Can the Turkish Opposition beat Erdoğan?

The most likely challenger on June 24 is the CHP’s candidate Muharrem İnce who will have an uphill battle.

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A huge banner for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan goes up in Ankara, Turkey, on June 17, 2018. Qin Yanyang/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Turkish democracy has been in a slow motion crisis for some time now. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Victor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, and Vladimir Putin. His Justice and Development Party has been running the country under a state of emergency since the summer of 2016, using anti-terrorism and defamation laws to imprison large numbers of journalists, NGO workers and opposition politicians. Last year, the party won a referendum to grant major new powers for the president. In April this year, Erdoğan called a snap election to vote in the next president of Turkey. The most likely challenger is the CHP’s candidate Muharrem İnce who will have an uphill battle.

The “national willpower” 

For the AKP the most important aspect of democracy is the vote, while separation of powers, freedom of the press and independent judiciary are regarded as irrelevant compared to the power of the “the national willpower” as the AKP catchphrase goes. A ballot victory is considered a carte blanche and that’s why elections still matter to the AKP as their sole source of legitimacy. However, their corrupt control of the media and willingness to stoop to all manner of dirty tricks (as seen in the 2015 election and 2017 referendum) means that elections are far from fair. A ballot victory is considered a carte blanche and that’s why elections still matter to the AKP as their sole source of legitimacy.

That being said, this election is going to be very tight. Approval ratings suggest that the population is closely divided on the president, and that gap seems to have got even closer. Moreover, in last year’s referendum, despite ample evidence of cheating, the AKP was only able to scrape a small majority. With anecdotal evidence of concern regarding government overreach and a worsening economy (the lira is among the worst performing currencies in the emerging markets; the inflation rate is at 12.64% in May, and expected to rise even further; two of Turkey’s major holding companies, Doğuş and Yıldız, have recently requested debt structuring from banks), even loyal followers of AKP are apprehensive of what is yet to come. This presents a real opportunity for an opposition candidate to pick up the votes from wavering AKP voters.

Discriminatory secularism

The biggest presidential contender after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Muharrem İnce of The Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the first party of modern Turkey founded by Atatürk. Whether he can beat Erdoğan is a crucial question in Turkish politics. However, the CHP has a long, troubled legacy tarnished with discriminatory secularism that they have to overcome if they are to win this coming election. 

The first problem facing CHP is the way that the new presidential system works. The move towards executive presidency was engineered by AKP for a number of reasons. The first and the most obvious is that according to the constitution of Turkey, Erdoğan is not able to serve as prime minister again, having to step back to the largely ceremonial office of the president. The other, less clear aspect is the calculation about how to make electoral success more likely for AKP, removing the possibility of a coalition. In June 2015, after thirteen years of single-party rule, AKP lost its parliamentary majority in national elections when the pro-Kurdish HDP won 13% of the votes, getting a sizeable share from the AKP. When coalition talks with the MHP (the nationalist party) and CHP fell apart, the country was rushed into snap elections in November. In the highly turbulent four months that followed, with a resurgence of terror attacks and the collapse of the ceasefire with PKK, AKP regained power in the parliament, winning 49.5% of the votes.

In less than two years after this victory, AKP issued a leaflet for MPs to promote the executive presidency to their constituencies ahead of the 2017 referendum. One of the promised virtues in the leaflet was as follows: “The executive presidency system leaves no room for a coalition and (therefore) ensures stability.” Erdoğan himself stated that “there will be no opportunity for a coalition in the new system. With the team he gathers, the president will govern the country for five years.” 

Polling puts the current ratings for presidential candidates as approximately 48.7% for AKP’s Erdoğan, 25.8% for CHP’s İnce, 14.4% for İYİ’s Akşener, 10.1% for HDP’s Demirtas , 0.6% for Saadet Party’s Karamollaoğlu, 0.4% for Vatan Party’s Perinçek; on paper enough opposition voters to form a coalition in a parliamentary system. In presidential elections there will be two rounds of voting. If one candidate doesn’t pass the 51% threshold in the first round, the field will be reduced to two candidates, probably AKP’s Erdoğan at 48.7% and CHP’s İnce at 25.8%. For CHP to win in the presidential system they will have to take voters from the eliminated parties and ideally from the AKP. The CHP is the main political engineer of the top-down secularism that was the dominant force in politics until the AKP rose to power.

This is where CHP’s own long and troubled history becomes a real obstacle. The CHP is the main political engineer of the top-down secularism that was the dominant force in politics until the AKP rose to power. For a considerable segment of Turkish population, the principle of “secularism” has a toxic history mired in discrimination and humiliation. Throughout the decades, it was implemented as the removal of religion, rather than state impartiality towards all forms of religion. The most palpable and recurrent conflict was related to the headscarf. Women with visible signs of their faith were banned from education and employment in the public sector, with private businesses mimicking the status quo and effectively excluding them.

Nur Serter, former vice rector of Istanbul University, set up “persuasion rooms” on the campus to persuade students with headscarf to uncover. Years later, a book that sheds light on what happened in those rooms refers to the experience as “psychological torture.” In the meantime, Ms. Serter enjoyed immunity from prosecution while she served as CHP member of the parliament for eight years and refused to share the video records of the sessions. Time and again, CHP tried to impede any efforts that would allow the headscarf on university campuses. AKP was the party that eventually brought the headscarf into public life. It is therefore unsurprising that the group where Erdoğan polls best is amongst women who identify as conservative.

