BACKGROUND: On October 2, 2022, the leaders of Turkey’s six-party main opposition alliance in a joint statement announced their intention to draft common policies on justice, public administration, transparency, economy, regional issues, science and technology, education and social, foreign and security policies. “We have decided to establish a joint working group to determine the fundamental policies we will implement for the benefit of our people,” the leaders of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party, the Felicity Party, the Future Party, the Democracy and Progress Party and the Democrat Party declared.
The opposition alliance was launched in February 2022, with the six parties to it pledging to overhaul Turkey’s current constitution, which gives unchecked powers to the president, restore power to the parliament and secure the autonomy of the judiciary. With their statement on October 2, the six parties express an intention to go beyond their initial aim of democratic restoration and present a full-fledged coalition program. Yet unity among the six parties has proven to be elusive. Strains and divisions have surfaced, which the recent declaration cannot paper over.
The main architect of the opposition alliance is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic CHP, who has made a point of reaching out to conservatives and of downplaying the left-right divide. The CHP is the only party to the left in the six party alliance, its five alliance partners being nationalist, conservative, Islamist and liberal, thus representing the main strains of the Turkish right. But Kılıçdaroğlu has argued that “at this stage in Turkey, there is no right or left politics, there are those who are in favor of democracy and those who are in favor of the authoritarian regime.” Since he became party leader in 2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has worked to change the widespread perception that the CHP has an issue with Islamic beliefs, making a point of addressing the pious and vowing to “repair the damaged sense of unity within the society by reconciling people from all walks of life”. Accordingly, in the municipal elections in 2019, Kılıçdaroğlu nominated a center-right politician, Ekrem İmamoğlu, as the CHPs candidate in Istanbul and a right wing nationalist, Mansur Yavaş, as the party’s candidate in the capital Ankara.
Yavaş is the favorite presidential candidate of the second biggest party in the opposition alliance, the right-wing nationalist Good Party, and many others as well assume – based on polls of doubtful reliability – that Yavaş would be the best placed candidate to beat Erdoğan. But that overlooks that the Kurdish electorate, whose vote will be decisive, is unlikely to support a right-wing Turkish nationalist. İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, who owed his election in large measure to the support of the Kurds, would be better placed as he has a centrist profile, appealing to both conservative-nationalist Turks and to Kurds. However, İmamoğlu has done himself a disservice by making it too obvious that he craves the presidency, which has raised suspicions that as president he would not be willing to relinquish the powers that the current presidential system reserves for the chief executive, with some saying “we don’t want another Erdoğan”. In contrast, Yavaş, who has abstained from promoting himself on the national stage, has managed to come across as a “statesman” by staying above the fray. Moreover, Yavaş has the advantage of not having expressed himself on any national political issue, and thus of not yet having put anyone off. But that would inevitably change if he were to become a candidate, in which case his right-wing nationalist profile would come to the fore.
As it is, İmamoğlu and Yavaş both recently bowed to party discipline and declared their loyalty to Kılıçdaroğlu, who seeks the presidency himself. Kılıçdaroğlu has made his displeasure with their potential candidacies – and especially with İmamoğlu’s campaigning – clear on several occasions, stating that the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara need to stay at their posts. On September 5, the CHP leader went one step further, announcing his willingness to run as the joint presidential candidate of the six party opposition grouping. But tellingly, Kılıçdaroğlu felt the need to exhort his own party to rally behind him. Addressing a meeting of CHP parliamentarians on September 23, Kılıçdaroğlu said “I want to feel that you all stand by me.” In a swift response, İmamoğlu tweeted “I’m with my party leader in all circumstances” while Yavaş in his tweet assured Kılıçdaroğlu “I’m forever with you for a just and peaceful future.”
IMPLICATIONS: But while İmamoğlu and Yavaş fell into the line, Meral Akşener, the leader of the Good Party, did not. While taking care to maintain a polite tone, she nonetheless made unequivocally clear that she would not comply, saying that no one can impose his candidacy on the allied parties. Akşener reiterated her oft-repeated concern that the candidate of the six parties be someone who stands a chance of winning. This is a thinly veiled reference to Kılıçdaroğlu’s religious identity. The CHP leader is not a Sunni but an Alevi (Turkey’s heterodox Muslim minority), which ostensibly makes him unelectable. Indeed, the Turkish right harbors deep prejudices against the Alevis. In the 1970s, far right militias perpetrated pogroms against the Alevis. The sectarian opposition that Kılıçdaroğlu faces is indicative of the inability of the nationalist right to come to terms with the religious and ethnic diversity of Turkey.
CHPs right-wing allies are equally averse to accommodating the Kurdish minority. When Gürsel Tekin, a leading CHP parliamentarian, recently suggested that the pro-Kurdish, left-wing Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) could be offered to join the government after an opposition victory, this was strongly condemned by Meral Akşener. Yet Kurdish support is crucial, and Kılıçdaroğlu will have to convince the CHPs right-wing nationalist allies that steps have to be taken to end Turkey’s ethnic polarization. But notwithstanding Kılıçdaroğlu’s efforts at societal reconciliation, the ideological gulf between the CHP and the five other, right-wing parties in the opposition alliance remains deep-running. While Turkey’s long-standing culture war between seculars and religious conservatives may have come to an end, ethnic aspirations and rising socio-economic discontent – to which the left and the right respond differently – are bound to fuel societal conflict and make it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the left-right alliance and the notion that there is a viable alternative to Erdoğan.
Kılıçdaroğlu is wary of the leftist label, preferring the term social democrat, but the CHP leader nonetheless challenges the established capitalist order, putting him at odds with his right-wing allies. Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to nationalize the assets of five conglomerates that have benefited from close ties to the regime, which he says “exploit” the economy. But Kılıçdaroğlu is defying not only the crony-capitalist “order of theft” but neoliberal capitalism itself. The CHP leader opines that “savage capitalism” and neoliberalism have “wrought havoc on the planet” and he recently declared that he would join forces with activists and politicians around the world – such as the socialist American senator Bernie Sanders whom Kılıçdaroğlu will be meeting during his trip to the United States this week – dedicated to a more equitable distribution of wealth and incomes. This is not a political vision that can be reconciled with the ideology of the CHPs right-wing alliance partners. For one, Ali Babacan, the leader of the allied Democracy and Progress Party, Erdoğan’s former minister of economy and an ardent defender of free market economics, hardly shares Kılıçdaroğlu’s views on neoliberal capitalism and his dedication to economic redistribution.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s past, sociology and the right-wing character of the opposition alliance where the CHP – although it is the biggest party – is nonetheless in ideological minority militate against the social democrat Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s presidential bid.
Turkey’s past is not reassuring for the prospect of social democracy. Historically, Turkey has been inhospitable terrain for the left. In a 2021 survey, two-thirds of the population identified themselves as conservative, nationalist and Islamist, only 13 percent as social democrat and socialist. Turkey has only had one leftist head of government. Even if it is conceivable that the growing economic travails of the masses in Turkey will lead to increased demands for social justice, it is less likely that this will benefit social democrats, especially as the left is in retreat globally.
Given its sociology and global trends, it is more likely that Turkey, like many other countries, will see yet another version of its historically dominant political tradition – the right – rise to the occasion. But the present – and most successful – incarnation of this tradition, President Erdoğan, still remains strong. Erdoğan has rebounded in recent polls, a sign that the momentum that the opposition alliance initially enjoyed may already have been lost, presaging the reelection of the incumbent in 2023.
Halil Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press).