Turkish opposition down but not out
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.”