Suna Erdem in London -
Turkey’s main opposition leader makes Ed Miliband look like Margaret Thatcher on speed. Such is the lack of charisma and purpose displayed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu. It’s not just him, of course. The whole Republican People’s Party (CHP) has colluded in the astonishing feat of being out of contention for the fourth general election in a row.
This is a big reason why the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK), despite corruption scandals, fading press freedom and the increasingly alienating authoritarianism of its founder-turned-president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is on course to win yet another general election on June 7. The party formed in 2001 has never lost – it considers it a failure if its share of the vote dips below 40%. AK’s majority should be reduced at this election, but it is still likely to be the biggest party.
When AK first came to power I would reassure naysayers (most of them my secularist Istanbul friends) that all would be fine. AK would be a force for good. The party would change the unpleasant nationalist, military-minded status quo. It would sort out the economy and campaign for EU membership. The opposition would be forced to regroup and come back to win after a couple of terms. How wrong I was. Even my very low faith in the CHP was too high.
Not up to the job
The CHP has not been able to throw off its image as entitled, satisfied with the trappings of opposition, completely lacking self-awareness or any connection with anyone outside its narrowing party base. When Kilicdaroglu came, campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, there was a mild frisson of excitement, but most apart from CHP diehards would accept that the man who once allowed himself to be compared to Gandhi is not really up to the job. And the many announcements of reform and revolution within the party are yet to bear much fruit. I have spoken to a senior CHP member who was championing a sweeping change in the party, yet he shed little light on what this might be. On the economy – AK’s strong point – he outlined a retro-plan involving greater unionisation and higher benefits. How would they pay for it? By not being corrupt like the government, that’s how.
And, from a recent election rally, this is a quote from Kilicdaroglu: “They shout in unison: ‘How are you going to find the money?’ What a rude question!”
You could forgive the CHP, a supposed social-democrat party, some folly on the economy. But on other traditional centre-left issues, such as freedoms and minority rights, it is remarkably reticent. My CHP interlocutor told me that there was no need for special treatment for the Kurdish minority, never mind the fact that they once felt so downtrodden that they launched a bloody separatist war that is only just coming to an end. The CHP would ensure everyone in the country would benefit from the new wonderful harmonious atmosphere they would create (I jest not). Kurds I have spoken to since guffaw at the claim. One Kurdish academic, Mesut Yegen, says that many Kurds found more solace in the government’s policies, which contrast with years of state belligerence: “Basically, many Kurds support the government because they think ‘at least I’m not being forced to eat excrement, my child isn’t being tortured and they bring services to my village instead of sending soldiers’…”
The CHP has broadened its candidate profile and allowed primaries in many constituencies – producing some promising candidates such as former television journalist Cigdem Anad – but it still has little to offer to the millions of liberals disillusioned by AK and young voters looking for something better.
Some leftist Turks have suggested that they rally around a new challenger – the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, who stood against Erdogan in last year’s presidential elections. It’s not clear how far this will be followed up. Some nationalist-minded CHP supporters expressed public distaste at the prospect of backing the Kurds. CHP a social-democratic party? I rest my case.
It’s crucial that HDP plays its cards right, because the insurgent party could be more instrumental than the other, bigger parties in determining Turkey’s future, which is why some commentators are urging that opposition voters switch to them even if it means their own parties lose a few MPs.
Like the Scottish Nationalist Party in Britain, the HDP dominates a whole region but has little national appeal. It stands to win up to 70 MPs in eastern and southeastern Turkey, which would dilute AK’s parliamentary power and, importantly, deprive it of the overwhelming numbers it needs to transform Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system favouring strongman leaders – something that many Turks do not want. But to do that, HDP must poll more than 10% across the country – a barrier introduced after the 1980 coup as a tool to ensure strong government in a country of numerous fractious parties. If not, AK, which is usually second in the southeast, will get these seats.
But in the long term, this is not enough to give Turkey a more vibrant democracy. Unless a viable opposition party with credible policies emerges, we will see a lot more of Erdogan, and it won’t be pretty. He may be less popular than before, and even with much of the castrated media taking a pro-government stance, an increasing number of voices are being raised in opposition to AK.
And yet. Never mind Shy Tories – Turkey has Shy AK supporters. This was particularly noticeable in the landslide elections in 2007. Prior to voting millions of secularists thronged the streets in protest, and hardly a good word was said about AK among the chattering classes. They polled 50%. For a long time afterwards, people would look around when they walked down the street, incredulous that one out of every two people they passed has supported AK: “We all hate them, don’t we? So how come this happened?”
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