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Turkey: Opposition parties see hope in Erdogan's lira crisis, but many hurdles remain

With support for Erdogan and the AKP slipping, their rivals are seeking ways to put on a united front
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (2nd L), Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (C) and Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener (R) cross the July 15 Martyrs Bridge, known as the Bosphorus Bridge, in Istanbul on 7 November 2021 (AFP)

Two decades ago, a crippling economic crisis and a fractured political establishment unable to cope led to the ousting of Turkey's old guard and the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

At the time, the AKP was a new political movement that combined technocratic market economics with a pro-western foreign policy and socially conservative populism.

The party's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denounced double-digit inflation - consumer price inflation rocketed to 54.9 percent in 2001 - and called the rapid collapse of the lira a "national shame". Erdogan and his top team set about implementing economic reforms that upended the country's economy.

Almost 20 years later and the tables have turned dramatically: the orthodox economists who once praised now-president Erdogan's handling of Turkey's finances in the 2000s now look on in horror at his insistence on cutting interest rates even as the currency and inflation spiral out of control.

'I directed the CHP's 2019 campaign, but perhaps I had no influence. Maybe the candidates don't matter either.  Even if we did nothing, sociological change could be decisive'

- Ates Ilyas Bassoy, election strategist

The crisis has had an impact on the popularity of the president and the AKP government, and polling, though notoriously unreliable, has increasingly shown Turkey's once-fractured opposition parties collectively pulling ahead of the AKP.

At least one has even shown the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), on its own, ahead of the ruling party - something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

"The AKP has been in power for 19 years. In general, being in management for that long is reason enough for attrition," Ozer Sencar, director of MetroPoll, told Middle East Eye.

"However, the deterioration in the economy is seen and [understood] by the whole society. Although many factors are effective in the loss of votes, the main reason is the crisis in the economy."

He added that if the opposition could "produce a strong candidate, it can win the election".

The CHP, a centre-left secular-nationalist party, once derided as incompetent and out-of-touch by many voters and analysts, has in recent years managed to score a number of major electoral victories, even winning over sections of the public who might have never considered them in past.

They have also formed alliances, both official and tacit, with a wide spectrum of other opposition parties ranging from the centre-right nationalist Iyi Party, to the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), and the left-wing pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), seemingly bridging deep ideological chasms.

Now, many are asking the question: could the Turkish opposition finally be a real threat to the AKP?

'Erdogan can do it again'

Ates Ilyas Bassoy oversaw the election campaign of Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP's candidate for mayor of Istanbul who won a resounding victory in 2019 after the AKP forced a re-run of the elections, claiming voter fraud.

Though his campaign strategy - entitled "Radical Love" and emphasising positive messaging and outreach - has been cited as a key factor in Imamoglu's victory and the victory of CHP Ankara mayoral candidate Mansur Yavas the same year, Bassoy told Middle East Eye that fundamentally it was demographic change that had had the most impact.

'Second and third generation migrants do not feel like 'peasants' but 'urbanites'. As such, their ties with the AKP have weakened'

- Ates Ilyas Bassoy, election strategist

He said that the millions of formerly rural workers who emigrated to the city had formed the basis for the AKP's support, but that loyalty is not being passed onto their children. They grew up with a different set of community ties and expectations for their futures, and have been among those most heavily damaged by the economic crisis.

"Second and third generation migrants do not feel like 'peasants' but 'urbanites'. As such, their ties with the AKP have weakened," he explained.

"I directed the CHP's 2019 campaign, but perhaps I had no influence. Maybe the candidates don't matter either. Even if we did nothing, sociological change could be decisive."

Despite this, he said, there is no reason for the opposition to be overconfident and assume the next election, set to take place before 2023, was in the bag.

"There are 30 percent who support Erdogan under all circumstances. But it is certain that there is a meltdown in the votes. What is interesting is not the speed of this melting, but its slowness," Bassoy said. 

"The Turkish lira has lost half its value in a year. Seventy percent of the country complains of injustice and poverty. But if you have an unconditionally obedient 30 percent, you have very few people left to convince. Erdogan can do it again."

Reforming Kemalism

Since 2002, the CHP has been the main opposition party in Turkey.

Originally founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish republic, the CHP has held up the banner of what is known as "Kemalism", the mix of Turkish nationalism and secularism.

But while Ataturk remains widely venerated across the country, his political party has not.

With the exception of the first elections held directly after the transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy in 1945, the CHP has never won a majority in parliamentary elections.

'I don't think either the CHP or the electorate's perception of the party has changed fundamentally'

- Karabekir Akkoyunlu, International Relations Institute

Although it led a number of minority governments in the 70s under the charismatic left-winger Bulent Ecevit, the CHP was banned following the 1980 military coup and has largely taken a back seat in Turkish politics since reforming in 1992.

