Turkey’s irresolute opposition gives Erdogan time to recover

Not much of the equation is likely to change unless the opposition gets its act together.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu addresses party members during a meeting in Ankara, July 2. (AFP)
Music to Erdogan’s ears. Chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu addresses party members during a meeting in Ankara, July 2. (AFP)

“It’s over,” I hear many observers of Turkish politics say. “He is playing the extra time now,” they note in a reference to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s invincible supreme leader.

Is it truly over? Is he really playing the extra time? A week, even a day, is a long time in Turkish politics.

What is over is the euphoria of the opposition, following the sweeping victory in the “repeat elections” for Istanbul. More than a month has passed, there is not much left of the clouds of hope and the magnetic motto, “everything will be just fine.”

The opposition seems to have returned to its default setting as a dispersed, confused entity. It is made up of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is in an alliance with the nationalist Iyi party. There is also the outsider pro-Kurdish the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Erdogan seems to be congratulating himself that he didn’t act impulsively to the result. He would have feared that the loss of six largest municipalities to the opposition bloc would have led to a massive cop-out from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

He would blink before his adversaries — CHP, Iyi and HDP — could have joined forces and called for early elections after seeing that the ruling AKP’s votes went down to an all-time low of 35%. None of that happened.

Erdogan chose to lay low, waiting for the dust to settle, to return to business as usual. Well aware that he has to keep close to his ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, Erdogan stuck to his rhetoric and continued on the same path.

Erdogan’s loyal cadres in the Istanbul Municipal Council left Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, the big winner of the elections, in convulsions over how to manage a nearly bankrupt municipality, where the financial resources had been siphoned off by murky means.

More important, Erdogan’s major adversary, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secular CHP, backed the Turkish president’s moves to challenge the United States on the purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defence system as a “national security necessity.”

At a CHP party meeting, Kilicdaroglu said: “We, as the CHP, shall not call for early elections because we all know that the country undergoes a very intense economic crisis. We don’t think it is right to go to polls under such conditions. Let us give them (AKP) time. Will they be able to deliver or not? The citizens should see this.”

Those statements are music to Erdogan’s ears. He knows that the main opposition has chosen to be a voluntary hostage to his adventurist foreign policy and he knows that the CHP has no alternative economic policy, giving him four precious years to recover, regroup the AKP and consolidate his iron rule. In short, Erdogan has all the necessary codes to help him survive at a very critical time of his political journey.

Why isn’t the opposition stronger after the Istanbul elections? While the CHP is in a “wait and see till AKP cracks” mood, all it has to say about the bleeding Kurdish issue is that, in the words of its leader, “we are updating our report on the problem.”

Leader of its minor Iyi ally, Meral Aksener, keeps repeating the same sentence that Erdogan will not be toppled via elections.

As for the HDP, having done much of the crucial tactical voting to defeat Erdogan out of the big cities, it is now on hold, to see whether the centrist opposition means serious business to pull back Turkey onto the rails of democratisation.

Meanwhile, the deportation of Syrian refugees from large cities seems to “soften” Erdogan’s opponents, particularly in Istanbul, because he seems to follow their demand that Syrians and Afghans and all the other “backward” elements should be sent back where they belong. If coming from the president, the change of policy diverted the anger from his palace to an outcast social group, distracting the once-accumulated energy to push him from power.

This leaves a true counter-dynamic that challenges the power structure: the looming economic crisis. This is the only part where Erdogan plays for time, busy calculating how to create a feasible equation on which he would still be on top.

This is the point that may be causing illusions for his antagonists and observers. They should not forget that Erdogan is constantly busy keeping bureaucracy and institutions on edge to keep them under his control. His grip on the media is intact, as his loyal cadres in parliament and, despite minor deviations, the judiciary is in his orbit.

Not much of this equation is likely to change unless the opposition gets its act together, rises to the golden occasion and accumulates energy through the growing dismay of a public starting to feel the pain of economic hardship.