by Eren Alp
Turkey is the kind of country that can give even the most experienced and intuitive political analyst a headache. Its dynamism and political volatility can defy analysis. Staying true to this, last month’s re-run general elections on 1 November, 2015 produced results that caught many by surprise, including the author and many other seasoned Turkey-watchers.
Many at the EU institutions were also caught off-guard by the AKP’s stunning election win, with nearly 50% of the vote, and this in spite of most analysts and predicting results similar to the June 7 elections. At that time the AKP teetered on the verge of dropping under the 40% level and lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002, an upset that continues to send shockwaves through the Turkish political scene.
The November 1 elections, while largely freely held on election day, were fundamentally unfair, illustrated by the AKP crackdown on remaining opposition media and the party’s domination of all others. The AKP’s overwhelming media presence is not the biggest factor in its success, however. The fact remains that Turkey’s opposition parties are so ineffective that they have little to no chance of challenging the ruling AKP for control. That same ineffective opposition, however, is also where much of Turkey’s remaining democratic impulses originate. As such, the opposition parties are natural partners for the EU in mending Turkey’s democracy, and yet they are forced to remain in the shadows while the EU struggles to work with the increasingly authoritarian AKP.
The main opposition, the CHP, and the once Kurdish issue-focused HDP have indeed begun to transform into parties that could challenge the AKP in the future, but these changes are still embryonic. The CHP, for instance, is currently in the middle of a leadership struggle, with its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu seeing charismatic rivals such as Muharrem İnce and Umut Oran emerge prior to the party congress in January 2016. To his credit, however, Kılıçdaroğlu has taken the challenges more in stride than previously, perhaps in a sign of the CHP adapting to its new, more dynamic, populist and less rigidly Kemalist ideology.
The HDP continues to struggle with the separatist PKK’s undermining its legitimacy, and the AKP’s capitalization on this fact. On the other hand, that the HDP as a party was still able to pass the 10% barrier and enter Turkey’s parliament is a sign that the June 7 election results were not an isolated incident in the party’s appeal. It remains to be seen, however, if the HDP will be able to withstand both the AKP’s attacks on it and the PKK’s efforts to pull the rug out from under its feet.
The MHP is the party most badly bruised by the AKP’s populism, which has resulted in a virtual usurpation of the MHP’s primary focus on right-wing Turkish nationalism coupled with religious conservatism. This has effectively left the MHP without a viable political identity and hovering on the edge of obsolescence, resulting in an increasingly bitter internal power struggle. Its current chieftain Devlet Bahçeli’s reputation as ‘Mr. No’, who indirectly helps the AKP, has also further damaged the MHP’s credibility in the eyes of the Turkish voter, perhaps partially explaining the AKP’s November 1 success. Recently however, strong opposition from within the MHP, with names such as Meral Akşener and more importantly Sinan Oğan emerging as candidates, has directly challenged Bahçeli’s grip on the party. This will likely prove to be a bitter and grueling struggle within the party, but one that is necessary for a rejuvenation of the party. The rebirth of the MHP is vital if the ‘loan votes’ won by the AKP are to be recovered.
The November 1 elections ensured that the AKP will continue to rule Turkey for the immediate future, seemingly with little reprieve from its increasingly overt authoritarian and religiously conservative impositions on Turkish society, to say nothing of cronyism. They also come at a time when the country’s regional and international importance has skyrocketed. There exists a whirlwind of crises besetting the EU, ranging from floods of refugees, the worsening Syrian conflict, to the growing tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine and Syria that again threatens Europe’s energy security. All of these have a common indispensable factor and solution: Turkey. The EU will have to deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP given Turkey’s growing strategic importance. The EU also has a unique opportunity to use these same crises to curb the excesses of the Erdoğan-dominated AKP regime – the very kind of democracy for accession horse-trading that the EU traditionally excels at. And this at the same time as breathing life back into Turkey’s glacial progress towards EU accession, the lack of progress on which is increasingly seen as a ‘historic mistake’, to borrow the words of Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti.
Barring anything unforeseen, Turkey will not have another election until 2019, though momentum toward a referendum in May or June 2016 on a new Constitution and Erdoğan’s presidential system appears to be building. This period of relative electoral calm is an opportunity for the EU to gradually engage with Turkey’s opposition in a manner that will not have the AKP crying foul and accusing the opposition of ‘treason’ – a long-time AKP favourite tactic of polarization. This is best exemplified by the AKP profiting handsomely from painting the HDP with a PKK brush before November 1.
The EU has a number of options which will allow the Turkish opposition to save itself from being marginalized by the AKP, and consequently to help heal Turkey’s wounded democracy. Attempting to give opposition figures similar face time in public as members of the government, will both bypass the pro-AKP media’s censorship and pressure-based dominance, and also further legitimize opposition parties in the eyes of Turkey’s voters as viable alternatives to the AKP.
Consulting with opposition parties for their positions on issues on the table between Turkey and the EU, as well as presenting appropriate opposition proposals as coming from the EU is another way to allow the opposition to contribute to Turkey’s future. Inter-parliamentary working groups are one possible way to do just this, as AKP members will still be able to contribute as well. This is admittedly an approach that will require some finesse, but allowing the opposition a voice that is not immediately suppressed or worse hijacked by the AKP is vital to rebuilding Turkey’s democratic foundation. This will also be a subtle rebuke to the AKP government, which the latter will certainly identify as such, allowing the EU to criticize the AKP while minimizing the party’s ability to respond with vitriol.
A final way the EU can help strengthen Turkey’s opposition requires no actual contact with those parties, or any contact with Turkish political actors at all. Erdoğan and the AKP benefit immensely domestically when their rule is legitimized by EU and European officials, often inadvertently. Prior to the November 1 election, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Erdoğan allowed the latter and his ‘unofficial’ party to present themselves to the Turkish voter in a statesmanlike manner. This sort of action is perceived as tacit approval of Erdoğan and the AKP’s actions by Western leaders, which reinforces their popularity among those voters who get their information from pro-government sources. Simply put, Erdoğan and the AKP regularly play Western leaders for photo opportunities, as the latter do not realize that official election or not, Turkey is always gearing up for a vote of some sort, if only psychologically.
The EU is one of the strongest influencers of Turkey’s development today, as its predecessors have been in Turkey’s near history. The EU, oblivious though it often is to how much its actions affect Turkey, is in a unique position to guide the country as a close friend, the kind that will tell things as they are. Under Erdoğan and the AKP, Turkey has gone from being a potential model for the Middle East and Muslim world into a country on the edge of chaos. It is the duty of the Turkish opposition to address this problem, but in the AKP’s Turkey, their voice is being suppressed like never before. And in the wake of a rapidly escalating and widening Syrian conflict following Turkey’s recent downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane and its sending troops to Mosul in defiance of Baghdad, the country needs a friend like the EU to pull it back from the brink of disaster. And this author truly believes that the EU is up to the task.