Can Europe Make It?

Tough season for the Turkish opposition

Ekrem Imamoglu, if he wants to be next leader of the country, has to go far beyond the local election coalition of early 2019, and look for a new kind of social contract.

Ahmet Erdi Ozturk Fatih Ceran
9 August 2019
Mayoral election posters, Istanbul June 2019.
Mayoral election posters, Istanbul June 2019.
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Kommersant/PA. All rights reserved.

Turkey’s political landscape is likely to have an increased level of uncertainty. Despite the unprecedented power Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vested in himself through an a la Turca Presidential system,hisdomination over society and state structure seems to be wearing out as he fails to deliver on his promises. The injusticesintroduced into the system create frustration among certain groups in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)and facilitate coalition formation among opposition parties. Two separate party formations by his old comradesindicate that Erdoğan exercises less control over his party. It is timely to ask whether the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP),can seize this moment of opportunity.

It takes a potent leadership, convincing programme and experienced cadre to stand up to a charismatic leader like Erdoğan. Obviously, this oldest party of Turkish Republic has to change to do so, yet, it is known for remaining in the comfort of its ideological cocoon and giving a deaf ear to such challenges. And the problem is that its ideology has a limited appeal.

Success: only through change

Yet, ideologies and party programmes are not carved in stone, not even the CHP’s. Recently, the leadership of the party indicated that they have recognized the need for changeand nominated a not-quite-left mayor for Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, who won twice against Erdoğan’s not-quite-charismatic nominee, Binali Yıldırım. Indeed, Imamoğlu raced against Erdoğan indirectly, because Yıldırım was nowhere to be found in the election process while it was Erdoğan who ran the campaign himself. In Turkish socio-politics, Istanbul is regarded as a microcosm of the country and it is popularly believed that whoever wins in Istanbul at local elections will also win in the general electionsand rule the country. Such, after all, is the story of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Virgin territory for the CHP

Whoever leads the opposition coalition in Turkey will have to take advantage of three major opportunity spaces and pass the tests that they present. CHP, as the main opposition and the party of Ekrem İmamoğlu, is the most logical candidate for the job, at least for the time being.

The first test is about embracing the centre-right electorateand offering its elite a fair living spacewithout losing its left leaning secular voter base. This will require a fine-tuned and flexible discourse and programme that will necessarily make the charismatic leader a pragmatist. It is leaders who win elections in Turkey, not the ideologies directly, therefore the persona of the leader should step forward soon. If the CHP wants to utilize the momentum that the opposition gained in the local elections, it is almost imperative that the candidate will be İmamoğlu. The CHP leadership should keep in mind that despite recent frustration with Islamic/conservative politics in Turkey, the conservative, Sunni Islamic groups have already obtained much better access to state resources and bureaucratic positions. They also control a significant capital and market sharein many fields. They should be assured that CHP will not follow vindictive policies with regard these groups and will offer them a fair playground. Otherwise these groups will easily turn against the CHP even when it is the party in power and uniting their power in media and business with that of the bureaucracy, they could form an opposition alliance which will make things more difficult for the CHP. If the CHP fails to appeal to these socially and economically influential groups, it is likely that they will stick to AKP or any offshoot coming out of it.

Ekrem Imamoğlu has proved to be a good candidate for this inclusive embrace at local level in Istanbul. He has employed a reconciliatory political language between established secular CHP voters and the conservative-Islamists who are not happy with the AKP. This is how he won against the media empire and state resources that Erdoğan utilized. Yet, any analysis of his prospective nomination should also acknowledge separately the possible frustration of CHP’s secular, progressive and Alawite (non-Sunni) voter. If İmamoğlu fails to persuade CHP’s leftist voters to support his opening to the right in terms of both pragmatics and principles, he will most likely fail. For now, it is too early to claim that CHP has constructed a long-term strategy based on such a recognition. Furthermore, İmamoğlu will need a strong programme and cadre alongside a reconciliatory discourse. Again, for now, it is too early to claim that he has a state-level capacity for this kind of leadership.

Economy and law: double helix of survival

The economy is still the weakest link in AKP’s chainthat ties the AKP to power. Both the business circles and the laymen are demanding economic reforms, however, any sign of that remains to be seen. Any prospect of reform has to couple with transparency on state resources and restoration of rule of law, both of which are fundamentally inconsistentwith the current regime.

Therefore, even if CHP succeeds in emerging from its self-entrenched siege to win the elections, it will have to deal with economic wreckageand judicial ruin. So far, CHP has not offered anything convincing to the audience rather than meek criticism of AKP’s policies. Speaking of criticism, it also has to give up an essentially oppositional discourse, choosing a political language that really nominates itself for government. Perhaps, CHP has never been this close to power for decades. Yet, it lacks an elite team of economists that would take the country out of the slow-motion economic crisis that it has been going through for the last few years. Without such a team, election victory will be on a knife’s edge even if everything else is in place. To be persuasive, the CHP will also have to create conventional media outlets, minimally television channels, if it wants to reach out to a certain age group, i.e., the retired people who largely get their news from television.

How about the “opposition alliance”?

The coalition formed against Erdoğan for the local electionsin early 2019 included two other parties difficult to keep together for long. While Imamoglu and his CHP was primus inter pares, they cooperated with İyi Party, an explicitly Turkish nationalist party and the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). Since it was strategically vital for all three parties of the coalition, they buried the irreconcilable disagreements among them and moved along with a marriage of convenience. Yet, those issues will be much more determining in the general elections, since subject to contested policies at national level. Reconciling the ethnically driven HDP’s demands on Kurdish issue will not be easy with the priorities of a Turkish nationalist party led by a hawkish Meral Akşener.

The challenge is that Imamoglu, if he wants to be the next leader of the country, has to go far beyond the local election coalitionof early 2019, and look for a new kind of social contract which apart from economic solutions and the rule of law, would include proposals on burning issues such as accountability and transparency, discrimination, polarization and international isolation.

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