At its nadir, in the 1999 elections, the CHP ended up with no seats in parliament, failing to pass the 10 percent vote threshold imposed by the military after the 1980 coup.

Despite the fact that it has undergone numerous changes in the past nearly 100 years, the CHP still struggles to overcome lingering perceptions of the party due to some of its past positions.

The party has in the past advocated strict and often invasive secularism and long defended a ban, which was lifted in 2013, on women wearing headscarves in public buildings, including universities, something that put off many religious and liberal Turks. Notably, the CHP leadership no longer supports the ban on headscarves, however.

For the country's Kurdish community, meanwhile, the CHP's legacy as the architect of the Turkish state, and the often heavily exclusionary and deadly nationalism that came with it, has left an even more bitter taste in the mouth.

On the economy, right-wingers have for years attacked the CHP as rigidly statist, protectionist and hostile to the free market, while left-wingers criticised the party's unwillingness to adopt explicitly socialist policies in the face of western pressure, while supporting crackdowns on other leftist groups.

The election of Kemal Kilicdaroglu as leader in 2010 was intended to mark a turning point.

Since 1992, with the exception of two candidates who together served less than two years, the CHP had been run and dominated by Deniz Baykal.

Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R) speaks to former CHP leader and parliament speaker candidate Deniz Baykal (L) in 2015 (AFP)
Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R) speaks to former CHP leader and parliament speaker candidate Deniz Baykal (L) in 2015 (AFP)

An advocate of "strident nationalism" and blessed with "a cantankerous personality" and "an instinctive opposition to any policy initiated by the AKP", according to analyst Gareth Jenkins, Baykal epitomised for many voters, and the party's leftist social democratic wing, all the worst characteristics of Kemalism.

After his resignation in 2010, prompted by the leak of a tape apparently showing the 71-year old in a sexual encounter with his secretary, Kilicdaroglu was tasked by many in the party with attempting to reform both its image and its policies, and increase its appeal beyond the secular Turks and members of the Alevi religious minority who make up the bulk of its core electorate.

Whether he has managed to do so is debateable.

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"I don't think either the CHP or the electorate's perception of the party has changed fundamentally," said Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a visiting scholar at the International Relations Institute, University of Sao Paulo.

He told MEE that despite well-publicised attempts by the CHP to reach out to Kurdish and religious voters, it was ultimately its maintaining of alliances with other parties, such as the Iyi Party, that would prove crucial in overturning the dominance of the AKP and its far-right ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

"What's happening instead is that, firstly, the party and its leader Kilicdaroglu have been proving adept at keeping the opposition coalition together and pose a threat to the governing coalition," said Akkoyunlu.

"And, secondly, we see the emergence of individual politicians, like Istanbul mayor Imamoglu or Ankara mayor Yavas, who have enough popular appeal across the spectrum for people to rally behind as the names to defeat Erdogan."

The Kurdish question

Central to the debate over how to oust Erdogan has been the voting habits of Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Historically repressed, and composing as much as a fifth of the country's population, their vote has often proved highly influential in the outcome of general elections, with many citing Istanbul's large Kurdish population and their support for Imamoglu as central to his victory.

For many years the AKP could rely on a large chunk of the Kurdish electorate for support. Alienated by the Kemalist political establishment, and with the often-criminalised pro-Kurdish parties standing little chance of making serious political inroads, many Kurdish voters in the generally conservative southeast were attracted to Erdogan's rhetoric and promises of reform.

In 2013, Erdogan also initiated a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an armed group that since 1984 has been engaged in a guerilla war with the Turkish state that has seen more than 45,000 people killed.

This was not to last, however.

Following the rise to power of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (DYP) in northern Syria during the country's civil war, and the success of the HDP in Turkey's June 2015 elections, the situation began to deteriorate.

'If the CHP and the opposition parties agree on a candidate who the Kurds will not show much reaction to, they can get the support of the majority of the Kurdish voters against Erdogan'

- Vahap Coskun, law professor at Dicle University

In recent years the Turkish state has launched several military operations against the PKK and PKK-linked groups in Turkey's southeast, northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.

The return to hostilities eventually led to thousands more deaths across Turkey's Kurdish-majority region and the destruction of major cities.

Thousands of HDP political leaders have been arrested, detained and dismissed en masse since 2015. The party's former co-leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has been jailed on terror charges since 2016, as has former co-leader and ethnic Turk, Figen Yuksekdag.

Meanwhile, most of the pro-Kurdish reforms that the AKP had implemented were reversed and the party formed an alliance with the ultra-nationalist and virulently anti-Kurdish MHP.

