x

Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Turkey's disparate opposition has galvanised as the 'stop Erdogan' party

The Turkish president might be unstoppable ahead of Sunday's election but his divisive political machinations have come at the cost of increasing domestic opposition, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Supporters cheer and salute as they listen to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speak during an AKP election rally on June 17, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. Chris McGrath / Getty
Supporters cheer and salute as they listen to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speak during an AKP election rally on June 17, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. Chris McGrath / Getty

So divisive a figure is Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he has managed to divide even the citizens of other nations.

Last month German football players Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, both of Turkish origin with dual nationality, met Mr Erdogan on the sidelines of an event in London. The subsequent photos of them smiling with the stern president as Gundogan presented him with a shirt emblazoned with the message "to my president, with my respects" sparked a furious row in Germany about their allegiance – a row that has not yet abated and even led to Gundogan's car being vandalised.

In Turkey, too, the photos were controversial, with some feeling the pair had sprinkled stardust on a president already past his prime. But that is not the majority opinion. Having ruled as prime minister or president for 15 years, Mr Erdogan remains Turkey's most pivotal politician since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – and perhaps its most divisive one.

In his rush to take on a presidency with expanded powers, Mr Erdogan has expanded the range of his opponents.

As he gears up to claim his biggest political prize in the June 24 election, his opponents are mobilising to dent his victory. They might not ultimately be able to stop Mr Erdogan's march to the presidential palace but they could damage his carefully constructed reputation so that Turks begin to imagine a future after him.

The election is long-awaited, ever since a referendum last year paved the way for a change from Turkey's prime ministerial system to a presidential one. Yet Mr Erdogan still managed to outfox his opponents two months ago by bringing the vote forward from the end of 2019 to this month.

In doing so, Mr Erdogan was not being rash but cautious. His popularity remains high in Turkey, his relations with Russia and Iran are good, his influence across the Middle East has rarely been stronger and he has few genuine political challengers.

But all of those trends could easily change. The economy – on which Mr Erdogan has built his reputation – is stuttering; an influx of three million Syrian refugees has sparked tensions; his jailing of journalists, judges and opponents has fostered domestic opposition and foreign criticism; and his relations with big European powers such as Germany are fractured at a time when many Turks still hope for European Union membership.

True, Mr Erdogan's base appears to care little for these issues but that base is shrinking. (Not for want of trying: Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said this week that the estimated 30,000 Syrians who have been granted citizenship over the past few years could vote – presumably so they could vote for him.)

Wait too long and the presidency could have slipped beyond his reach.

Despite this, Turkey's opposition has repeatedly faltered in the face of Mr Erdogan and his AKP party, both electoral juggernauts. Mr Erdogan himself appears to be taking victory as read, even refusing to debate his main opponent on television.

Yet the opponents have chipped away at his lead in parliament and his image. In last year's constitutional referendum, they were not able to muster a “no” vote but did manage to eat away at the margin. It is part of a slow strategy of fostering resistance to Mr Erdogan by showing Turks that he is not invincible and that there might be an alternative.

That, once again, will be the opposition's aim on Sunday.

His opponents have two chief goals in this election: to force Mr Erdogan into a run-off second round if he fails to gain more than 50 per cent of the vote, proving his popularity is waning and to win seats in the parliamentary election, which takes place on the same day.

That is a more plausible feat, although still an uphill battle. Mr Erdogan's main presidential competitor is Muharrem Ince of the CHP – Ataturk's party. Mr Ince hopes to increase his party's parliamentary share, which currently stands at just 25 per cent, half that of Mr Erdogan's AKP.

Depriving Mr Erdogan of his parliamentary majority would weaken his presidency and remains the opposition's best chance of inflicting damage.

Even Meral Aksener, a charismatic former interior minister sometimes spoken of as a presidential contender, will hope her Iyi Party gains more than the half-dozen seats it currently has.

She has invigorated the campaign, proving herself an engaging speaker with a sizeable youth following. She has also offered female-focused policies, promising to increase the percentage of women in the labour force from a third to half.

To avoid being outdone, the CHP party has offered to establish a 33 per cent quota for women in government offices, which, if implemented, would be significant progress.

So fierce is the desire to unseat Mr Erdogan that his opponents are working together in unusual ways. The National Alliance, which will be the main opposition, includes the secular liberal CHP, the nationalist Iyi Party and even the Islamist Felicity Party.

Members of the CHP even visited Selahattin Demirtas – the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP – in prison, from where he is running for the presidency. The Turkish opposition has become the “stop Erdogan” party.

If they manage to do it, it will be an extraordinary result. It is more likely, however, that Mr Erdogan will win and assume new powers taken from parliament and the judiciary.

But his opponents will have learned valuable lessons about countering Mr Erdogan. The rise of Ms Aksener has shown that other politicians can match Mr Erdogan's charisma and popularity with crowds. The CHP has connected with the Kurdish community, extending its ideological appeal and accepted religious parties into its coalition. Those alliances could well endure.

Denting Mr Erdogan's popularity or ending his majority would be politically powerful. After 15 years in office, Mr Erdogan wants his supporters to believe that he is just getting started.

If the opposition succeed in planting a seed of doubt, even his supporters might conclude that another five years of a divisive president will be enough.