The closer the next general presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey get, the more obvious the peculiarities of the internal political conflict between the opposition and the government become.
Last week, one of the members of the Alliance of Six (in particular, the leader of the Good Party, Meral Akşener) refused to support Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), as the opposition’s single candidate. The public and the media started to discuss the possibility of an emerging split in the opposition coalition, which would create favorable conditions for the success of incumbent President Recep Erdoğan in the first round.
However, the opposition’s hesitation did not last long. Maral Akşiner, who favored the candidacy of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu or Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş (whom the Good Party had supported in the 2019 municipal elections against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates, which enabled the former to win), met and negotiated with CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu at the request of these favorites for the upcoming election. As a result, she agreed with the opinion of all the members of the Alliance of Six and supported the single candidacy of 74-year-old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the upcoming presidential election, which eliminated the “split” in the opposition.
Meanwhile, Maral Akşiner put forward a proposal as a condition of her agreement to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy: if the opposition leader wins, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş will be appointed vice-presidents. This idea was supported and developed. In particular, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promised to appoint all the leaders of the five parties of the “opposition alliance” bloc as vice-presidents in addition to the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara in case of his victory.
Of course, today Kılıçdaroğlu can promise anything to anyone. In order to fulfill these promises he needs, at the very least, to succeed in the presidential election. The reason we have drawn attention to this issue is that Mrs. Meral Akşener has repeatedly advocated strengthening the role of parliament in governing Turkey and almost a return to the previous system of government, i.e., the Prime Minister’s rule. If the leader of the Good Party now accepts the appointment of seven vice presidents after Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory, this change in the institution of presidential rule is unlikely to indicate a weakening of this system of government.
According to the 2017 constitutional amendments, once the president is elected, he or she can appoint one or more vice presidents at his or her discretion. Currently, President Erdoğan has only one first vice president, Fuat Oktay, who is the highest official in the country after the president. The vice-president is appointed from among those who have the right to be a member of parliament, takes the oath to parliament, and is a member of the Cabinet of Ministers, the National Security Council and the Supreme Military Council.
In other words, Recep Erdoğan, whom the opposition criticizes for the transition to a presidential republic, is content with one vice-president, while the opposition, which allegedly advocates the strengthening of parliamentary power, proposes seven vice-presidents at once. This is a bit strange, and probably even not the topic of the agreement between Meral and Kılıçdaroğlu.
It is known that the leader of the center-right Good Party had previously enjoyed the support of Turkish nationalists from the National Unity Party (the UBP, now an ally of the ruling regime headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). Accordingly, Akşener opposed any alliance with Kurdish political forces, accusing them of links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been declared a terrorist organization in Turkey. However, the other opposition parties of the Alliance of Six (especially the CHP) have to reckon with the objective reality and consider cooperation with the local Kurds inevitable. In particular, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) led by Salahaddin Demirtaş, which showed very good results in the previous elections.
As you know, at the parliamentary elections in June 2015, the HDP won 13.12% of the votes and was part of the GNAT, had two ministers in the government of Ahmet Davutoğlu (Ali Konca, Minister of European Union Affairs and Muslim Dogon, Minister of Development), controlled 48 municipalities mainly in the south-eastern provinces of the country with a predominantly Kurdish population. After the July 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish authorities also subjected members of the HDP to mass repression, accusing them of allegedly collaborating with the PKK and Muhammed Fethullah Gülen (including party leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ Şenoğlu).
However, given the current circumstances (particularly in light of the devastating earthquake that also struck the southeastern Kurdish-populated provinces), the need to count the votes of Kurdish voters in the upcoming general elections is becoming more pressing. For the opposition, the Kurdish issue is more relevant also because of the Kurds’ growing dissatisfaction with President Recep Erdoğan (which is rather explicable, because no power in Turkey, regardless of its promises during the pre-election period, can satisfy the Kurdish movement’s political demands).
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is seriously offended by the ruling regime and Erdoğan personally for the anti-Kurdish repression after the July 2016 events (according to various estimates, the number ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 people, including the arrest of pro-Kurdish party leaders) and the tightening of the Turkish Armed Forces’ external intervention against the Kurdish movement in neighboring Iraq and Syria. In addition, the Kurds now have high hopes for the United States and its policy in the Middle East. In turn, Washington is criticizing the policy of Recep Erdoğan. It is true that the Kurds should remember the sad history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and not forget that it was under President Recep Erdoğan’s rule that their political party managed to make its way into the Turkish parliament and government.
