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Is Turkey’s opposition becoming loyal to an increasingly authoritarian political system?

President Erdoğan invited the CHP and MHP to meet to discuss steps to be taken in the wake of the coup. The HDP, as at the rally, was excluded.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu leader of Republican People's Party (CHP) delivers a speech during a Democracy and Martyrs' Rally in Istanbul, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Emrah Gurel / Press Association. All rights reserved.As the implications of last month’s coup attempt continue to shake Turkey, opposition-government relations in the country are undergoing a complete shift. While much attention has been cast on how rapprochement between the opposition and the AKP has created an atmosphere of unity in Turkey that could dissolve social polarization, little attention has been cast on the negative implications this may have.

On Sunday, a ‘democracy and martyrs rally’ was held in Istanbul. In addition to the AKP government and President Erdoğan, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) accepted Erdoğan’s invitation and attended. Controversially, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the pro-Kurdish opposition, was excluded. The party won slightly over 10 per cent of the vote last November and holds more parliamentary seats than the MHP. The CHP criticized the party’s exclusion but this did not prevent it from attending and it did not bring up the exclusion during the event.

Preceding the rally, President Erdoğan invited the CHP and MHP to a meeting at the presidential palace, where the steps to be taken in the wake of the coup were discussed. The HDP, as at the rally, was again excluded. This meeting and the rally have demonstrated that, even if the thawing of relations between the AKP and the opposition might lead to political consensus, it is at the expense of the HDP and strictly tied to of a new, post-coup political order.

During the rally, both the CHP and the MHP embraced the AKP’s rhetoric of singling out the Gülen movement as responsible for the coup as well as the undemocratic practices that have taken place in the country during the AKP’s tenure. While the MHP has clearly supported the AKP in most significant disputes since the breakdown of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) peace process last July, the CHP’s transition is a newer phenomenon.

Democratic erosion

At the rally, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu emphasized 12 points the party sees as necessary for Turkey to overcome its political tensions. His call included strengthening democracy in the country, the separation of mosque and state, upholding the rule of law and freedom of press.

Interestingly, in none of these points did the CHP leader target the government or President Erdoğan directly. With regard to the deterioration of the principles it promoted at the rally, the CHP has always attributed blame to the ruling party, as the main opposition party for the last 14 years. While references were made to the deterioration of rule of law and democracy in the country, these developments were not now attributed to the ruling party.

Moreover, no mentions were made of Erdoğan’s overriding of the legal boundaries of the office of president. The corruption allegations against AKP ministers, which have been a primary topic used by the CHP in all of its campaigns since the issue came to the forefront in late 2013, were also not mentioned in its discussion of the need to uphold the rule of law.  Although it is understandable that the CHP attended the rally to demonstrate its support for Turkey’s freely elected government and democratic regime, a strong, pro-democracy stance requires acknowledging that recent events are part of a wider framework of democratic erosion in the country. 

Beyond the rally, although the CHP objected the implementation of emergency law and rejected the bill sanctioning it in parliament alongside the HDP, it has made no significant criticisms as a party following its implementation. Where criticisms have been made, they were raised by lower-rank members of the party or in reference to specific cases rather than on violations of rule of law in the post-coup order more generally.

The toning down the CHP’s criticisms against the AKP and Erdoğan dates back to April, when the party supported the AKP’s instalment of a temporary article into the Turkish constitution paving the way for the stripping of parliamentary immunities. In a rather surprising move, leader Kılıçdaroğlu said his party would vote in favour of the article despite acknowledging it as unconstitutional. He said the party would support the measure to prevent the AKP from holding a referendum and scoring points over the issue, an explanation which did not convince many, including many deputies who voted against the bill, defying the party line.

The temporary article was a one-off measure to strip deputies about whom proceedings were ongoing at the time of the article’s adoption, a move criticized as highly selective. It put 138 politicians, the vast majority belonging to the CHP and HDP, at risk of prosecution.

Semi-opposition?

Given their recent track record, what role might opposition parties play in a new, post-coup political order in Turkey?

So far, Turkey’s post-coup politics seems to be defined by the total exclusion of the HDP and the attribution of blame for all the country’s ills to the Gülen movement, without attributing blame or holding the AKP and President Erdoğan to account for their role in facilitating the infiltration of the Turkish state by Gülenists or the erosion of democracy.

Having toned down their criticisms of the government and president and embracing their framing of recent events, Turkish mainstream opposition parties are in danger of acting as a semi-opposition: a group not represented in the governing group but willing to participate in state institutions without fundamentally challenging the authoritarian character of its politics. This is worrying at a time in which human rights have been suspended and the AKP and President Erdoğan, who have already demonstrated an unwillingness to let go of power following last June’s elections, are further consolidating their grip on the state.

Practising presidency

While the concept of semi-opposition, also known as loyal opposition, derives from the study of hegemonic authoritarian regimes, such as Francoist Spain and Salazar’s Portugal, it is also applicable to more open forms of autocracy, such as Putin’s Russia. Russia always provides an interesting case of comparison with Turkey. Erdoğan and the AKP have repeatedly expressed their desire to transition to a presidential system with a strong executive, resembling the Russian system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the state of emergency has allowed the cabinet, chaired by the president, to issue decrees, a move critics say could allow Erdoğan to put into practice the presidential system he envisions before its implementation.

Following the end of Russia’s days under Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin emerged as his successor. At the time of Yeltsin’s weakening, Russian opposition parties were factions vying for power. As in Turkey’s post-coup order, a series of factors imposed consensus on the Russian opposition. While the re-vitalized war in Chechnya enabled Putin to generate consensus around a national security issue, he was also able to revitalize the Russian state in a way that intimidated the opposition and imposed on them an acceptance of the new, Putin-led political order.

The way the coup attempt has created consensus around a national security question and legitimized enhanced state powers bears a worrying resemblance to the Russian case. Moreover, the AKP’s reclamation of its electoral support last November, in an election deemed free although not fair, coupled with the government’s new found popularity following the coup attempt, raises serious questions as to how capable the opposition is of any future revitalisation.

It is difficult to forecast how the opposition will behave in the future; any analyst of Turkish politics knows that consistency is not the norm. However, it is beyond doubt that the opposition’s weak stance against the exclusion of a parliamentary party from national dialogue or the violation of constitutional norms is not promising for the future prospects of Turkey’s democracy.

A pro-peace, anti-war demonstrator, wearing a badge of the HDP with an image of its leader, listens to Demirtas’ speech during a pro-peace rally, August, 2015. Lefteris Pitarakis /Press Association. All rights reserved.


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