BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: Turkish opposition leaders need to shape up or ship out

BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: Turkish opposition leaders need to shape up or ship out
By Suna Erdem November 12, 2015

More than a week after a trashing in Turkey’s general election, what’s a Turkish opposition leader to do? 

He sits tight, of course. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been on the wrong side of multiple polls – including three general elections – since 2010. Despite being the main opposition to an increasingly polarising ruling party, mired in corruption charges and accused of anti-democratic paranoia, the CHP has rarely broken 25% of the vote. The party founded by Turkey’s deified Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is a damp squib. Yet Kilicdaroglu is still in place, criticising rogue MPs calling for his head.

Devlet Bahceli has been in charge of Turkey’s nationalists since 1997. Apart from three and a half years in coalition at the turn of the century, his Nationalist Action Party (MHP) has seen no action. It has lost a total of 14 general and local elections. In the latest, the MHP lost votes to become the fourth party in parliament, humiliatingly falling behind newcomers and ideological enemies, the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). Yet Bahceli brushes aside calls for resignation.

The HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is new and maybe should be given the benefit of the doubt, but having ridden a wave to gain an astonishing 13% of the vote in June’s elections, losing more than 2 points of that in just five months is hardly an achievement.

The behaviour of Turkey’s opposition amply demonstrates that Turkey has got the government it deserves – or, to rephrase, the government its politicians and commentators deserve. 

Snatching defeat from jaws of victory

The opposition had a chance after June’s hung parliament, but, in the public’s opinion, failed to take it. No doubt President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enabled the failure of coalition talks led by his Justice and Development Party (AK) over the summer. But this doesn’t eradicate the feeling that the opposition parties didn’t try hard enough, laying down red lines, pronouncing against working with AK, yet completely refusing to contemplate the alternative – working together to keep AK out of power.

The Turkish people have chosen its imperfect ruling party once again, in the midst of civil strife and economic uncertainty, because they don’t feel attracted enough by any of the other parties.  It’s a simple enough conclusion and should lead to resignations, followed by a search for new direction.

But nowhere is there a feeling of accountability, of mea culpa, of self-awareness or soul searching in an opposition leadership clearly more content enjoying the benefits and status of politics than working hard at persuading the public.

For years, opposition figures – and I also include the media – have attacked Erdogan and AK indiscriminately, with no apparent interest in being competent or just. Many criticisms of late have been justified, but they weren’t at the start.

Ertugrul Ozkok, the influential former editor of Turkey’s leading newspaper Hurriyet, which has often been critical of AK and its leadership, wrote a telling editorial soon after the polls, saying that he would from now on praise the government when it was due and criticize when warranted.

Instead of what, exactly? What he is describing is surely what any journalist should be doing, all the time. Unfortunately, this has always been something of a rarity in the deeply flawed and partisan Turkish media – both before and after the government’s anti-democratic crackdown on the press.

As someone who has watched AK’s rise and fall, I often wonder what would have happened if the party’s efforts to join the EU and improve the economy hadn’t been overshadowed so often by largely spurious worries of Islamism, stoked by the opposition and the media. This might not have set Erdogan on the warpath against everyone from the military and judiciary to the self-styled secularist liberals he had want to impress.

More recently, if the Kurdish separatists had really wanted peace, they could have kept their unilateral ceasefire in place. They also played into Erdogan’s hands – he won much support from people worried about renewed violence.

Well, you might say, what do you expect of guerrillas? Fine, but in that case, the HDP, which avowedly wants peace, could have called unequivocally for the rebels to stop and impressed a nation scarred by decades of violence.

Demirtas, who wants to be taken seriously as a national politician, could have held off blaming the government for suicide bombings against Kurds and leftists in Ankara, whatever his private views. This had the role of diminishing the ridiculousness of subsequent claims by AK that the bombs were the result of collaboration by Islamic State, the rebel PKK and foreign powers.

It is just as well for the Kurds that the militaristic MHP is not now sharing power with AK. But had I been an MHP voter, I would be upset that Bahceli’s intransigence lost the party a chance to govern. And they are – even friendly MPs from Bahceli’s own constituency are saying it’s time he was replaced by a more modern, conciliatory figure.

Over at CHP, too, at least three candidates have emerged to vie for Kilicdaroglu’s role, which should give rise to hope. But past calls have not brought regime change. Even if there is, how likely is the party to implement the radical change it so badly needs? CHP supporters complain that right-wing Turks will never support a social democratic party. It’s true that Turks are centre-right, but why don’t they woo the centre? The left-wing has in the past garnered 40% of the votes, so it is possible. Why don’t they attract the liberals disillusioned by AK? And why do they have no appeal to the Kurds – aren’t social democrats supposed to help oppressed minorities?

As things stand, AK are a shoo-in for the next general election in 2019. And, in the absence of anybody else, the wily and – for a devout figure – strangely amoral Erdogan is on the way to being an all-powerful president on Turkey’s centenary in 2023. It’s time for the opposition to wake up.