Accordingly, the Turkish opposition represented by the CHP and the rest of the members of the Alliance of Six harshly castigate President Erdoğan’s foreign policy of weakening relations with the main ally, the United States. In this situation, the CHP and its allies cannot ignore Washington’s attitude towards the Kurds (at least during the upcoming general elections). Therefore, it can be assumed that the main topic of negotiations between Akşiner and Kılıçdaroğlu was the Kurdish issue in the elections, while the agreement was formalized by the idea of a broad list of vice-presidents.
Many experts believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, has no specific program that could help him overcome the authority and charisma of R. Erdoğan in the upcoming elections. At the same time, the same experts believe that 74-year-old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu significantly loses in the ratings to his own fellow party members, represented by the Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu and the Mayor of Ankara Mansur Yavaş.
What can be said in this connection? Naturally, the elderly Kılıçdaroğlu obviously lags behind his two younger colleagues in terms of energy, attractiveness and other personal qualities. However, one can hardly assume that the program of one member of the CHP can be strikingly different from that of the CHP leader (moreover, as we could see, neither of them – Imamoglu and Yavas – challenged intraparty discipline and opposed the single opposition candidate Kılıçdaroğlu).
The fact is that the upcoming general elections come at a momentous time for the Turks. And it is connected not only with the consequences of the devastating earthquake disaster, but also the year of the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic founded by Kemal Pasha (Atatürk) – the founder of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the first president of Turkey. In the East, and in Turkey in particular, political symbolism has a special meaning.
100 years later, Atatürk’s party again claims power in the Republic. One Kemal in 1923 founded the Republic of Turkey with an orientation toward a strong West (at that time toward the Anglo-Saxon leader, England), another Kemal in 2023 would continue the pro-Western policy of preserving the Republic (now under the aegis of the United States) rather than reviving the Turan Empire (as Recep Erdoğan did not rule out). “From Kemal to Kemal” could be an attractive slogan for Kılıçdaroğlu’s election program.
The leader of the ruling AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has repeatedly criticized and revised the foundations of the Kemalist doctrine during his two decades in power with a bias toward the rebirth of a strong and independent Turkey.
In his election program on the domestic policy, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, of course, will sharply criticize the policies of the AKP and Erdoğan for: the crisis in the economy, the devaluation of the lira, rising unemployment, the scale of corruption in the construction business which caused huge destruction in the earthquake zone, the costs of democracy, violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms, mass repression after the events of 2016. As for foreign policy, the leader of the CHP will harshly castigate his main opponent for: the weakening of the strategic alliance with the United States and NATO in general, the passion for partnership with Russia and China, the conflict with the Kurdish movement outside Turkey, the slowdown of the integration process with the EU. Regardless of these problems, the pre-election criticism will come mostly from propaganda. The fact is that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has made a career as a civil servant and politician in the ranks of the CHP under the US supervision, will be in favor of restoring the Kemalist strategy in domestic politics, on the one hand, and, on the other, will be strongly oriented toward the United States, NATO and the EU in foreign policy.
Kılıçdaroğlu, being a statesman, is unlikely to give up everything that benefits Turkey’s national interests in relations with Russia or China. Although we remember that the leader of the CHP criticized Erdoğan for agreeing to Russia’s Akkuyu nuclear project and excluding Western partners (such as the United States, France or Canada). The Turks seem to support President Vladimir Putin’s idea of creating a gas hub in Eastern Thrace, which could depoliticize the issue of Russian gas in Europe. However, the Turks claim they do not have the necessary finances to build the required infrastructure (reservoirs) and the Russians will have to invest in the construction of this project on the territory of Turkey themselves. Besides, the meeting (Russian-Turkish conference) scheduled for February 14 and then for March 22, 2023 in Turkey to discuss a range of issues on the “gas hub” project is still being postponed by the Turkish side sine die. The reasons cited are the consequences of the earthquake and, in reality, perhaps waiting for the results of the upcoming elections.
One thing is clear, the Turks, and their leaders, are trying never to refuse proposals and programs that are interesting and profitable for them. The only thing left to do is to be patient in waiting for the elections and the formation of a new government.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”