Turkey’s emboldened opposition
ISTANBUL — In Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been working to centralize political power, opposition parties have lately had few reasons to be optimistic. This month’s massive rally in Istanbul was a rare exception.
On July 9, after walking for 25 days from the capital, Ankara, Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, urged supporters to resist the decline in democratic freedoms. “We will be breaking down the walls of fear,” he told a crowd of hundreds of thousands. “The last day of our justice march is a new beginning, a new step.” The question now is whether Turkey’s divided political opposition can move beyond rhetoric and mount a meaningful, unified challenge to Erdogan’s political hegemony.
Kiliçdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) commands a high level of support from Turks frustrated by Erdogan’s majority rule. But in Turkey’s constrained political environment, and with a popular if polarizing president still at the helm, opposition leaders have to struggle to maintain their momentum.
When I spoke with Kiliçdaroglu a few days before his arrival in Istanbul, as he approached the city limits, he sounded as surprised as anyone by the protest’s size, and was keenly aware of the difficulties that loomed. The march was an unplanned reaction to the arrest of Enis Berberoglu, a former editor in chief of the mainstream Hürriyet newspaper, and a CHP member of parliament.
But the 450-kilometer march’s more concrete objectives, like its route, became known only after it got underway. By the time Kiliçdaroglu arrived in Istanbul, marchers were calling for economic equity, educational opportunity, gender equality, and a guarantee of nondiscrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or cultural identity. Kiliçdaroglu, meanwhile, said his goal was the complete remodeling of the Turkish state, with clear limits on executive authority by a reempowered parliament, an impartial judiciary, and a free media. Forging a coherent political platform from this diverse array of objectives will test the CHP leadership.
In recent years, such spontaneous demonstrations have not delivered the reforms participants sought. In May 2013, for example, huge crowds gathered to challenge the government’s plans to develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park; the demonstrations ended with no real political impact. A similar outcome is possible this time.
Still, polling numbers seem to suggest that the public is increasingly behind Kiliçdaroglu. According to a survey published by Research Istanbul on the day of the rally, support for the march was 43 percent, or about 17 percentage points higher than the CHP’s approval ratings. In other words, CHP marchers drew support from outside their base, a sign of Turkey’s deepening disillusionment with the status quo.
Supporters included members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, 83 percent of whom approved of the protest. It even resonated with members of Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party; 10 percent of its members surveyed said they supported the march’s objectives.
With his unexpected, unplanned civil disobedience, Kiliçdaroglu seems to have consolidated his role as the leader of a larger, somewhat fragmented, opposition. Since last July’s failed coup, the government’s inevitable but overly heavy-handed response has alienated many Turks. With emergency rule still in effect, it seems a growing segment of the public is receptive to the opposition’s calls to strengthen the rule of law.
Erdogan’s narrow victory in April’s constitutional referendum, which granted the president sweeping new powers to dissolve Parliament, issue decrees, and unilaterally appoint judges, deepened the opposition’s resolve and also helped push more Turks into the opposition’s embrace. Per a Research Istanbul survey, 85 percent of those who voted “no” in the referendum stood with Kiliçdaroglu marchers. Tellingly, 7 percent of those who voted “yes” did as well.
It is too early to speculate whether Kiliçdaroglu’s march will have a lasting impact on Turkey’s political direction, but it has reframed expectations for the next presidential election set in November 2019. But even with the modest gains made earlier this month, Erdogan remains a formidable opponent, and there is still a long road to walk if Kiliçdaroglu’s “new beginning” for Turkey will be realized. Project Syndicate
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Sinan Ülgen is executive chair of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.