Opinion

After 15 Years, Is Turkey Saying 'Enough' to Erdogan?

'If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside.' Erdogan's gaffe opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and gifted a slogan to a re-invigorated political opposition. But he won't give way without a fight

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters during an event in Ankara, Turkey. May 8, 2018
/AP

"If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside," Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday in a speech in parliament, and opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and activism.

#Tamam ("Enough") took off like wildfire and became a trending Twitter topic worldwide, with over two million tweets telling Erdogan that, indeed, they have had enough of him. As journalist Rusen Cakir noted, the increasingly autocratic Erdogan had, strangely, just "offered the opposition a slogan to unite behind."

And they did, with the major political opposition heads tweeting the hashtag and declaring that the time had come.

Piotr Zalewski tweet on #Tamam
@p_zalewski/Twitter

That rare gaffe by Erdogan may be a sign of an unfamiliar stress the Turkish leader, and that he is, for now, facing the greatest challenge to his political survival since coming to power: Elections, with a newly revitalized opposition, are a month away.

It's almost three weeks since Erdogan declared snap presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, more than a year earlier than scheduled.

That ended several months of speculation that signs of a major economic crisis in Turkey might trigger early elections. Some predict Erdogan and his party will benefit from the wave of Turkish nationalism that surged in the wake of a general consensus in Turkey that the military campaign against Kurdish forces in Afrin, northern Syria, succeeded in its objectives. 

Early elections also will allow the ruling AKP party to pre-empt, if not arrest, the growing momentum of the new opposition party, "Iyi" (Good), led by Meral Aksener.

This party offers a new home to those nationalists who are abandoning the MHP in the wake of its leader’s 180 degree u-turn from opposing Erdogan to becoming his staunch ally. Despite Erdogan’s denials, many believe the speed with which the snap elections were called was an attempt by the AKP to sideline the Iyi party. That went hand-in-hand with speculation that the timing provided convenient grounds to disqualify the Aksener's party from running, because it had been registered less than the mandatory six-month period prior to elections.

Amidst fears the Iyi party might be disqualified, the main CHP opposition party stepped up to ensure Iyi’s participation. The CHP transferred 15 of its own parliamentarians to the Iyi party’s bloc of five (defectors from the MHP) entitling it to run in the election, regardless of its registration date.

Supporters of Turkey's Iyi (Good) opposition party outside the Istanbul Supreme Election Board HQ where party leader Meral Aksener came to start her campaign. May 4, 2018
OZAN KOSE/AFP

Had the AKP been outsmarted? It certainly seems so, but the real importance of the move was that it exemplified a rare moment where the Turkish opposition at long last set the agenda.

The CHP’s move naturally opened the door for an alliance with the Iyi Party, and was followed by them joining forces with two smaller parties, the Muslim conservative party Saadet (the political home from which Erdogan himself emerged before launching the AKP in the early 2000s),  and another smaller faction, the Demokrat Party. Importantly, the alliance will let those two smaller Saadet and Demokrat parties to jump over the decades-old high ten-percent threshold.

The elephant in the room of course is the fact that the HDP, the mostly Kurdish party, was left out of the opposition alliance.

When the HDP crossed the vote threshold in the June 2015 elections, it pushed Erdogan's AKP into a corner for the first time since coming to power in 2002.

Erdogan faced a choice: to agree to be partner to a coalition government or call snap elections. It did the latter, and in the November 2015 elections the AKP swept enough votes to once again rule alone. With renewed fighting between Turkey and the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish separatist party, the HDP has been under attack and all but delegitimized by the state; its candidate for president and former co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas, along with eight of its MPs are all behind bars.           

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) holding pictures of the party's imprisoned leader Selahattin Demirtas at a rally announcing his presidential candidadacy. Istanbul, May 4, 2018
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Bringing the Kurdish-majority party into the alliance may never have been on the bloc’s agenda. But their exclusion was a deliberate ploy by the mainstream opposition parties not to risk losing the nationalist vote, the Iyi party’s main constituency.

