Turkey: Opposition Unity’s Collapse Risks Accelerating Shift To ‘Sultanism’ – OpEd


Turkey’s drift into a completely authoritarian system has only been thwarted by the existence of a strong opposition bloc – which now seems to be fragmenting. 

By Onur Alp Yilmaz

In competitive authoritarian regimes like Turkey, it is a sine quo non for the opposition to form a united bloc to create a resistance point against the government.

This was achieved in the 2019 local elections, when the opposition scored a major victory against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The opposition Good Party leader Meral Aksener’s statement on August 26 makes it unlikely the opposition will achieve a similar success in the local elections due in six months’ time.

It may well accelerate the regime’s shift from competitive authoritarianism to a form of “sultanism”.

“It is important that we save Turkish politics from the spiral of pragmatic politics that it finds itself in today,” Aksener said on August 26.

“Next year, all political parties should compete in the elections separately. Let’s all run our separate candidates…I call to all of you, Erdogan, [Devlet] Bahceli, [Kemal] Kilicdaroglu, let’s all compete in this election separately,”

A question should be asked at this point: What are the factors that distinguish Turkey from similar regimes and keep democracy alive? To answer this, it is a must to first discuss what Turkey’s regime is.

It is not exactly competitive authoritarianism, where pluralism is almost nonexistent, authoritarian in its essence. Nor is it a regime with a ruler who is not subject to any legal boundaries, which draws its strength from fear, and distributes rewards to supporters.

Although Turkey is closer to the second of these types, it is located somewhere between the two. The main reasons for this are: i) The high turnout rate of voters and their reflexes to protect their votes, ii) The opposition’s great public power through the municipalities it controls, but which is excluded from the reward system that the government distributes to its supporters.

So, how did the opposition win the metropolitan municipalities, which was one of the reasons that has prevented Turkey from turning into a “sultanist” regime?

Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, the former party of the founders of the Good Party, IYIP, led by Aksener, moved from the opposition to the ruling bloc after the People’s Democratic Party, HDP, the party of the Kurdish movement, passed the 10-per-cent electoral threshold for the first time in its history in 2015.

This sudden axis shift of the MHP was caused by several reasons. First, it thought that in an environment where the HDP is on the rise, the MHP’s alliance with it to unseat the government would mean denying its “raison d’etre” – Turkish nationalism.

Secondly, in this election, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AK Party, lost its parliamentary majority. As a result, while the MHP offered the AK Party an alternative, so that it would not need the HDP to maintain itself in power, it also made itself a partner in power, free of responsibility in the process.

However, the MHP’s stance resulted in the establishment of the IYIP under the Aksener, accompanied by others who left the party. This thwarted Bahceli and Erdogan’s dream of transforming the country into a “sultanist” regime with 60 per cent-plus of the votes, to be obtained from the combination of the votes of the AK Party and the MHP.

Contrary to their expectations, the opposition bloc, led by Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party, CHP, managed to come together against the Presidential government system.

In this success, as in the March 31 2019 local elections, the CHP neutralized its candidates and made them able to receive votes from both the IYIP and the HDP. The disruption of this harmony was made possible thanks to rivalry between the alliances. After the 2019 local elections, two former prominent figures of the AK Party, former prime minister Davutoglu and former minister Babacan, who were both disturbed by the AK Party’s authoritarian policies, formed two separate parties.

With the participation of the parties founded by these two figures, an anti-government “table of six” was set up.

The main goal of this “table” was to return Turkey to a stronger parliamentary regime. But from this moment on, rivalry began between Babacan’s party and Aksener’s party for the centre-right vote. Both parties wanted to lead management of the economy in the next government.

Aksener put forward a vision that went beyond the “table”, saying that she was a candidate for an office that had not yet been revealed, the prime minister, probably in order to impose a more assertive image than Babacan.

However, this statement had a price for Aksener. Since the day she founded her party, the flow of votes from the CHP to her party stopped. There was a very rational reason for this in terms of the voters. Aksener was a candidate for an office that was not yet in the frame, and had turned into an actor who did not promise power in the short term.

After this moment, Aksener changed her strategy and began to emphasize, implicitly that, although she did not promise power, Kilicdaroglu, the potential presidential candidate of the opposition, did not promise power either – because he was not likely to win the elections.

On the other hand, Aksener highlighted the names of two CHP metropolitan mayors with high levels of social support, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas – and stated that they could win an election against Erdogan.

By this means, she wanted to re-initiate the vote transition from CHP to her own party, creating an image of herself as “the only actor acting responsible for the change the government”, taking advantage of the charisma of the two mayors who are members of a party that is an alliance partner.

At the end of this process, Aksener openly called for these two mayors to be candidates and with harsh words said that if Kilicdaroglu was the presidential candidate, she would leave the alliance. Kilicdaroglu became the candidate and Aksener returned to the table under oppositional social pressure.

Aksener’s statement on August 26 is an extension of this attitude. Presenting herself as the only actor who has behaved responsibly throughout the whole process, she seeks votes from the CHP base. In this direction, she has declared the CHP as the sole culprit for Erdogan’s victory and did not make any self-criticism about her own party, whose vote rate remained the same.

Aksener has also opened the door to the risk of triggering the apathy that emerged among opposition voters after the 2023 elections by calling on the parties to enter the local elections without any alliance, contrary to the model that was successful in the previous local elections.

Such actions may cause opposition voters to despair of the opposition and not vote or dissolve the united opposition. This risks eliminating the two fundamental differences that have distinguished Turkey from similar regimes – as explained above. If Aksener wants to create political space for her party, she should force all decision makers, especially herself, to undertake self-criticism.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Onur Alp Yılmaz is an Istanbul-based political scientist and political advisor.

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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