Where Erdoğan polls best

As the most visible marker of Islamic faith, the headscarf is an issue for religious conservatives of both sexes that symbolises their broader experience of discrimination by the secular government. But that discrimination seeped into other parts of conservative lives, particularly in the field of education which was organised by the secularist establishment with a very specific ‘state sanction’ version of Islam. Imam Hatip schools were the only places a person could go to get an Islamic education, but the CHP has a history of hostility towards them: for example when Erdoğan enrolled in the Imam Hatip school in the 1960s it was CHP policy not to open any more. Students that attended them reported discrimination both official and unofficial. In 2013, Erdoğan himself said that, while attending the school, he was told that the only job he could get after graduation was as an undertaker. When Erdoğan talks about the deep state, it isn’t entirely a propaganda tool.

There is also a long history of anti-democratic interventions by secular parties and governments against religious voters in Turkey. When Erdoğan talks about the deep state, it isn’t entirely a propaganda tool. The last successful coup d’état was in 1997 when the Kemalist military forced the Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdoğan’s mentor and predecessor, to resign and dissolve the coalition government.

There have been numerous other attempts to make participation in the political system difficult for people outside of the secularist parties. It is something that Erdoğan experienced personally when he was imprisoned in 1998 for reading out a political poem. In 2007, the fifth year of AKP power, the CHP blocked the presidential election to keep Abdullah Gül, an AKP candidate and former foreign minister from taking office. They were solidly backed in this by the constitutional court, the military and other parties. The calculation was simple: with Erdoğan’s party holding both the prime ministry and the office of the speaker of parliament, the secularist establishment attempted to withhold the last pillar of government from Islamists. It worked. Gül was not elected as president. However, the government then called a general election and the Turkish public voted overwhelmingly for the AKP in a backlash vote; and eventually Gul was made president. Only a year later, a prosecutor demanded the closure of AKP and a ban on its leading members from participating in political life on the grounds that the party sought to establish a sharia order. The call was overturned by the constitutional court, but the AKP was stripped of state funding as a penalty. Women with Islamic covering are now everywhere in the public sphere, as paramedics, judges, lawmakers and police officers.

Gradually, the military control of Turkish politics has been removed, one of the achievements of the early AKP and the EU accession talks. With the AKP gaining in confidence, the headscarf issue was resolved without any public dissent. Women with Islamic covering are now everywhere in the public sphere, as paramedics, judges, lawmakers and police officers. These changes would have been unthinkable under a secularist government. New mosques are being built all across Turkey and the Imam Hatip schools are thriving. Religious voters feel like they have a lot to lose with the return of a secular party in power.


Despite the risk of alienating their secular base, the CHP is not unaware of the importance of gaining religious votes and have made attempts at rapprochement. In 2012, on a trip to Bosnia, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu mentioned that his party adhered to an “elegant form of religiosity”, which is as ambiguous as it sounds. Two years later, they nominated Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, former head of the Islamic Cooperation Organization (ICO) for the presidency. Widely regarded as a tactical move to topple Erdoğan with a like-minded rival, AKP loyalists didn’t pay too much attention to his campaign.

Muharrem Ince speaks during a rally in his hometown Yalova city, June 14, 2018. DepoPhotos/Press Association. All rights reserved.

CHP’s current presidential candidate Muharrem İnce is a practising Muslim, and his wife refers to him as a “strong but private believer” who doesn’t like to display his faith. He doesn’t even mention secularism in his manifesto for the future, concentrating rather on the many urgent priorities on the country’s agenda including the economy, education and foreign policy. He has also declared the headscarf “no longer an issue of the people.” He refers to AKP voters as “brothers and sisters who have voted AK Party.” Muharrem İnce is a practising Muslim, and his wife refers to him as a “strong but private believer” who doesn’t like to display his faith.

However, it is questionable whether CHP can win the hearts of the religious electorate. When İnce went to a Friday prayer, onlookers watched for blunders. As he held a gilded frame of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet upside down, his video was ridiculed on social media.

More systemic concerns also come to the fore. His party’s election promises include nine-year compulsory primary education. Education, however, is a partisan issue rooted in the shadow of a pre-AKP era when the middle school segments of Imam Hatip schools were shut down and their high school graduates were blocked entry to universities, and consequently into the high-skilled labor market.

Today, a significant portion of the government budget goes into Imam Hatip schools that accept children from age ten. Both conservative media and the Deputy Prime Minister were quick to attack the CHP’s clause as an attempt to return to the days when early entry to Imam Hatip upper schools that offer religious tutoring were blocked. That particular allegation has no substance. However, using their media domination as leverage, the AKP seizes every opportunity to reinforce the lack of trust among religious people for CHP. 

Monstrous media control

Any political party that wants to challenge Erdoğan in the coming election will have to deal with all the corrupt methods that the government has used over and over again. They will have to find a way round the monstrous media control that the government has managed to build for itself.

But there is a constituency for change in Turkey from secular and religious people who are concerned about the state of the economy, the authoritarian policies of the government and the severe violations of justice after the coup attempt in July 2016.

However, for Erdoğan to be voted out of power on June 24, it will require religious voters to cross the floor and vote for the CHP candidate. But the illiberal methods of the secular establishment in the past are still very much in the political memory of these voters, making it hard for them to put their faith back into a secularist government, and making the re-election of Erdoğan more likely. 

Luke Frostick is a British writer living in Istanbul and the editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books.

Merve Pehlivan is a Turkish writer.




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