If the opposition alliance plays its cards right, a majority vote - or at least a vote that greatly closes the large gap between the AKP and the opposition - could be in reach for the first time in a decade and a half. If the HDP gets makes it, that will cut into the AKP’s piece of the pie in the upcoming parliament, something the opposition alliance itself recognizes.

As much as this election is about each party galvanizing its own constituency, the overriding need to strategize and build informal coalitions is just as important.

That strategic horse-trading is a crucial window into what kind of coalition might be formed after the elections. However, it’s complicated by the fact that there are two election campaigns in train simultaneously, for the president and for the legislature.

The presidential election is even more crucial than usual because the executive presidential laws, legitimated by last year’s referendum come into effect after the elections. That means the president will appoint all government ministers in the next parliament, and that cabinet will no longer be answerable to parliament, which will continue to be the legislative authority despite the limiting of its powers.

Although it seems a long shot in a political and media context that systematically privileges Erdogan, the opposition is also gearing up cleverly for the presidential elections.

First, they rightly refrained from choosing a joint candidate. One of the names floated for this was Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP and a former president; however, it was far from clear that this soft-spoken politician, who has opted for a passive resistance to Erdogan, could ever get to the necessary 50% in the first round.

Instead, all the opposition parties will run their own candidates; each camp can rile up their own base without compromising their messages. The thinking is they will then stand a better chance of pushing Erdogan into a second round vote.  

The stand-out presidential opposition candidate for now is the CHP’s Muharrem Ince. He is a fighter with a sharp tongue who can stand up to the charismatic Erdogan. Close behind is the Iyi party’s Meral Aksener, who would also be sure to keep the government on its toes, and some predict could even lead in the votes. In the 2014 presidential elections the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas received almost 10% of the vote and it seems that his chances to reach the same number this time, is certainly in range – even though he is submitting his candidature from jail

A second-round of voting for the president is thus likely, as long as the parties succeed in energizing each of their bases and the vote is further split with small percentages for the Saadet Party and other minor candidates will attract. That vote would take place two weeks later, on July 8.

And Ince knows that if this happens, his best chance to challenge Erdogan in a run off is to reach out to the Kurdish vote. Since the start of his campaign, Ince has sent strong signals to the HDP; he has publicly demanded Demirtas’ release, and this week held a meeting with him in prison.

While the new opposition stirrings will be brushed off by some as a return to the 1990s politics of endless coalition-building, this old-new dynamic has one cause above all: Erdogan’s usurping of more and more power  to the dismay of many Turkish citizens. Despite Erdogan’s popularity in certain sections of the population, the AKP is very publicly failing to deal with an ever-weaker economy.

That means its veneer of untouchability is tarnishing; and that it is beginning to resemble the very parties it threw out in 2002, who were deeply resented due to their bad economic policies and incompetence at connecting to the electorate.

Cartoon on the viral #Tamam ('Enough') hashtag campaign against Turkish president  Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
@LatuffCartoons/Twitter

There are other signs that the AKP’s momentum is stalling. Apart from Erdogan, the main faces of the AKP today are far from being charismatic campaigners or crowd-pleasers, but rather robotic mouthpieces for their boss. That same uninspiring cadre led the AKP to lose the vote in every major city, including Istanbul, in the referendum.  

There is a sense in Turkey that the political winds might be starting to turn against the AKP, and that Erdogan, the leader that has ruled for 16 years, miscalculated the political map when calling early elections.

True, the opposition does not have a magic wand to remove the many obstacles it faces, not least lifting the draconian State of Emergency, effecting the release of the HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas, or claiming their legitimate right for equal mainstream media time. It also cannot influence the election board’s strangely lenient policy toward counting questionable ballots, as we saw in the last referendum.

However, despite the obstacles, and for the first time in years, the opposition is certainly giving the AKP a run for its money; as the millions who viewed, shared and participated in the #Tamam campaign shows, their grassroots support is substantial and their opposition to the president emphatic.    

But Erdogan hasn’t survived this long and centralized power so determinedly to let that opposition narrative play out. The more he feels the heat, the more efforts will made to delegitimize the opposition and to place new obstacles in their way. 

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs.  Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv