This coming Sunday, Turkey will go to the polls to elect a new parliament and president, and, for the first time in 16 years, the political opposition is confronting the ruling AKP, and the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head on. That means for the first time, Turkish citizens are able to imagine an end to Erdogan’s rule.
The credit for lifting that important psychological barrier must go to two opposition parties: The veteran CHP, especially its presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, and the new Iyi party, led by the nationalist-right politician, Meral Aksener.
This newfound political horizon is neutralizing the key obstacle that has plagued the opposition, especially the CHP, since the rise of Erdogan and his AKP party in 2002: The we-never-can-win syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by the belief that no matter what happens, no matter how good the CHP might perform, it is doomed to remain the opposition forever.
The flip-side of the we-never-can-win syndrome, is the co-option of the assumption that Erdogan is electorally invincible, and that no matter how bad his rule might be, or how deep the economy sinks, overall, he has been "good" for the country. This is coupled with the belief that his authoritarian ways still reflect the will of the majority which legitimizes them – and casts a shadow of supposed delegitimacy on opponents of that creeping authoritarianism.
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The we-never-can-win syndrome was a clear outcome of the 2002 elections, when the electorate punished the ruling three-party coalition for their ineptness. That election flipped Turkish politics on its head: only two parties were able to cross the 10% threshold, so the full 45% who chose other parties had their vote effectively rendered useless.
Ahead in that pack of two, with 34% of the vote, was the then-dynamic new pro-EU conservative Muslim party, the AKP, led by Erdogan, who enjoyed support not only from religious voters but also anti-military liberals and entrepreneurs. During those years, he also was the favorite of the EU and the U.S. Second was the CHP, then led by Deniz Baykal, which took 19% of the vote - a major achievement, bearing in mind it had failed to cross the percentage threshold in the previous elections.
But after that rise, the CHP plateaued. Part of that was thanks to constituencies of potential voters it had consciously excluded. Even though Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, founded the party, it had a long history of excluding Kurds and religious Muslims, among other groups. It would take the CHP a whole decade to revamp itself, and when Kemal Kilicdaroglu was elected party leader in 2010, the party expanded its base from 20% to 25%., Yet since then it has been unable to chisel away at Erdogan’s consolidated support of 42-49% - and has fallen into its normal mode of inertia.
Certainly in the last few years, Kilicdaroglu has chalked up some successes, but until this election there was nothing in the CHP’s bag of tricks to break out of the we-never-can-win syndrome. Even worse, it seemed at times as if they were actively encouraging this defeatism.
One blatant example was Kilicdaroglu helping AKP lawmakers lift parliamentary immunity – which inevitably led to the arrest of MPs from the mostly Kurdish HDP including the party’s co-chairs. One of them, Selahattin Demirtas, is running as its presidential candidate from behind bars. This, and the unclear path Kilicdaroglu first carved out following the 2016 attempted coup, only strengthened Erdogan.
So what changed? Well, first, it can be narrowed down to two words: Muharrem Ince. The CHP candidate for president - charismatic, modest, and sharp-tongued - is packing rallies, breaks audience records when he’s interviewed on television and has turned into a social media craze. He is giving Erdogan a run for his money like never before. No politician has presented him with such a challenge.
Ironically, Erdogan’s attempted power grab, when he transformed Turkey’s political structure into a presidential system – with one vote for the presidency and one for a party - that allowed the CHP to break out of the we-never-can-win syndrome, since Ince has been able to free himself from the limiting contours of the party and to capitalize on personality politics that favor him. Not surprisingly, he has reached out to those very constituencies the CHP has historically shunned.
Ince’s campaign has been energized by openings that Erdogan himself has provided. After 16 years, Erdogan lacks luster, and his successes are outweighed by a rapidly ailing economy. Ince’s greatest success may have been to have forced Erdogan to start playing catch up with Ince’s own policies, even at the cost of a radical shift in his political agenda – which can appear hypocritical, if not a bare expression of expediency, even desperation.
For example, Ince promised he would lift Turkey’s State of Emergency if he were to win. Somewhat astonishingly, if not improbably, Erdogan quickly followed suit. But of course, if Erdogan had wanted to lift the draconian measures introduced after the failed 2016 coup that have essentially granted him sole rule, he could have at any time - but he chose not to.
Ince has also set Erdogan up for another unaccustomed form of humiliation – by poking fun at his promises. When Erdogan somewhat oddly promised that if he were to win he would open free coffeshops, serving Turkish citizens coffee, tea and cake - Ince literally laughed out loud. He responded at an Istanbul rally: "If you want free cake, vote for Erdogan. If you want a factory job and jobs for our children, vote for me."
Beyond the Ince factor, is the fact that the opposition has finally united in a parliamentary alliance: the CHP, together with Meral Aksener’s Iyi party, and the smaller religious conservative party, Saadet (Erdogan’s former political home), which will allow both smaller parties to sail past the electoral threshold. Between them, these three parties are maximizing their appeal to divergent sectors of the Turkish electorate, and giving it their all.
Like Ince, Aksener has remained steadfast on the campaign trail running for president. Her success is raking in support from the failed nationalist MHP party, whose leader, Devlet Bahceli, has all but bankrupted his party through his alliance with Erdogan.
Providing hope for real change, however, could only have been made possible by Ince reaching out to the Kurds, solidified by his visiting the jailed HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, and his wife, during his visit to Diyarbakir, where he was met with much fanfare and an excited crowd.
It’s essential for the anti-Erdogan opposition that the HDP cross the electoral threshold in the parliamentary elections, and it’s essential in the all-but-certain second round of presidential elections that the HDP voters line up behind Ince as their preferred candidate. As a result, some CHP supporters have even vowed to split their vote, voting for the HDP for parliament and Ince as president.
Everyone remembers the elections of June 2015, when the HDP did cross the threshold, the AKP lost its majority – but the opposition failed to unite, and that led Erdogan to declare new elections and to run them out of town. This time, it seems that even the nationalist Iyi party has been persuaded of the necessity of a tactical understanding with the HDP, to whom they are politically antagonistic, because without that understanding, the opposition’s chance of countering the AKP in parliament is nonexistent.
Will the we-never-can-win syndrome become a historical relic at the ballot box this Sunday? Will the hype surrounding opposition’s darling Ince convert into solid votes? Is there a chance his popularity has been overinflated by those desperate to see Turkey return to being a free and open country, a place of optimism and hope?
The calculus of success for the opposition is simple: they need to take control of parliament, and ensure that Erdogan does not get more than 50% in the presidential race, forcing him to go to a second round.
That is when the real work will begin. For Ince, the principle opposition candidate, the task list is complicated by the fact that he must attract the support of sectors that not only don’t overlap – but are foundationally hostile to each other.
Can he bring in the pro-HDP Kurdish vote? Can he simultaneously rally the national right? Will he get the votes of the small Islamist Saadet party? It’s not only a test of Ince’s attractiveness as a candidate, and his political deftness, but also a test of just how deep and committed the opposition to Erdogan actually is.
All eyes will be on Turkey this weekend. Despite the uncertainly about how far the opposition’s new and refreshing popularity will translate into votes, one thing is for sure: after 16 years, there’s no more we-never-can-win in Turkish politics.
No-one in the anti-Erdogan opposition expects miracles – but bearing in mind what seemed like an unstoppable trajectory towards sole-rule by Erdogan only months ago, an opposition victory at the ballot box would certainly qualify as a stunning and improbable turn of events.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv