Turkish opposition down but not out

Sunday 30/04/2017
Unbowed. Supporters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) chant slogans during a protest outside Istanbul’s Court House. (AP)

Istanbul - Turkey’s embattled oppo­sition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can find glimmers of hope in a shifting political land­scape despite the strongman win­ning a controversial referendum that will hugely enhance his pow­ers.
The “no” vote totalled 48.6% in the April 16 poll after a lopsided campaign that saw the “yes” dom­inate the airwaves with Erdogan speeches and flood the streets with pro-government billboards.
Opposition leaders have chal­lenged the result, claiming rigging and a last-minute change to the rules by the election board dis­torted the outcome, an argument vehemently rejected by the au­thorities.
Analysts say, however, that the official results make troubling reading for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Er­dogan, who just two days before the poll confidently predicted that “yes” would win with up to 60%.
The results showed support for “yes” down among the young — especially first-time voters — and in big cities. Both Ankara and Is­tanbul backed “no” despite having AKP mayors.
The electoral map showed Tur­key more divided than ever with the “no” vote dominating from Thrace down into the Mediterra­nean coast and into the Kurdish-dominated south-east but “yes” holding strong in the Anatolian in­terior and the Black Sea region.
Meanwhile, the AKP’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) failed to work with many nationalist voters, defying the support of the MHP’s long­standing and enigmatic leader Devlet Bahceli for the new presi­dential system.
Pro-government columnist Ab­dulkadir Selvi wrote in the Hurri­yet daily that the results should be an early warning for the AKP ahead of November 2019, when presiden­tial and parliamentary elections are both scheduled and most of the constitutional changes come into force.
“The political landscape is ob­viously changing,” Ozgur Unluhi­sarcikli, Ankara office director for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Agence France- Presse.
“There are worrying signs for the AKP but we should not exag­gerate. This was a referendum, not an election.”
Unluhisarcikli said that while more than 48.5% may have voted “no”, this was made up from di­verse forces ranging from national­ists to Kurds to leftists “who can­not be brought together under a political programme.”
Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution said that together the AKP and MHP had lost 10% in votes on April 16 compared with their combined tally in the Novem­ber 2015 legislative elections.
“The alliance seems to have fallen short… despite all the bravado that marked their language,” he said.
Unluhisarcikli said there was a chance of significant change in the nationalist camp as dissidents give up on Bahceli’s leadership, raising the possibility of a new party.
The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu appears safe in his position after leading the “no” camp, although some of his cohorts would have liked a more aggressive response to the alleged poll viola­tions.
The challenge of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been diluted by the jailing of a dozen of its MPs, a move it says was punishment for daring to oppose Erdogan’s new system.
Those behind bars include the HDP’s charismatic co-leader Sela­hattin Demirtas, who some analysts said would have transformed the “no” campaign as its main figure­head instead of the bookish Kil­icdaroglu.
Street protests in areas of Istanbul have followed the disputed results.
Although limited to anti-Erdogan areas and not exceeding a few thou­sand in number, such demonstra­tions have been unusual under the state of emergency that followed the July 15 failed coup.
“The opposition seems energised by the results,” said Asli Aydintas­bas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, add­ing the protests were however “un­likely to be sustainable over any meaningful period.”
Erdogan, a former semi-profes­sional footballer, bullishly pro­claimed in a televised interview that in football a 1-0 win is the same as a 5-0 win. However, the narrow­ness of the win means he lacks a crushing mandate for the new sys­tem and will have to tread carefully on economic, foreign and domestic policy at a delicate time.
Analysts said he would have to decide whether to choose compro­mise over his trademark confronta­tion in dealing with a weaker econo­my, strained ties with the European Union and the continued insurgen­cy by Kurdish militants.
“Erdogan will be quite confident he can win the next presidential elections,” said Unluhisarcikli.
“What should worry him now is how to govern a society with a so­cial contract signed by just 50% of the population.”
(Agence France-Presse)