Turkey’s Opposition Lost to Erdogan, Then It Lost Its Mind
Since the June election, the country’s various opposition parties have collapsed into chaos, leaving the president without a credible challenger.
ince June 24, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated his thirteenth consecutive electoral victory, his opponents have been in a headfirst free fall. Their sad state captures the fundamental problem of Turkish politics: The opposition is out of ideas and lacking in inspiration and its leaders care more about keeping their seats than keeping their country afloat.
The opposition is out of ideas and lacking in inspiration and its leaders care more about keeping their seats than keeping their country afloat.
Turkey’s opposition went into the June presidential and parliamentary elections with a sense of urgency. In April 2017, Erdogan had won a narrow victory in a constitutional referendum that reduced parliament to a formality and opened the path for the imperial presidency he had long coveted. As a young mayor, Erdogan had ominously compared democracy to a tram that he could simply ride until his destination and then step off. With his latest victory, it seems like the proverbial tram of democracy has finally arrived at Erdogan’s stop.
As this year’s campaign season kicked off, many Turks had the feeling that a change was afoot. The opposition fought off Erdogan’s gambit to push them out of contention by adding to their ranks Meral Aksener’s Good Party (IYI)—which broke away from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) after the latter allied itself with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the months before the election, the opposition alliance managed to rise above their differences and come together in their shared desire to oust Erdogan. The alliance brought together secularists, nationalists, conservatives, and liberals who, under ordinary circumstances, would have never joined forces.
They even found a David to challenge Erdogan’s Goliath in the form of Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince, a former physics teacher whose folksy charm, sharp-tongued wit, and straight-talking style proved to be the rare match for Erdogan’s political savvy. Ince’s tireless campaigning, spirited speeches, and bridge-building message won him many fans. His eleventh-hour campaign marathon in Turkey’s three largest metropolises drew more than a million supporters abuzz with optimism that victory was nigh.
With the first exit polls, the opposition’s high hopes came crashing down. They had been confident that they would at least keep Erdogan below 50 percent and force a runoff; instead, Erdogan won with 52.5 percent of the votes. Ince received almost 31 percent and the other two opposition candidates combined for less than 16 percent.
In retrospect, taking on Erdogan was always an honorable but doomed effort. The opposition groups were up against insurmountable odds. Erdogan used every advantage of incumbency; he had all the state’s resources at his disposal and the media was almost entirely under his control.
Former President Abdullah Gul, who was mulling a run, dropped out after Turkey’s top general showed upat his doorstep. Even though Gul insists that it was simply a courtesy visit, it is difficult to escape the impression that he was hectored out of the race. For other candidates, the pressure was even more overt. Aksener saw mayors block her convoys with garbage trucks and cut power to her rallies. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, who is detained on trumped-up terrorism charges, led his campaign from behind bars. In such circumstances, an opposition victory was as impossible a task as boring a tunnel with a teaspoon.
Since the election, the broad-based opposition alliance that coalesced around Ince has collapsed.
Among opposition voters, patience has worn thin. They want to see heads roll, starting from the very top—and no one will be spared their wrath.
For secularists, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has become the bête noire. Kilicdaroglu has been the leader of the main opposition party since 2010. Last month’s election is the ninth lost under his watch, and it seems like he has finally run out of sympathy.
Also in the crosshairs are two of his many vice chairs: Bulent Tezcan and Onursal Adiguzel. Tezcan drew scorn for prematurely announcing on election night that there would be a runoff vote, which proved to be incorrect. Adiguzel, a young hotshot once viewed as one of the party’s rising stars, was in charge of the party’s much-touted online election monitoring platform—a live-stream network from voting stations across the country that was designed to prevent electoral fraud and provide an alternative information channel—that crashed less than an hour into election night, never to recover.
Ince’s allies were hopeful that he could ride the wave of his presidential candidacy to defeat Kilicdaroglu in a rematch of last February’s competition to take the party’s helm, which Ince lost, but that will be an uphill battle because Kilicdaroglu’s fate will be decided by the “superdelegates” he himself has chosen.