The opposition’s potential to undermine the Erdogan regime increases

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Due to the growing economic recession, the possibility of early elections in Turkey is increasing, writes Lucia Yar. EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

Due to the growing economic recession, the possibility of early elections in Turkey is increasing, writes Lucia Yar.

Lucia Yar is Senior Editor at EURACTIV Slovakia and a researcher at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University in Bratislava, focusing on Turkey.

Will President Erdoğan be replaced in Turkey if the economic crisis deepens after the pandemic? The Turkish president himself may be looking for a successor within the ranks of his close allies but so far without success. His position will continue to be only gently undermined by opposition: Republicans with their increasingly popular mayors, and to a much smaller extent, the pro-Kurdish HDP, experiencing its own internal turbulences.

Much more damage could be done by the President´s former associates. Given the emergence of the new parties, the AKP-led government may soon be very interested in shutting them down. Moreover, in order to circumnavigate the post-COVID crisis, much buzz has been created around the possibility of early elections. In times of emergency, AKP has a record of calling snap polls.

Repositioning of the traditional opposition

The Republican CHP has recently gained the upper hand by engaging several important and charismatic leaders. The first one is the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu. After a close victory in last year’s municipal elections over the former PM Binali Yıldırım,  İmamoğlu’s name is being touted for  a Presidential run. However, according to the latest polls, he would not be able to win just yet. However, while his popularity grows, the regime is leaving nothing to chance. In a recent interview, İmamoğlu confirmed that up to 27 different investigations were under way against him. Today, he is being praised for handling the COVID-19 crisis, similarly to another CHP representative, Ankara’s mayor Mansur Yavaş, who has also been gaining nationwide attention and becoming a top figure in the opposition.

Last but certainly not least of the big names in the CHP is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, its chairman. He has been in office for a decade, despite continuous electoral losses. His latest statement about being ready to offer the newly formed parties several of his own deputies, in return for  participating in the 2023 parliamentary elections, bolsters his reputation as a political chameleon even more, while confusing many of his supporters.

Kurds in trouble

Significant changes have surfaced in the pro-Kurdish HDP. One of its former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş, has been in custody for alleged anti-Turkish propaganda since November 2016. Without such a key leader, the party is cracking, turning towards conservative and even separatist narratives, discouraging liberal voters, who had turned to Demirtaş in 2015.

The recent departure of its prominent representative, Ahmet Şık, also speaks volumes about the internal battles. The respected former journalist, who was held in custody on suspicion of aiding terrorist groups during the post-2016 purges, joined the HDP shortly after his release. Leaving at the beginning of May on his own request, he spelled out the reasons upon ´a dominant understanding among the party’s management (…) insisting on an approach contrary to democratic practices´.

The unrest within the HDP may  well be the result of a campaign by the AKP government and its nationalist coalition partners of MHP. In addition to the arrests of party officials, 45 of the 65 HDP mayors from south-eastern municipalities have been ousted. The relentless onslaught of state institutions seems to be encouraging the HDP´s radicalization, but discouraging many of its supporters in the process.

The ‘newbies’

New parties do not emerge often in Turkish politics. Their success largely depends on an appealing and well-known leader. For instance, Meral Akşener´s İyi Party, arising from the less radical nationalist wing of MHP in 2017, being the smallest party of the National Assembly, still attracts many centre-right voters.

However, the pool of moderate conservative parties is getting crowded, as the new players who gained popularity in the ranks of the Erdoğan’s close circles, have splintered. The first is the former ideologue of Turkish foreign policy of the 2010s, Ahmet Davutoğlu. After internal disagreements within the party, shortly before changes to the constitution and country’s regime, Davutoğlu resigned as Prime Minister and withdrew from politics, only to announce the establishment of his Gelecek Partisi last December. As one of the less captivating former representatives of the AKP, he hasn’t been able to earn strong public support, but he has the potential to entice a few percent of the AKP´s voters, as does another de facto refugee, Ali Babacan.

The longest lasting member of Erdoğan´s cabinet, credited with many economic successes after the 2008 crisis, Babacan announced the creation of his party DEVA (Cure) in March. on the same day that Turkey confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Party campaigning has been postponed yet Babacan, more than Davutoğlu, has already troubled the governing coalition. In a time of economic crisis, which has been with Turkey since summer 2018 and will deepen with the coronavirus, DEVA’s fiscal recovery program may catch on, particularly among undecided voters or frustrated AKP younger, educated upper-middle class, gradually turning discontented with the government’s increasing authoritarian style.

Governmental power struggle

Meanwhile, the Turkish President is struggling to find a successor among his own team. Neither of the two alternatives seem viable, for  different reasons.

The first is the personality of Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Minister of Finance, Berat Albayarak. ´Turkish Jared Kushner´, as Western media describe him, retains an image of a boy who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, finding little support among average Turks. Nor has his financial crisis management increased his public appeal, rather the contrary.

His main rival appears to be Suleyman Soylu, Interior Minister. In an effort to prevent the coronavirus spread, authorities sent a text message to millions that 32 cities would undergo the first weekend long curfew. Panic broke out and thousands flocked to night shops. Soylu himself accepted that the sudden decision, made without warning or debate, was poorly delivered. Yet his letter of resignation was refused by the president.. Soylu has stayed in post, now enjoying almost twice as much public support as Albayrak. Since 2016, Soylu has been leading the fight against the government’s opponents, culminating in mass arrests of the opposition, strengthening his position among nationalists and security forces.

The government extended the state of emergency due to COVID-19 last week, and the crisis that awaits Turkey may be particularly severe this time. The IMF estimates that unemployment will rise to 17.4%, and the power struggle to succeed Erdoğan, the country’s one and only leader for more than 18 years may therefore turn more complicated and cold-blooded.

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