News | Social Movements / Organizing - Turkey A New Alliance against Erdoğan

The bourgeois opposition parties in Turkey are joining forces — what role will the Left play?



Zozan Baran,

View into the plenum of the Turkish National Assembly. Foto: Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu, über Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s terrible economic situation is all too visible: never-before-seen currency devaluation, high inflation rates, and consequently unbearable living conditions. Perhaps one positive result of all these painful experiences is that the AKP’s popular support, which seemed to be unshakable for quite some time, is, at least according to some polls, finally shrinking to its historically lowest point.

Zozan Baran is an activist and independent scholar of Kurdish descent from Turkey. She obtained her BA from Boğaziçi University and her MA from the Free University of Berlin. She currently resides in Berlin and writes on political regimes and movements from a comparative perspective.

This, in turn, appears to have energized the opposition parties. Finally seeing the opportunity window to defeat the AKP government, the opposition parties, especially the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP), the MHP splinter party the Good Party (İyi Parti), and the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), are now pushing for a snap election.

It is likely that after two decades of AKP rule, Turkey is going to be ruled by a new government, which could reverse at least some of the damage done to the country’s political, cultural, and social life. Yet it appears that if none of the opposition parties enjoy an absolute majority, Turkey will experience another round of coalition governments after two decades.[1]

Today, however, as opposed to the 1990s, it is also possible for parties to contest elections as a bloc or alliance. This, in turn, makes the negotiations between opposition parties even stronger and more important. When the alliance as a whole passes the ten percent electoral threshold, it enables all member parties to enter the parliament. Indeed, in the last general elections in 2018 and the local elections in 2019, four opposition parties joined forces to build such an election alliance, Millet Ittifakı (Nation Alliance).[2] This was how CHP candidates took two of the biggest metropolitan municipalities, Istanbul and Ankara, from the AKP.

This alliance will likely be re-formed for the next election to deliver the final blow to the AKP–MHP coalition. Since the last elections, two more potential members have emerged: the Future Party (Gelecek Partisi) of Ahmet Davutoğlu, the former chief advisor to Erdoğan during his prime ministry (2003–2009), then the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009–2014) and finally the Prime Minister of the short-lived sixty-second government (2014–2016). The second force is the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA Partisi), founded and led by Ali Babacan, another chief figure in the AKP: first as Minister of State in Charge of Economic Affairs (2002–2007), then Minister of Foreign Affairs (2007–2009), and finally the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Financial Affairs. These two parties will likely join the Nation Alliance for the next elections, although rumour has it that Babacan is hesitant to join forces in fear of consolidating the AKP–MHP constituency.

It is of course puzzling how two AKP successor parties are now key players in the opposition. It is even a bigger wonder how these parties will come together with the AKP’s main political enemy, the CHP. Due to the İyi Parti’s (and possibly other parties, as well) objection to the HDP being the part of the Alliance, it’s likely that HDP will — at least officially — remain outside. Therefore, this article will be limited to the parties of the Alliance that range from the centre-left CHP to the centre-right and right-wing parties. Focusing on the possible coalition partners in the near future can also shed light on Turkish politics after the AKP and Erdoğan.

Despite their differences, the common desire that bring the parties of the Alliance together is to get rid of Erdoğan. However, one could argue that the question of what comes after is as important as whether Erdoğan can be defeated. Naturally, one might wonder what the opposition’s strategy is in defeating him. This is where things get ambiguous. While all four parties are focused on putting all the blame exclusively on Erdoğan, they curiously avoid explaining the socio-economic, political base of Erdoğan’s power. Understandably so, given that they are eagerly trying to unite with his former comrades. In fact, the current political sentiments are quite reminiscent of the first decade of the AKP rule: bringing masses and intellectuals from all poles of the political spectrum together, a rising optimism, even euphoria, conflicting statements regarding democracy, minority rights, and social rights.

Needless to say, DEVA and Gelecek are especially eager to present the first decade of AKP rule as a golden era. By doing so, they absolve themselves of the crimes which they now attribute to Erdoğan. The other alliance partners, the İyi Parti and the CHP, are willing to accept this, as they want to justify their own rapprochement with the splinter parties.

At first glance everything appears straightforward: the opposition parties come together, leave their differences behind, and join forces to overcome Erdoğan. But can the Nation Alliance manage to create a hegemonic project like the AKP did between 2002 and 2012? And if so, how will this hegemonic project look and what will it offer the lower classes? Obviously, these are big questions that require more than one article to answer. What we can aim to achieve here is to clear the fog over the opposition parties. Below I will briefly present these four parties’ political and ideological standpoints with reference to their political programmes.

Opposition Parties in the Political Spectrum

Situating the foursome of the Alliance along the right-left spectrum, we could begin with the İyi Party on the right. The party puts a strong emphasis on national and religious identity, while also being the most vocal anti-immigrant party in the entire political system. It also demonstrates a preference for a strong state in both the economic as well as political and cultural spheres.[3]

Its leading figure, Meral Akşener, entered political life as a member of the centre-right True Path Party (DYP) and became Turkey’s Minister of Interior between 1996–1997 in a coalition government led by the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan. While the international press hails her as the defender of the democracy against the military due to her opposition to the military memorandum of 28 February, she was a key figure in the war against Kurdish movement in the 1990s. It might suffice to remind readers that this war displaced thousands of Kurdish people, destroyed their lives and homes, and generalized systemic torture against political opponents. She left the DYP in 2001 to join Erdoğan and Gül, when they split off the successor organization of the Welfare Party, but eventually joined the National Movement Party (MHP) instead. She founded the İyi Parti in 2017, after unsuccessfully attempting to challenge MHP leader Bahçeli and being expelled in 2016.

The İyi Party is one of the populist right-wing parties of recent years, and if Turkey was not already suffering from another authoritarian party, they would have probably gained more attention as a threat to democracy, not as a saviour of it. Since its foundation, the İyi Parti has given voice to anti-migrant sentiments and pushed a nationalist-religious conservative agenda that can be regarded as a typical example of Turkish-Islamic ideology. One might say that Turkey’s tragedy is that such parties are quite often celebrated as democratic when they emerge as challengers to the assumed status quo. Indeed, Erdoğan was celebrated quite similarly two decades ago.

The İyi Parti is followed by the two AKP splinter parties: Gelecek Partisi and DEVA. Both parties can be considered centre-right, with their culturally mild conservatism and strong anti-statist, free market economic stands.[4] Their strong pro-business stance is also clear from the profile of their founders. This is especially so for the Gelecek: one third of the party’s founding council consists of businesspeople. The ratio among DEVA Partisi’s founding members is 28 percent. According to polls, they do not have strong popular support. While DEVA’s share swings between 4 and 2 percent, Gelecek Partisi mostly remains below 2 percent. Although these shares could be decisive in a possible election alliance, their real benefit is that they can split the AKP’s votes. CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu possibly wants the two to get the support from religious voters. However, Babacan and Davutoğlu are more technocratic than religious types. Indeed, especially Babacan is being praised by the Western media as a reliable technocrat behind the economic miracle of the AKP’s first decade.

Finally, the CHP represents the only centre-left party in the Nation Alliance. The CHP has more space in its programme for class-based organizations and welfare state provisions. At the same time, the CHP possibly represents the biggest enigma. Indeed, it is hard to historically situate the party among the social-democratic parties. In this regard, CHP is much closer to the Democratic Party in the US. In fact, like the Democratic Party, the CHP’s rapprochement with the Left has occurred in the 1960s, although the push in this direction first came from the student movements in the 1950s against the Democratic Party of Turkey, which was in power at the time and harshly repressed political opponents.[5] This rapprochement was strengthened in the 1970s by the party’s first left-populist leader, Bülent Ecevit, and the party gradually came to be seen as a social-democratic party.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP’s current leader, was expected to model himself after Ecevit when he first came to power in 2010. It was hoped that he would mitigate the party’s assumed staunch secularism and put more emphasis on socio-economic issues and, in doing so, gain support from the religious lower classes. It is hard to say that Kılıçdaroğlu made a visible move towards social democracy since then. However, he surely softened the party’s position on secularism. Indeed, it is hard to say whether the CHP is still a Kemalist party in the strictest sense of the word. One could argue that it represents a kind of eclectic combination of social democracy, neoliberalism, and a softened version of Kemalism and centre-right ideologies. It might not be completely surprising when we take the party’s ideological shift throughout its history, in which only some versions of Turkish nationalism remained as the constant.

The party’s current political programme is from 2008. As stated above, when the party leadership changed in 2010, it was expected that the party would go through a far-reaching transformation, politically and ideologically. Yet, the party’s programme remained intact. It is one of the customs of Turkish politics that the political programme matters little to the party’s actual politics. This is even more the case for the CHP than for any other party. Maybe this is why the party has not bothered to revise its political programme since 2008, although there have been some reports in this direction after the new constitution was in operation.

Back to “Normal”?

It may appear that the Nation Alliance covers the entire range of the political spectrum, except what remains to the left of social democracy. Yet, with the CHP being the strongest member of the Alliance and the current economic situation worsening living conditions for the working class, one might expect the Alliance to stick to a more or less social-democratic agenda. However, one cannot help but wonder how social-democratic the next government could be with a hesitant CHP, two staunch free market supporters, and a statist party. But what is even more confusing is that the Alliance is curiously silent about its own economic programme and hardly ever goes beyond putting the blame of the current economic situation on Erdoğan.

To be fair, the parties of the Alliance have a clearer political agenda, on which all of them seem to agree. They promise to first return to full parliamentary democracy, repealing the presidential system initiated by Erdoğan. The İyi Partiproposed an enhanced parliamentary system which arguably represents the Alliance as a whole: alongside returning to parliamentary democracy, they promised separation of powers, transparency in state administration, protection of minority rights, stricter regulations against femicide, and a meritocratic restructuring of the bureaucratic system. Kılıçdaroğlu explained the first six steps to be taken when they are in power, which guarantees equality and freedom of expression for all citizens. Both Gelecek and DEVA often make public statements to separate themselves from the current AKP government, which can be regarded as an assurance to their potential partners.

Indeed, the parties of former AKP politicians present themselves as figures of the golden age who were expelled from the party because they did not accept Erdoğan’s one-man rule. This claim, of course, grossly misinterprets the facts of the AKP period and how we ended up here. I Erdoğan’s personal style and hunger for power are certainly one part of the AKP story. However, Erdoğan was not alone in his crimes. On the contrary, Ahmet Davutoğlu, for example, is behind the AKP’s “active” neo-Ottomanist foreign policy, which put Turkey in conflict with its neighbours and drew the country into several conflicts across the Middle East. Babacan is no more innocent. In the years which, according to Der Spiegel, were the time of economic miracles, the AKP initiated an enormous privatization, which is one of the reasons that devaluation is leading to such painful pauperization today.

Why, then, did the CHP and the Iyi Party so readily accept such justifications of the two parties? Naturally, they need this justification as much as DEVA and Gelecek Partisi leaders, if they are to gain power. But there may be another reason. What the CHP and the İyi Parti present as an alternative to the AKP is basically whatever is the opposite of the AKP, or even solely of Erdoğan. While sharing this, Davutoğlu and Babacan promise a return to a golden age: they believe they represent the successful first decade of the AKP, and if they join forces with the opposition, they can bring these golden ages back. As the opposition suffers from the lack of alternatives, this may appear to them like a kind of political lifejacket. For the alliance, it is also a way to reassure the big bourgeoisie and the international community, as the sentiment that 2002–2012 was the golden age of Turkish democracy is popular among these circles, as well.

