The Sultan's rivals

The high election threshold limits and pools Erdogan's rivals but the Kurds with their lay European approach are the ones that stand out most.

In June, Turkey will return to the polls for a general election, the first without President of the Republic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he helped found in 2001. When he was elected president last August, party leadership and the position of prime minister were passed on to Ahmet Davutoğlu, the then minister of foreign affairs and extremely loyal to Erdoğan.

Just months before the elections, the Turkish opposition seems affected by the same paralysis that has plagued it since Erdoğan came to power. There are three parties opposing the AKP in parliament, although at least two of them have at times towed the government line in approving several laws. The limited number of parties is due to the election threshold, standing at 10% in Turkey, a cap often criticised by Brussels.

The leading opposition force is the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by none other than Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey. It took 26% of the vote last time, but it is far from being considered a realistic alternative to the AKP. The change in party leadership from Deniz Baykal, thought to be the main cause of the electoral defeat, to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has only led to a few of the hoped for improvements. 

Although “Turkey’s Gandhi”, as the local press has taken to calling Kılıçdaroğlu, has done his best to change his party’s image, today the CHP is still viewed as tied to yesterday’s values: pro- European on paper but old-school Kemalist (or Ataturkist) when it comes to reforms and economic policies, issues on which Erdoğan has always run strong election campaigns.

The second opposition party is the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Devlet Bahçeli, its leader since the 1990s, has been relatively successful in cleaning up the MHP and eliminating the most overtly subversive elements that were a throwback to the 1970s. At the next elections it will however have another card in hand: the dramatic and dangerous situation in southeastern border provinces such as Hatay and Gaziantep where there is only a small Kurdish minority (which won’t vote for the ultranationalist MHP). These areas have been dramatically affected by the Syrian crisis and their economy has suffered progressive impoverishment. Pandering to these populations may be a way of harvesting a few more votes, but no solution to the real problem which is the lack of a political agenda that effectively counters the AKP policies. What they’ve come up with so far is no alternative to Erdogan, just criticism of his actions. At last year’s administrative and presidential elections, the republicans and nationalists joined forces to nominate a single candidate. While a step in the right direction as a way of updating its political message, it wasn’t nearly enough to stand as a viable political rival to the AKP, especially when Erdoğan’s personal charisma is thrown into the mix.

The third opposition faction comprises the Kurds of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who, in the right numbers, could pose a problem for Davutoğlu and the moderate Islamists. At the 2014 presidential elections, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the HDP, had just under 10% at the polls. This was remarkable, especially considering the vast disparity in terms of campaign resources and national media exposure between the HDP candidate and former Prime Minister Erdoğan.

In recent years, the HDP has primarily focused its strategies on two aspects with the first being the establishment of a greater presence throughout Turkey. This has meant putting its candidates up for election outside the majority- Kurdish neighbourhoods in large cities and finding ways to attract voters in places that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The second area the HDP has worked on is the content of its political manifesto, inspired by the programmes of progressive European parties.

It is no coincidence that since 2011, the HDP has concentrated its political agenda on human rights. Clearly, the focus has first and foremost been on rights for the Kurdish minority, which has been seeking constitutional recognition for its ethnic group and language for years. But now the HDP is including women’s and gay rights in its manifesto too. This is the agenda of a secular, social-democratic party, everything the CHP and the Communist and Socialist parties should be were it not for reasons that could be termed historic, which have relegated them beyond the scope of the Turkish constitution.

Another factor in the elections is the disappointment over the slow progress of the peace talks between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the AKP, an attempt to end the country’s armed conflict in exchange for recognition for the Kurdish minority. This could lead those Kurds who placed their trust in Erdoğan at the last general election to change their minds. So AKP leader Davutoğlu might just have to strike a deal with the HDP if this coming June, as happened in 2011, his party does not obtain the kind of numbers it needs to pass constitutional reforms on its own.

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