Though efforts are underway to have the party banned in the Constitutional Court, the HDP has continued to maintain its support in the Kurdish southeast, as well as remaining the primary vehicle for voters who pitch their politics to the left of the CHP.

Vahap Coskun, a law professor at Dicle University in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, told MEE that the presidential election would be "critical" for the opposition. While HDP supporters would continue to support the party in parliament, the vote for the presidential candidate is where their votes would count and could swing the ballot against Erdogan.

"If the CHP and the opposition parties agree on a candidate who the Kurds will not show much reaction to, they can get the support of the majority of the Kurdish voters against Erdogan," he said.

Supporters of Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) shout slogans during a rally as part of Nowruz (Newroz), or Kurdish New Year, celebrations in Ankara, on March 21, 2021 (AFP)
Supporters of the HDP shout slogans during a rally as part of Nowruz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations in Ankara, on 21 March 2021 (AFP)

"This model was tried in the 2019 local elections and was successful. CHP won the mayorship in 11 big cities with this model," he said.

Yet there is a lot of baggage to work through.

A troubled relationship

Splits on the Kurdish question between the CHP's nationalist and social democratic wings have been ongoing for many years.

In 2013, Kilicdaroglu denounced peace talks with the PKK as part of a plot to create a "Greater Kurdistan" and, until recently, the party was also consistently supportive of military action targeting the group and the Kurdish-Syrian YPG.

In 2016, the party sent mixed signals over a constitutional amendment to strip MPs with outstanding cases against them of their immunity, a move that was largely seen as targeting the HDP.

Although, many CHP MPs are thought to have voted against the amendment in the secret ballot, Kilicdaroglu said his party would support it. Eventually, enough MPs backed the government, and the amendment passed without the need for a referendum.

By 2021, Kilicdaroglu had changed his tune, however, saying last month that Demirtas was "unjustly" behind bars and calling for a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that he should be released to be respected. In September, he said the HDP was a "legitimate body" and described them as an interlocutor for "solving" the Kurdish issue.

'Whichever alliance HDP supports will most likely win the election. Under the current circumstances, it is impossible for the HDP to act together with the AKP'

- Vahap Coskun, Dicle University

But leaving aside the CHP's own troubled relationship with the country's Kurds, its alliance with the Iyi Party may also prove a stumbling block.

Led by the popular Meral Aksener - sometimes referred to in Europe as Turkey's answer to French far-right politician Marine Le Pen - the Iyi Party, which has 36 seats in parliament, was founded in 2017 when MHP members split from their party due to its pro-Erdogan stance.

While the Iyi Party, which has maintained a formal electoral alliance with the CHP since 2018, has attempted to tack towards the centre with less emphasis on ethnic nationalism compared to the MHP, there is little suggestion that Aksener and her allies have changed their views on the question of Kurdish self-determination.

In one example, on 28 October Aksener got embroiled in a spat with a local Kurdish man in the town of Siirt in the southeast, which led to her denouncing the HDP for its alleged PKK links.

Despite the controversy, professor Coskun believes that the government crackdown against the HDP meant Kurdish voters would have no choice but to back the opposition alliance.

"Whichever alliance HDP supports will most likely win the election. Under the current circumstances, it is impossible for the HDP to act together with the AKP and Erdogan," he explained.

"The CHP's priority is to win the election. Therefore, the CHP does not offer a radical proposal on the Kurdish issue and does not want to bind itself... For this reason, the Kurds should not have great expectations.

"What kind of a parliamentary and power balance will emerge after the election? In my opinion, this balance will play the decisive role in the Kurdish issue."

'Our country needs to heal'

In November, Kilicdaroglu announced the beginning of a "reconciliation tour", which, he said, would aim to address the CHP's and other governments' past mistakes and reconnect the party with different communities in Turkey.

“In my lifetime, I have seen love and hate in our country. Now, I want love to win. Our country needs to heal. Reconciliation will not change the past but can save the future," he said in a video on social media.

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Bassoy said "radical love" and reaching out to marginalised communities had to be a key pillar of opposition politics.

"Ignore Erdogan, but love those who love him...we cannot defeat any dictator before we start talking to the poorest," the election strategist said.

Opposition politicians and rights activists have regularly documented Turkey's declining democratic standards, with hundreds of journalists arrested, media outlets shut down and politicians and activists jailed on spurious charges.

Erdogan has long pointed to his repeated successes at the ballot box as proof that he still holds legitimacy and support within the country.

But a number of polls have suggested that both Yavas and Imamoglu could potentially beat Erdogan in a future presidential election and it is possible that his star power could be finally fading.