What now for the opposition in Turkey?

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Our co-editor Daniel W. Round recently wrote a piece on the state of Turkey’s opposition – including the left-ish HDP, another party with socialists in it – for EA WorldView. Here is a slightly edited version. 

These are difficult times for the opposition – and in particular, the Left – in Turkey. The country’s democracy has sharply deteriorated and civil liberties have been curbed in recent years. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently riding a jingoistic wave with successful operations for the Turkish military and its allies across the border in northern Syria.

Moreover, in February, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) struck a deal with the hard-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to form an electoral alliance ahead of the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. These are due to be held in November 2019, though could be brought forward if Erdogan feels like early elections. The President has dubbed the arrangement – which represents the culmination of the convergence between the two main right-wing parties since July 2016’s attempted coup – the “People’s Alliance”. At the last general election in November 2015, the combined AKP-MHP vote was over 60%…

So: what now for the opposition within the Turkish political system?

Uneasy strength…

Erdogan’s re-election may not be quite as assured as Vladimir Putin’s was in Russia this month, but it is certainly highly likely. Still, his party’s position is not one of undoubted strength. Despite all the talk of being formed in the “national interest”, the AKP-MHP alliance – also likely to include small, Islamo-nationalist Great Unity Party, or BBP – only exists because of the government’s electoral fatigue. Results in June 2015 when the AKP plunged to 40% in the polls, and in April 2017 when Erdogan only narrowly won the constitutional referendum, demonstrated that the President is not nearly as secure in power as his posturing suggests. Almost two years of post-coup purges and intense state propaganda has not produced the results that his government would have hoped for.

Meanwhile, the MHP worries that a recent split in its ranks – which ended up with the formation of a key new player on the right, Iyi (Good) Party – could leave it struggling to pass the 10% parliamentary threshold on its own.

…Vs. opposition weakness

But if the government and its allies are not in as strong a position as a first glance indicates, the opposition is weak in both appearance and reality. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), remains inflexibly wedded to the Turkish state’s stale founding ideology, Kemalism. It is unable to make serious inroads with the majority of the population, despite some attempts at reform.

Meanwhile, the pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has suffered from severe state repression over the last two years. The party’s leading figures, including the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, have been arrested. The government has replaced many of its regional party’s mayors in the Kurdish-majority southeast with caretaker administrators. Furthermore, Erdogan and his party take every opportunity to link the HDP with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), creating a hostile environment and hampering potential political solutions to a conflict which has lasted decades.

The HDP, so successful at the June 2015 election, now struggles to function as a normal opposition party and, from the government’s perspective, is containable. In response to the repression, and to the military’s operations against Kurds in both Turkey and Syria, the HDP’s message has shifted somewhat from its broad, popular, progressive offer in 2015 (women’s rights, environmentalism, etc.) towards traditional Kurdish nationalism. An arrangement with other parties (i.e. the CHP) is unlikely and polls suggest that the HDP will, like its predecessors, now struggle to maintain representation in the Grand National Assembly.

In addition, the battered Turkish labour movement is arguably facing the most hostile environment since military rule in the 1980s. It was bad enough before the attempted coup. Since, thousands of public sector workers, many of them active trade unionists, have been arrested and/or dismissed from their jobs. Rallies are frequently banned and those that do go ahead, such as a recent union-led protest in Istanbul against the military operations in northwest Syria, are often smashed by the police.

Opportunities

Despite all of this, some hope remains for opponents of the government. On International Women’s Day three weeks ago, thousands marched down Istanbul’s bustling commercial street Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) denouncing violence against women, demanding gender equality and chanting anti-government slogans. It was one of the biggest anti-government gatherings in the city since July 2016.

Those opposed to the government can also still draw upon the emboldening experiences of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the June 2015 election. These examples prove that it is possible to begin building broad, pluralistic coalitions in Turkey that are able to cut across traditional divisions of ethnicity and sect. While the space for effective opposition may have tightened since the coup attempt and subsequent crackdown, with the AKP scrambling to overcome electoral fatigue, the situation is far more fluid than appears on the surface. There remains a great deal of ill-feeling towards the government among large sections of society.

Opportunities will present themselves and challenges can be mounted. This is, after all, a time of both disruptive political realignment in Turkey and of deep uncertainty abroad and in the economy.

The question for the Left is: how best to organise a political challenge within a fragmented system?

For more analysis on the region: EA WorldView

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