In the polarized Turkish political field, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been the only formidable player to have its way in changing the face of the country in significantly radical manner. The party has become unabashedly and unapologetically bold in pushing its anti-Kemalist agenda. Its recent controversial tempering with school curriculum, in which evolution theory is excised out and a lesson on jihad is included, its incessant deployment of religious discourse as part of its ideological arsenal, its permission and encouragement of religious foundations to play influential role in education, inter alia, constitute conspicuous indicators of the direction the party is leading the country to.
The Islamist tendency is not new to the AKP. It was there from the beginning. What is new with the party is its increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian behavior. The party came to power on two crucial tickets in 2002: socially conservative Islamic program and politically progressive and liberal agenda. Its dual selling points secured support from many different constituencies: conservative religious groups and liberals, in addition to some leftist and secular elements who fell out with Kemalism. The AKP brand had also buyers in the West who hailed it as a uniquely successful blend of Islam and democracy that could serve as a model to the troubled Middle East. However, it did not take long for the party to shed off its liberal ideological mantle and wax exceedingly pragmatic when it faced serious challenges from its opponents. This unprincipled pragmatism and readiness to sacrifice political principles on the altar of expediency and power reared its brutal head during the Gezi Park uprising in 2013. In the same year, corruption scandal involving the inner circle of the then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, provoked undemocratic crackdown of the press and dissidents. The illiberal tendencies of the AKP showed its vulgar enormity in the period following the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Close to hundred thousand civil servants were dismissed from their jobs, multiple media outlets closed down and scores of journalists jailed, opposition members, including members of parliament, harassed and imprisoned under a flimsy pretext of suspected membership in the Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ) or support for allegedly terrorist movements like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This situation and the dominance of the AKP begs the obvious question of where the Turkish opposition parties are.
The Turkish opposition consists of three main parties: the largest Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). During the last 15 years, the CHP has failed to offset the balance against the AKP for two main reasons: one, its historic association with the secular brand of Turkish nationalism, which pulled no punches when it comes to squashing political Islam even using military power, has won it a visceral hatred from the conservatives, anti-Kemalist leftist and civil society movement of the Turkish population; and second, since Kemal Ataturk, the party has been suffering from the lack of effective and charismatic leadership and sound ideological alterative. So, when it comes to defending democratic aspirations of the Turkish people, the CHP has been in no position to cast a stone on the AKP. On top of this, the party, except indulging in a knee jerk reaction to the AKP, has no transformative program that attracts a wider section of the Turkish population. The party also suffers from internal divisions along ideological and confessional lines (Leftists – Liberals, Sunnis – Alevis).
The MHP is a far-right party with ultra-nationalist inclinations that preaches hate against minorities, Kurds, LGBT groups and almost everybody else. Under the leadership of Devlet Bahçeli the party has seen prominent defections in recent times. However, it received its greatest blow from the AKP. The AKP’s pandering to Turkish nationalist sentiments has pulled the rug from under MHP’s feet thereby taking away its raisons d’être. Defections have become more acute and high profile after the party agreed with AKP’s position to change the constitution to a presidential system in the national referendum conducted in April of this year.
The third biggest opposition party is the HDP emerging on the wake of peace negotiation between the Turkish government and the PKK in 2013 under the leadership of Selahattin Demirtaş. The party appeals to the pro-PKK Kurds, the left-leaning Kurdish movements, environmentalists, feminists and lefties. This new constituency helped the party to make a big splash in the parliamentary election in 2015 where it secured 80 seats in the 550-member parliament, while the AKP lost its majority for the first time since 2002. Sensing it was losing grip of power, the AKP sought to galvanize itself by drumming the nationalist sentiments and thus interrupted the peace process with the PKK. The latter retaliated with a spate of attacks thereby making the position of the HDP tenuous among non-Kurdish Turks. In the run-up to the snap election conducted in November 2015, the AKP engaged in Machiavellian maneuvers that won it the election and weakened the HDP. AKP’s ensuing crackdown on the Kurdish movement culminated in Demirtas’ arrest in November 2016 on charges of being a ‘terrorist’ for which the prosecutor is demanding up to 143 years in prison.
The failed July 2016 coup has two opposite implications to the balance of power between the AKP and the opposition parties. One, it drastically affected the power and legitimacy of the opposition parties. The AKP has done its best to capitalize on the popular anger aroused by the coup attempt to blackmail and squash its nemesis. So, in a way the coup has been a blessing in disguise for ruling party. However, there are indications that the AKP’s victory is pyrrhic. First, the draconian measures it’s been taken has removed its democratic makeups and show that Erdoğan is the proverbial emperor without cloths. Second, it is creating a condition of elective affinity between groups who normally cannot see eye to eye. Thus, it is galvanizing an alliance of the aggrieved from almost every section of the Turkish population. Recent example of the latter’s development is the “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul organized by the CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu between June 15 and July 9, 2017 protesting the heavy crackdown of the government. The “Justice March” is significant in two main aspects: first it appropriated the discursive wave that the AKP rode to power; and second, it united disparate groups under single liberal umbrella where Kılıçdaroğlu was received by 2 million people in a large square in Istanbul.
Yes, the Turkish opposition has been harassed to insignificance in recent years. Partly, the wound is also self-inflicted. But, as in Greek mythology, where the god Antaeus gets stronger every time he is thrown to the ground in his continuous combats, the opposition seems to be getting up from the dust it was thrown into by the ruling party and fight back. Prognostication respecting Turkish politics is particularly difficult. But judging by the narrow victory scored in the April referendum and the massive turn out in the “Justice March”, one can reasonably note the fact that the AKP is not invincible and the opposition can have its Antaeus moment.
Joe Hammoura, “Turkish Opposition’s Antaeus Moment?”, MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), August 2017.