey’s electoral regulators had confirmed immediately after the announcement.
The trick, however, proved too clever by half. On Sunday, April 22, in a move that was as bold as it was rare, the main opposition party CHP announced that fifteen of its members of parliament were resigning to join IYI, giving it enough seats to form a caucus and enter the elections. It was, by every measure, a historic moment. Most of the resignees were party stalwarts. Many had been in its ranks for decades. Some even had tears in their eyes as their names were announced.
IYI’s Aksener was lavish in her praise of CHP and its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. “The action Mr. Kilicdaroglu took is beyond all praise,” said Aksener, extolling his move as “historic.” In stark contrast, Erdogan and his allies were furious. MHP’s vice-chair described it as the birth of a “dirty alliance” while AKP’s spokesperson called it an “act of political dishonesty.”
A second challenge to Erdogan came from where he least expected it: his political birthplace, the pro-Islamist Felicity (Saadet) Party. Erdogan’s AKP was a splinter from Saadet, and as the former grew more powerful, the latter’s more traditionalist brand of political Islam fell out of favor. It currently holds no seats in parliament and hasn’t held one since the early 2000s. Over the last year, however, Saadet has been on the rise. Under its new chair, Temel Karamollaoglu, an octogenarian who is one of the few surviving members of Turkey’s first-generation Islamists, Saadet re-emerged as one of Erdogan’s most courageous critics. Unlike his predecessors, Karamollaoglu has also shown an uncharacteristic willingness, if elected, to reach across the aisle, as evidenced by his alliance talks with CHP and IYI.
A common expectation among Turkey observers was that Saadet would challenge Erdogan’s rule with ex-president Abdullah Gul as a candidate. Such rumors have persisted ever since Gul and Erdogan fell out after the former publicly criticized the latter’s heavy-handed crackdown on the Gezi protests in summer 2013, but then three elections came and went with no movement. So far, Gul has been more like the Godot of Turkish politics: his figure absent when needed, acquiescent when present; his voice tepid at best, equivocal at worst. Nonetheless, it was widely believed that if he were to throw his hat in the ring, he would be able to rally the opposition behind him and perhaps finally manage to bring Erdogan down. When his name started circulating, however, it became apparent that his brand was damaged beyond repair. The nausea at having to pin their hopes on a man who, as president, was little more than a rubber stamp for Erdogan proved too much for the opposition voters to stomach.
Who Will It Be?
Earlier this week, the pro-secular CHP, Turkish-nationalist IYI, and pro-Islamist Saadet officially announced that they will be entering the elections as an alliance bloc, not only marking an interesting moment in Turkish politics but also opening the path for a change of strategy. For some time, much of the speculation over the opposition candidate against Erdogan revolved around the assumption that the only path to victory against Erdogan was with a candidate that all of Erdogan’s opponents can rally around, someone who would be a recognizable name but wouldn’t carry any political baggage; someone who would win support from Turks, Kurds, seculars, and conservatives alike, but also offer something more than simply not being Erdogan. Having the resolve, resources, and reputation to survive Erdogan’s dark arts of electioneering would also be a must.
Finding such a person, if one exists, was not any easier than hunting for unicorns. The opposition coalition, however, has since abandoned those plans, instead having each party nominate its own candidate in the first round and force a runoff by keeping Erdogan from reaching the needed 50 percent. Their consensus seems to be that the ideal path for such an outcome would be for each party to nominate its candidate and run its independent campaign, with the tacit understanding that, in the case of a runoff, all parties would unite around whoever had received the most votes in the initial election.
The IYI official who spoke to me for this piece described Meral Aksener’s nomination as a “near certainty.” With Gul pulling himself out of contention, Saadet, too, is expected to nominate its chairman, Karamollaoglu. In the main opposition party CHP, however, there is still no agreement on who will be the party’s nominee. Names that have been floated so far range from secular hardliners like Ilker Basbug, a former chief of the general staff; to Ugur Dundar, a popular television anchorman; and to progressive darlings such as Riza Turmen, a former justice of the European Court of Human Rights, and Umit Boyner, a retail millionaire who was one of Erdogan’s most outspoken critics during her tenure as the president of Turkey’s business lobby.
According to the CHP official who first spoke for this piece on Monday, April 22, the competition was down to two: the centrists were pushing for Ilhan Kesici, a bureaucrat-turned-politician who is a consummate insider of Ankara’s power circles, and the progressives insisted on Yilmaz Buyukersen, a college-president-turned-city-mayor who transformed Eskisehir from a sleepy university town into one of Turkey’s cultural meccas, earning plaudits from friends and foes alike. At the time, Kesici was said to have a slight edge over Buyukersen, with the final decision expected to be announced by Wednesday, April 25. It has been over a week since then and CHP is yet to declare its nominee, and is not expected to do so until Friday, which is the filing deadline for all candidates. In a follow-up conversation, the same CHP official intimated that the gap between the centrists and the progressives proved too wide to bridge, leading the party leadership to seek a compromise candidate that is agreeable to, if not desired by, them both. One such name is Muharrem Ince, a party stalwart who recently mounted a leadership challenge to Kilicdaroglu, but lost. A second name being mentioned is Abdullatif Sener, a professor-turned-bureaucrat who was one AKP’s co-founders and served as a deputy prime minister until he resigned in 2009, publicly accusing Erdogan of corruption.
Amid all this chaos and cacophony, Erdogan’s opponents are nonetheless feeling a rare tailwind that gives them a genuine, if cautious, hope that perhaps their luck is finally turning.