Who can challenge Erdoğan, and how?

Now that Turkey from various vantage points display a ‘free fall’ pattern – particularly because of the fall-out with Germany and Saudi Arabia – the key question is what are the capabilities of the opposition at home.

Is it, after the March for Justice, gaining ground to challenge Erdoğan, or still tramping on the same ground?

Who can challenge the AKP and the current hard-liner ‘coalition’ it worked so hard to establish in Ankara?

”The silver lining, if there is one, is that Turkey’s opposition has shown new signs of strength in recent months and has fanned hopes that it could challenge the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections” wrote Howard Eissenstat, Associate Professor with St Lawrence University and a Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

”The hard truth, however, is that this new vigor has likely come too little, too late” he continues.

Let us see now how he argues, in excerpts, for this line in his recent analysis, that I mostly agree with:

”In the lead-up to the April constitutional referendum, the “no” campaign, which opposed the new presidential system, was surprisingly effective, given how remarkably uneven the playing field was: the “yes” campaign benefited from open government support and blanket coverage by a press essentially beholden to the government. Some opposition figures, such as the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are behind bars, and many of their followers were among those displaced by the fighting between the government and the PKK; as a result, many of these would-be “no” voters were denied the opportunity to cast their ballots in the referendum.

Moreover, officials in AKP-controlled municipalities routinely had “no” campaign posters torn down and repeatedly broke up or banned “no” rallies. In the end, and despite significant evidence of voting irregularities, the “yes” campaign managed to squeak by with only 51.4 percent of the vote. Erdogan may have consolidated his power, but not without betraying new electoral weaknesses.”

Perhaps even more striking, starting in June of this year, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), led a remarkable 280-mile “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul.

The march ended in Istanbul with a massive rally that drew hundreds of thousands of citizens. It was a remarkable political moment, as much a festival of defiance as it was a political meeting. For the first time in memory, government critics seemed hopeful.”

That hope may be misplaced, but it is not an empty one. Kilicdaroglu’s march demonstrated his realization that to be effective, the opposition needed to be more creative and dynamic than it had been in the past.”

‘At least for the time being, the opposition, on both the left and the right, seems to understand that it is only through cooperation that it can hope to challenge Erdogan’s hold on power.”

A scenario in which the opposition succeeds in this is conceivable, but it would be the longest of long shots.

”This month, Meral Aksener, the most prominent of the MHP rebels, announced that the group would form a new party in November. This is important not only because it would threaten Bahceli’s place in the parliament, where he has positioned the MHP as less an opposition party and more a junior partner to the AKP, but also because a new right-of-center party might conceivably siphon off votes from the AKP. Turkey is, at its core, a center-right country; a key element of the AKP’s success has been that it has had few rivals to compete with among this segment of voters.”

In the 2019 elections, a real challenge from the center-right would force the AKP to compete for that slice of the electorate in the parliament, potentially opening space for a “grand coalition” among the opposition parties. A dynamic candidate who can appeal to the center-right is the opposition’s only real hope of challenging Erdogan for the presidency. Leftists and progressives may not be excited about such a candidate, but fear of Erdogan could well push them to support a right-leaning candidate. Despite 15 years in power and effective control over most of the Turkish media, the AKP has never been able to extend its electoral base beyond 50 percent. Even if 40 percent of the country is utterly loyal to Erdogan, nearly half of the country remains utterly opposed to him. This reality is unlikely to change.

The problem… is… the assumption of free and fair elections. That no longer seems likely in Turkey. If one lesson of the April referendum is that Erdogan’s base has softened, another is that the opposition cannot rely on a level playing field or even a valid vote count. The press is no longer free. Basic state institutions, including the judiciary, are now largely extensions of the AKP. Of the three opposition parties in the parliament, one has been co-opted by the government and the leaders of another languish in jail.

Turkey is not in any meaningful sense a democracy.”


Astute observations, which justify pessimism.

Despite the relative economic stability, Turkey’s political system has remained corrosive and its complex society has never been liberated from turmoil.

Now, under an extremely visible authoritarianism promoted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the very existential essence of the republic is in trouble, a harbinger of an even more profound crisis ahead.

Given Erdogan’s unshakable determination to reconstruct Turkey as a country run single­handedly, under a model that has the blend of ingredients imported from Ba’athism and deeply dictatorial Central Asian repub­lics, this seems inevitable. On the political, legal and social levels, screws are tightening at an accelerated pace.

Fiercely defying the March for Justice by the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which had assembled hundreds of thousands in Istan­bul, Erdogan’s Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP) and its de facto ally, the extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), voted for changing the 44-year-old regulations of parliament.

The right to voice dissenting views as well as steps for account­ability will be severely restricted when the changes are in force.

This move leaves parliament devoid of political weight. One CHP deputy described it as the “last nail in the coffin of democ­racy.”

There is more. Erdogan has subordinated the judiciary to his palace. The most recent arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders — without proof — are by far the strongest sign of another ingredi­ent in his political architecture under way: Putinism.

Socially, society is more polar­ised than ever, with Erdogan responding to the CHP-led March for Justice with a mass rally to celebrate the rescue of democracy a year ago, when a small group of officers attempted a takeover by a limited uprising.

In many ways bitterly reminis­cent of similar ones in 1930’s Europe, the assemblies in Istanbul and Ankara were pumped up by speeches filled with threats to domestic opposition and severe accusations to Turkey’s allies. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu refused to attend events on the anniver­sary of the failed coup events because his speech was cancelled on orders from Erdogan.

To underline Erdogan’s resolve to take full control of Turkey, the ruling AKP, backed by the MHP, extended emergency rule another three months. Optimists were shocked to hear the president say, once more, that it would be extended “as long as we want it to be,” that Turkey without such limitations was inviting anarchy and chaos.

Allies and friends of Turkey in the West seem to have let go of the benevolent anchor and are preparing for a country that to their eyes is no different than Egypt, Pakistan or Malaysia.

The essence of the debate thickens: Does Erdogan’s hiking tenacity point to strength or weakness? Critics at home see his raised acrimony as a sign he was frightened by the March for Justice and that his party is losing at the polls. This view, however, may be an illusion.

As far as his seizure of control of key state institutions and the way he has surrounded himself with hard-line cadres of bureaucracy are concerned, this is just the opposite. The fact is, as the Guardian pointed out: “His opponents are scattered. In politics, they remain divided between Kurdish, nationalist and leftist groups.”

Erdogan may have been seeing pockets of dissent within the army’s leadership — his emphasis on “purging out all subversive elements” was very loud lately — and decided to go full blast towards a meeting of the Supreme Military Council in August that will put final touches on reshaping the army to serve his political vision.

Once he passes that threshold, his attention will turn to tighten­ing “loose screws” in his party and, his real challenge, the economy.

The latter means, clearly, that if Erdogan eventually has to leave power, it will be because of himself; not due to the opposition. The signs are telling of a “Turkish bubble.”

“Fears for the Turkish economy in international decision-making centres are running very high and it’s only considered a matter of time now before the bubble bursts,” wrote Alexis Papahelas, executive editor of Kathimerini. “The fact that the Erdogan system issues its own loans outside the institutional banking framework speaks volumes.”

Unemployment is rising — as is the budget deficit — and is three times higher than a year ago. Turkey has expanded state guarantees to pump in $14 billion loans to almost 300,000 firms. Nobody knows how these loans are spent. Approximately $200 billion of assets have been injected into a wealth fund.

Another Venezuela?


No matter what, one will have to follow the money to answer the question “Quo vadis, Turkey?”


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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