Despite His Purge, Turkey’s Erdogan Remains Vulnerable to Opposition
After a failed coup attempt in July 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been on a mission to purge the country of his opponents, dismissing thousands of people from the military and civil service, stifling the press, and targeting Turkey’s formal political opposition. In an April referendum, Turkish voters granted Erdogan sweeping new powers that, according to his critics, pushed the country closer to authoritarianism. In an email interview, Iyad Dakka, a fellow with the Center for Modern Turkish Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, describes the new political landscape of the opposition, Erdogan’s efforts to target parties and their officials, and possible dissension within the president’s own ranks.
WPR: What is the state of the political party landscape in Turkey a little over a year after the failed coup attempt?
Iyad Dakka: On paper, the official Turkish political scene is not much different than it was prior to the failed coup attempt in July 2016. In parliament, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, continues to dominate the domestic political arena, while the secular and left-of-center Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, are putting up a valiant—though not entirely successful—effort to mitigate Erdogan’s increasingly bold and authoritarian power over the state and key social institutions, such as the media.
But Erdogan and his AKP allies are not invulnerable to growing dissent across large swathes of Turkish society. The important issue to track is whether the opposition can find a way to come together to successfully mount a challenge to Erdogan in the 2019 presidential election. Kemal Kalicdagorlu, the official leader of the opposition, is unlikely to have the gravitas and charisma to do this. Instead, it seems the momentous task of taking on Erdogan might fall to Meral Aksener, a female politician who led an attempted mutiny against Devlet Bahceli, the octogenarian leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. Only Erdogan’s intervention through the courts and police stopped Aksener from organizing a special party congress that would have almost certainly resulted in the removal of Bahceli from his post.
Nevertheless, Aksener’s failure to remove Bahceli may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the anti-Erdogan camp. Unshackled from the MHP’s narrow nationalist platform, Aksener can now pursue a centrist coalition of nationalists, secularists, liberals and anti-Erdogan conservatives. To be sure, Aksener faces a very steep mountain to climb, and Erdogan will do everything in his power to ensure she never becomes a political threat from now until 2019. But if she is to succeed in mounting a serious challenge in the election, Aksener will ironically have to mimic some of the integrationist and consensus-based strategies used by Erdogan during his first decade in power, when he successfully assembled a broad coalition of voters to confront the military and the old guards of the Kemalist state.
WPR: How has Erdogan’s broad crackdown on dissent targeted official opposition political parties, especially the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the Kurdish-aligned People’s Democratic Party, or HDP?
Dakka: Erdogan’s purge has been sweeping, sustained and multifaceted, and parliament’s vote to lift lawmakers’ own immunity from prosecution in 2016 has made it easier to go after opposition parties. Of all the political parties, the pro-Kurdish HDP has borne the brunt of Erdogan’s crackdown. The resumption of hostilities between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in the summer of 2015 paved the way for Erdogan’s heavy-handed response. Erdogan has crippled the HDP by arresting a dozen national deputies—including its co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdaw—while simultaneously going after the party’s local officials and broader grassroots supporters. At this moment, thousands of pro-HDP supporters, including mayors, card-carrying party members and friendly newspaper editors and journalists are either in jail or under investigation by Turkish authorities.
The ferocity of the crackdown has not yet extended to other opposition parties to the same degree, although things could change on a dime given the lack of checks and balances against Erdogan’s power and ambitions. In an ominous sign of what could potentially come, a Turkish court in June sentenced Enis Berberoglu, a CHP deputy, to 25 years in jail on charges of leaking state secrets. After opposition leader Kilicdaroglu, who heads the CHP, began a nearly 300-mile “Justice March” in protest against Berberoglu’s arrest, Erdogan threatened Kilicdaroglu with legal action.
But extending the crackdown to Kilicdaroglu also entails great risks for Erdogan. Kilicdagorlu has only ever been a thorn in Erdogan’s side, rather than a serious threat to his rule. Imprisoning Kilicdagorlu would make him an instant political martyr and raise his profile among anti-Erdogan activists. It would also likely lead to significant unrest in the streets, while further isolating Erdogan on the international scene.
WPR: Are there any signs of dissension within Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party?
Dakka: It is certain that some AKP deputies and supporters have grown increasingly uncomfortable with Erdogan’s governing methods in recent years. But the failed coup against their leader, coupled with Erdogan’s return as official head of the AKP—following constitutional changes enacted as a result of the referendum in May—mean the room for dissent inside the AKP is very narrow at the moment. And with the AKP’s powerful political machine continuing to churn along, it’s unlikely that many AKP deputies would see defecting as a worthwhile venture.
But cracks are appearing at a more fundamental level: among the Islamist bloc that constitutes the AKP’s main electoral backbone. Although still a minority of voices, there are worries among Islamists and conservative Turks that the AKP is monopolizing Islamic rhetoric and symbols for purely political gains, and that Erdogan is accumulating too much power too quickly. If Erdogan doesn’t play his cards right from now until the 2019 presidential election, it’s not unthinkable that more conservative Turks could turn their backs on him.
Finally, there were some rumblings that former President Abdullah Gul, who co-founded the AKP with Erdogan and others in 2001, could run against him in 2019. These rumors were fuelled by Gul’s conspicuous absence at many political events hosted by Erdogan in the past few years. But Gul recently poured cold water over this speculation by denying he has any intentions of running in 2019.