Indeed, it appears that the country’s big capitalists have joined forces with parts of the opposition now that the AKP’s loss of power seems more and more likely. TÜSIAD, Turkey’s secular big bourgeois association, published a report which they named “Building the Future Report”. It came on the occasion of the association’s fiftieth anniversary, at the end of October. Yet, the timing was quite meaningful as it also coincided with one of the peaks of the currency crisis and when the opposition gained confidence after some polls suggested that the Nation Alliance could finally beat the AKP–MHP coalition in elections. Therefore, the report can be interpreted as an economic roadmap for the opposition parties, as-Berlin based economy Professor Ümit Akçay suggests. The report also proposes a mild version of social democracy. However, this should be read as a limit to be set by the bourgeois class for how far the opposition to the AKP can go. In fact, it might be interpreted as a warning to the opposition parties against a popular mobilization. Taking into account that the Executive Board of the party saw the current mobilizations against the currency crisis as a provocation, one wonders if the TÜSIAD’s warning was necessary at all.

But can we talk about a left alternative, which can offer another way out, give a voice to the working-class, and represent an independent popular movement that distinguishes itself from both the opposition’s promise to return to the golden age of neoliberalism and the government’s “timid developmentalism? Clearly, the left opposition shares the general discontent with Erdoğan’s rule. However, the Left cannot afford to agree with the Nation Alliance in claiming that it is all Erdoğan’s fault. It must be clear that Turkey faces a real economic challenge that points out a deeper crisis of accumulation than Erdoğan’s ideological and wrong decisions. A left and egalitarian alternative to this is needed more than anything else. On the other hand, while sharing the minimum programme of returning to parliamentary democracy, drafting a new constitution, transparency and protection of basic rights, a left alternative has to go beyond that. Perhaps the question is how we can prevent the last twenty years from being repeated.

Elections, as we know, are basic platforms where various political, ideological, and programmatic positions become more accessible to the public. What the left can do is to use this platform as an independent force. How the left parties will react to this urgent need will be clearer in the coming months. The current euphoria and optimism is terribly reminiscent of the first years of the AKP government. Back then, it seemed strange how all the signs of future authoritarianism were simply ignored. I can’t help but wonder if this is the case again, and whether the Left will make a terrible mistake and tell themselves that its enemy’s enemy is its friend, and join forces with the Nation Alliance.

[1] Before the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey had been ruled by coalition governments for the entire decade. Several combinations of coalition governments between centre-right, social democrats, and Islamists were identified as one of the reasons behind the country’s unstable economic and political situation in the 1990s. This has also been the AKP’s claim to back its one-party government as stable und strong as opposed to fragile coalitions.

[2] Alongside the CHP and the İyi Parti, the AKP’s predecessor Felicity Party (SP) and an electorally irrelevant centre-right party, the Democratic Party (DP). Here, I will only focus on the two bigger members of the Nation Alliance alongside the newcomers. I believe analyzing these four gives us a better understanding of the Alliance than the smaller ones, both because the latter are relatively irrelevant and also because they have clearer political-ideological leanings: the DP is a classic centre right party, while the SP is an Islamic party.

[3] Here I attempt to provide a brief overview of their political programme. Hence, unless stated otherwise, the references are from the party’s political program. Unfortunately the programme is not available in English, but a short introduction is available here.

[4] Their party programmes can be viewed here and here.

[5] The DP of the 1950s is and has been one of the AKP’s reference points. On the one hand, the AKP drew its lineage to the DP to separate itself from its Islamist predecessor party. On the other hand, they did so to draw a similarity between how it was treated by the secular state elites and how the DP was at the end overthrown by a coup. Three of the most prominent figures of the DP were hanged after the coup.