To be or not to be: the future of opposition in post-referendum Turkey

In post-referendum Turkey, it is not just Erdoğan and his supporters but the opposition as well who refuse to recognize their adversaries as legitimate – an explosive formula.

Halil Gurhanli
22 April 2017
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Turkish Opposition Party Republican People's Party (CHP) Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu attends a "NO" campaign meeting on March 28, 2017, in Kocaeli, three weeks ahead of the referendum on an executive presidency.Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved.The most significant result of the April 16 referendum in Turkey seems to be that noone but the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters accepts it. As predicted, the referendum has yielded controversial results after extremely unfair and suspicious processes of campaigning, voting and counting. The official results declare a narrow win for Erdoğan’s ‘yes’ camp to legally cement his one-man regime: but external observers and opposition state that up to 2.5 million votes could have been manipulated as a result of a blatantly illegal decision by the High Electoral Board (YSK).

All the opposition parties, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the opposition wing of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), contest the results and, thereby, question the very legitimacy of Erdoğan rule as well as the regime he wants to impose. Spontaneous rallies of mass protest calling for the referendum to be annulled continue in several cities. So do the arrests of those protesting. This means that in post-referendum Turkey, it is not just Erdoğan and his supporters but the opposition as well who refuse to recognize their adversaries as legitimate. This is an explosive formula because the referendum has carried the toxic polarization in Turkey to a whole new level where now everyone considers politics an existential battle that only one side can survive. In Turkey now everyone considers politics an existential battle that only one side can survive.

Nevertheless, the referendum has left the opposition at a historic crossroads: will they simply cease the struggle now that the YSK has rejected their appeals, or will they keep the fight going through whichever means is available? This is identical to the question about whether they will keep acting as if Turkey were even a nominally democratic country. Their answer to those questions will simultaneously determine whether they will gradually wither away from the Turkish political scene.

It is about time that they realize there is no room for any real opposition in Erdoğan’s new Turkey, which can be neatly summed up in a principle with eerie historical connotations: “one nation, one flag, one state, one man.” An entire society will have to be reorganized accordingly, so the opposition no longer has the luxury of playing by its rules but has to fight, tooth and nail, for survival. There is no pleasant way out of this any more.

But does the opposition act as if they realized how dire the situation is? In a press conference held the day after the referendum, despite calling for annulment of the results, the CHP spokesperson Bülent Tezcan sidestepped a very direct question: What will CHP do if the YSK rejects the objections? This is the crux of the matter. Will the party finally divert from the usual path of bending backwards every time it confronts Erdoğan’s will, as in the so-called "parliamentary oath crisis" in 2011, and controversies surrounding Ankara municipal elections and presidential elections in 2014?

In all those and numerous other instances, the CHP failed to hold its ground in the face of abject violations of the law. Instead, the party got humiliated, ate its words and succumbed to Erdoğan's will. This has led to a pessimism that the opposition does not have what it takes to compete in the game of politics Erdoğan so cunningly plays. Such toothless opposition is precisely the reason why there has been an overwhelming agreement, even within his own party, that the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu lacks the very quality of leadership to translate their mass anger and frustration into political action, and stand as a viable alternative to Erdoğan. Alas, it is largely up to him to make a choice for the entire opposition, for the MHP has practically committed suicide by acting as Erdoğan’s fifth column, and the HDP remains incapacitated since it has became the target of Erdoğan’s wrath after costing him the June 2015 elections.

Post-referendum, there seem to be two paths lying before the opposition. The first is  ‘business as usual’, where legal avenues are exhausted and heavy words of protest are uttered. This path, at best, would result in a favourable ruling obtained from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – a court with no capacity to enforce its decisions with Erdoğan under no obligation to abide by them. Ultimately, this would have a similar effect to that of the OSCE report, providing factual bases for the moral condemnation of the Turkish government. It would, however, fall short of accomplishing much else.

Predictably, such a decision would be music to Erdoğan’s ears, who would quickly dismiss it as yet another futile attempt by Turkey’s internal and external enemies to hamper the country’s unstoppable rise, as he has already done with the OSCE report. As far as the opposition is concerned, this would give credence to the suspicion that the CHP leadership has been secretly hoping for a two-party parliament where they could play the part of the opposition in a fake theatre of “pluralist democracy” for as long as possible. In the end, this option would likely turn Turkey into a country akin to Azerbaijan or Belarus, where opposition figureheads nobody knows the names of take part in sham elections nobody even bothers to follow, which serve the purpose of maintaining the democratic façade nobody actually believes in. Sadly, this seems like the most probable scenario at the moment.

The second path for the opposition is to refuse playing defensive anymore and initiate an offensive act through passive disobedience. This could be displayed most clearly and effectively by boycotting the parliament all together and, preferably, resigning en masse from the posts of MP. Since the regime, ‘legalized’ through the referendum, renders the parliament an impotent branch with no real legislative power or capacity to scrutinize the President, attending that theatre amounts to granting it legitimacy. Protecting the dignity of their position as the legitimate representatives of the people would paradoxically require members of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to renounce that very office.

