Turkish opposition energised as ruling party's troubles deepen

The emergence of challengers to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) has driven him closer to his far-right alliance partners and made snap elections more likely.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s secular main opposition party is making preparations for a possible early vote while mulling its future leadership prospects.

The latest political upheavals have been spurred by more than a year of poor economic performance, which led to the AKP losing key cities in this year’s local elections. 

The loss of support brought former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan back into the limelight as focal points of dissent within the AKP. Both are expected to establish new political parties by the year’s end.

With discontent mounting in Erdoğan’s own party, his alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is gaining greater importance. So much so that after months of speculation from AKP sources that the president was preparing to shuffle his cabinet to address the internal criticism, Erdoğan has apparently heeded MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s insistence that no changes should take place.

This has only magnified the intra-AKP criticisms, but the president is apparently willing to pay this price to retain the MHP’s 49 seats in parliament, which ensure his parliamentary majority. Given that more than 50 percent of the vote is needed to secure a victory in presidential elections, the MHP’s contribution here too, is vital.

Even though Davutoğlu and Babacan insist they do not want to poach AKP deputies, ruling party politicians are growing increasingly uncomfortable and some have complained that the situation in the AKP is becoming intolerable.

Sources in Ankara have said AKP deputies are preparing to rebel during votes for certain crucial laws that Erdoğan wants to pass, ensuring they will be expelled from the party rather than resigning.

With Babacan and Davutoğlu’s new parties expected by the year’s end, we are entering a period when Erdoğan’s authority over his own party and parliament will be sternly tested.

Such a challenging period makes it likely the MHP’s shadow will loom larger over Erdoğan and the AKP. This is sure to exacerbate the discontent among AKP opponents of Bahçeli and the MHP, and a rebellion could deprive Erdoğan of his parliamentary majority.

Snap elections could be an option under these circumstances, though according to the new executive presidential system, both parliamentary and presidential votes must take place at the same time. Erdoğan would not take such a plunge unless it was at the most opportune time for him.

The secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has come to see snap elections as nearly inevitable, and has ordered its organisations to prepare accordingly. Members of parliament have been dispatched to their provinces to talk to voters, identify the public’s demands and expectations, and prepare reports by next month.

At the same time, the CHP is preparing for its party congress. The executive board meeting on Sept. 15 reportedly also discussed regulations on selecting candidates for an election. 

The CHP’s party assembly has agreed to allow the return of some well-known former members, including Aylin Nazlıaka, a deputy who was expelled in 2016 for taking down a portrait of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. 

This, too, is seen as a move to give the party options in the event of an election.

The most explosive rumour concerning the main opposition party doing the rounds in Ankara concerns CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose position could be up for grabs at the next party congress.

Many had expected the party chairman to capitalise on his success in leading the party to major victories in this year’s local elections and stand unopposed at the party congress. But there have been whispers that Kılıçdaroğlu plans to stand down, leaving his seat clear for Deputy Chairman Oğuz Kaan Salıcı, an influential figure on the liberal wing of the CHP.

This could explain the sudden return of Muharrem İnce, the CHP’s unsuccessful candidate in the 2018 presidential election, who broke a long silence to declare his wish to run against Erdoğan again.

The most intriguing part of İnce’s statement was his insistence that the person to run in a presidential race should also be the party leader. This has raised expectations that he will challenge for the leadership position.

If so, he will face a very strong challenge from Salıcı, whose involvement in the elections of Istanbul CHP provincial head Canan Kaftancıoğlu and the new Istanbul mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, have earned him a healthy backing from CHP delegates in Turkey’s largest city. It is these delegates who elect a chairman if a leadership challenge takes place at a party congress. Salıcı has the added advantage of the influence he enjoys among delegates from his position heading party organisation.

İnce has already challenged Kılıçdaroğlu for the party leadershıp twice, but had his last attempt foiled by senior CHP officials after the June 2018 elections despite gathering considerable support.

If Kılıçdaroğlu does vacate the chairmanship and there is a leadership contest, it will likely spark radical change in the upper echelons of the party. The CHP’s left wing, led by Selin Sayek Böke and İlhan Cihaner, is said to be throwing its lot in with Salıcı. İnce would likely seek the support of nationalists in the party. 

One name that looks unlikely to stand for either the party chairmanship or presidency is İmamoğlu, despite speculation that he could be a serious rival to Erdoğan after his victory in Istanbul. 

If a presidential election were held in 2023 or before, İmamoğlu would have to resign as mayor of Istanbul. Since the AKP has a majority in the Istanbul municipal council, that would mean turning the city over to the ruling party.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.