In what could be a watershed moment for Turkish politics, the leaders of six major opposition parties came together on February 13 to discuss a joint strategy to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan next year. Elements of the opposition have experimented with various formal and informal electoral alliances against Erdoğan before. But the “Ankara summit,” as observers have dubbed it, represents the broadest grouping of opposition leaders yet to unite against him. It also represents the strongest attempt by Turkey’s opposition parties to forge a joint plan that explicitly prioritizes democratization. In their joint statement, the six leaders called it a “historic day for Turkey.”
The fractured nature of Turkey’s opposition has been a key factor in Erdoğan’s repeated electoral victories. Since the 2011 election, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) reached its peak with 48 percent of the votes, the electorate has essentially remained evenly split between Erdoğan’s supporters and opponents. Erdoğan has won each election since then with just over 50 percent of the votes. His ability to tilt this equilibrium just enough in his favor rests on his control of Turkey’s media and state institutions. But another reason for his victories is that his opponents have failed to work together and mobilize the other half of the electorate to support a single alternative candidate. The six opposition leaders who met last weekend are promising to try to change this in the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 2023.
Although it faces significant challenges, the effort has the potential to succeed. Erdoğan is now facing the worst popularity crisis of his career: As Turkey’s economy worsens, voters appear to be abandoning him and his AKP, leaving him with his lowest approval ratings ever—as low as 37–40 percent, according to one poll from last month. The opposition leaders seek to capitalize on this widespread frustration by blaming the crisis specifically on Erdoğan and his authoritarian system—and making the case for Turkey to return to a path of democratization.
The coalition consists of six parties: a core group of four that have cooperated in previous elections and two newcomers. The four core parties are the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party (IP), the Felicity Party (SP), and the Democratic Party (DP). Of these, the CHP is the oldest and most popular party, with a consistent voter base of 22–25 percent, and the only left-wing one. The IP is the group’s second-largest, currently polling around 9 percent. The SP and DP are much smaller right-wing parties that enjoy one percent or less popularity. These four parties entered Turkey’s June 2018 elections on a joint platform that they called “the nation’s alliance.” Combined, they garnered 34 percent of the total vote that was cast for parliament (and their three presidential candidates received a combined vote of around 40 percent).
Building on this experience, the CHP, IP, SP, and DP have now broadened and diversified their alliance with two other parties. Both broke away from Erdoğan and the AKP after the 2018 election: The Future Party (GP) of Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s former prime minister, was founded in December 2019, and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) of Ali Babacan, Erdoğan’s former economy minister, in June 2020. Both parties are vying to woo AKP voters who may have recently become disillusioned with Erdoğan but find the other opposition parties too liberal, too secular, or too nationalist. According to recent polls, GP and DEVA have a combined potential of 3–4 percent electoral support.
Each of the six parties represents a different faction of society, some of which harbor deep distrust of others. By cooperating in 2018, the CHP, IP, SP, and DP were able to convince their respective constituencies with conflicting ideologies—secular nationalists, religious nationalists, and anti-AKP Islamists—to vote for a common platform. The addition of GP and DEVA to the group expands its ideological diversity by bringing former AKP voters together with people who have been their political opponents for two decades (and their ideological enemies for decades longer).
As Turkey’s economic crisis deepens, Turkish citizens appear to increasingly blame Erdoğan—and the executive presidency system he put in place—for their woes. In effect since 2018, this system has produced a one-man regime that has not only failed to make the government more efficient, as the AKP had promised, but also has led to a host of failed policies, including horrible economic mismanagement. The six opposition leaders are aiming to seize on this frustration. Their joint statement blamed Turkey’s problems primarily on Erdoğan’s presidential system, which they described as “arbitrary and lawless.”
They promise that if they win, they will replace the executive presidency with what they call a “strengthened parliamentary system”—a system they say will be “just” and “democratic,” and will “uphold the separation of powers through an effective and participatory legislature, transparent and accountable administration, [and] an independent and impartial judiciary.”
“Turkey has no problems that cannot be solved through deliberation and negotiation,” the leaders wrote. “What is important is to build, together with our differences, the idea of an ‘us,’ to build a democratic Turkey that guarantees basic rights and freedoms under the framework of the Council of Europe and European Union’s norms, where every citizen sees herself as free and equal, can express her ideas freely and live by her convictions.”
The parties promised to reveal the details of their roadmap for a new parliamentary system on February 28, a highly symbolic day in Turkey. It is the anniversary of the 1997 coup against the Islamist-led coalition government, an event that remains a traumatic memory for Turkey’s religious conservatives and that is often invoked by Erdoğan as evidence of the deep injustice he claims his voters would face under a government led by secularist parties like the CHP. By publicly displaying unity on such a charged date, the CHP and former AKP members of the coalition aim to take a step toward repairing the deep polarization that has marked Turkish politics under Erdoğan’s 20-year reign.
Demokrasi için, adalet için, halkımızın refahı ve ülkemizin aydınlık yarınları için 6 siyasi partinin liderleri olarak bir araya geldik. Güçlendirilmiş Parlamenter Sistem konusunda nihai istişaremizi gerçekleştirdik. Sayın Genel Başkanların her birine teşekkür ediyorum. pic.twitter.com/jFbb10LQCi
— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (@kilicdarogluk) February 12, 2022
Despite the six parties’ emerging unity, their effort still has massive obstacles to overcome. In addition to the constant fear of arrest and harassment from the government, the six leaders may allow ideological differences to compromise their cooperation. It is unclear whether they will be able to agree on more than the promised roadmap and, beyond this, on a joint presidential candidate who can appeal to all of their voters.
The most important challenge, however, will be the group’s ability to reach a crucial constituency: left-wing Kurds. Even with Erdoğan’s eroding support, the combined vote share of the six parties, according to recent polls, hovers around 45 percent. The coalition notably excludes Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has a 10 percent voter base made up mostly of left-wing Kurds. Regardless of whether or not the six opposition parties invite the HDP to formally join their emerging alliance, they will need HDP votes. Although left-wing Kurds are among the political groups that suffer most from Erdoğan’s repression and thus have a strong incentive to see Erdoğan defeated, their electoral support is far from assured given the coalition’s right-wing and nationalist bent. Five of the parties have cordial relations with the HDP. But the IP includes many members who openly attack the HDP on a regular basis—and Erdoğan will do his best to highlight these tensions and stymie any tacit or open cooperation between the Kurds and the coalition.
In spite of all the challenges ahead, the six opposition leaders’ February 13 meeting was an important—indeed, for many citizens, long overdue—achievement for democratic politics in Turkey. Effective political opposition under Erdoğan’s regime is already extremely hard: Erdoğan’s power and shrewdness enable him to manipulate the media and silence opposition leaders, including through arrests. But his ability to stay in power depends also on his ability to exploit Turkey’s divided, polarized opposition. By joining forces, the six leaders may not only alter that election arithmetic and defeat Erdoğan in 2023, but also start to help heal the wounds that have so deeply polarized their society under Erdoğan’s rule.
Photo Credit: CHP