Under current circumstances, protecting the dignity of their position as the legitimate representatives of the people would paradoxically require members of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to renounce that very office. Hereupon, every single day spent in that capacity degrades the parliament further into a mere rubberstamp for Erdoğan’s wishes and his arbitrary use of power, for its sole purpose now is to reproduce that power by providing him with a transparent cover of ‘democratic legitimacy.’ In contrast, the act of resignation would be one of respect for the sanctity of parliament as the ultimate embodiment of democratic popular sovereignty. It would, nonetheless, undermine the legitimacy of the regime itself, depriving Erdoğan of a much-needed seal of approval to maintain the collective lie that Turkey is a democratic country where the rule of law still exists.

The CHP spokeperson Selin Sayer Böke has already hinted that such an act is on the cards. However, CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu and his clique were predictably quick to dismiss her statement in no uncertain terms, suggesting that the current leadership is determined not to go down that road: ‘We have no intention to withdraw from the Parliament, where the people have sent us to be present and defend their rights against this election fraud.’ It would be shameful of CHP leadership to deny the party and overall “no” camp that chance because, if maintained decisively, such an act has the potential to unite Turkey’s fragmented opposition behind a single and simple demand for the annulment of the referendum, suspending their mutual differences for a while. Meral Akşener, de facto leader of the MHP’s opposition wing, has already declared her determination to keep the ultra-nationalist electorate focused on the dubious referendum results, and dismissed rumours that a new nationalist right-wing party of hers was in the making. Statements from the HDP also indicate that the party is committed to taking all sorts of non-violent acts to get the referendum results annulled. It is against a possible emergence of such unity that Erdoğan revived the spectre of the death penalty as a pre-emptive attack in his “victory” speech.

It is against a possible emergence of such unity that Erdoğan has revived the spectre of the death penalty as a pre-emptive attack in his “victory” speech, which could drive a wedge between the opposition parties. Thus, it would be crucial to protect this fading and fragile unity firmly behind the singular demand for the annulment of referendum and remain resilient in the face of Erdoğan’s familiar salvos that are likely to arrive in future, up to and including calling snap elections. Contrary to the claims of some well-meaning voices within the CHP leadership, the point of such passive disobedience is not to go to elections but to score an undeniable victory against Erdoğan by imposing a democratic red line and making him take back his referendum that has blatantly violated that line. This is about scoring one vital goal in a rigged game on an uneven field that is overseen by vastly partial referees while missing several of your key players. It falls pathetically short of winning the game: but it makes you think for a moment that it is somehow possible.

Moreover, a resignation en masse could harness genuine support from outside the country as well. Having witnessed the AKP government’s gradual and methodical policy of annihilating any real source of opposition to its absolute rule at least since the Gezi Protests in June 2013, those who genuinely value the future of Turkey have long been declaring support and sympathy for the country’s democratic opposition, but failing (or not feeling obliged) to do anything more than that.

While paying lip service to the principles of democracy and human rights, western governments have kept their co-operation with the Erdoğan regime intact, granting it international legitimacy as well as unlimited access to global markets, which are essential to maintaining those thoroughly corrupt crony capitalist networks it is built upon. Rendering the illusion of “democratic Turkey” impossible to maintain, such a peaceful yet radical act carries the potential of strengthening the hands of those groups outside Turkey, enabling them to put much more pressure on decision-makers to actually do something effective before all is lost. Some have already declared the Republic of Turkey dead.

In such dire circumstances, symbolically charged, democratic acts of protest by leading figures of the opposition (not only a resignation en masse but also even more spectacular deeds such as chaining oneself to the doors of YSK building) could prove enormously powerful in articulating the combined and often conflicting feelings of impotence, frustration, anger and defiance that are prevalent among a major part of the population.

In the absence of any other actor with enough resources to galvanize a significant opposition movement, it is largely up to the CHP leadership whether to take a leap of faith into the unknown and abandon their relative safety by committing a truly democratic and political act. This is definitely a risky and even borderline suicidal act, especially under draconian laws of the state of emergency. But anything short of that would amount to a slow, humiliating death for all the opposition parties anyway.Anything short of that would amount to a slow, humiliating death for all the opposition parties anyway.

Avoiding confrontation and keeping it at the level of a courteous contest within the limits and according to the rules of the game imposed by Erdoğan has evidently failed in the face of an opponent who never hesitates in playing dirty to get his way no matter what. This is simply not a viable option any more. Direct and spectacular acts that seek to unite opposition and mobilize the masses towards making a truly democratic appearance, on the other hand, offer a slim chance.

Unfortunately this is the only chance opposition in Turkey has now. Although as the leader of the main opposition party he occupies the most advantageous position to seize it, Kılıçdaroğlu, like his predecessor Deniz Baykal, seems determined to go down in the pages of history as yet another feckless leader. His deep fear of making any mistakes stops him from taking a turn at a critical juncture and, instead, keeps everyone on that tragically familiar path down to certain annihilation, without even putting up a decent fight. What little hope that remains lies in those who would put up that fight against and despite him.

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