Divided and defeated, Turkey opposition faces decade in wilderness

ANKARA (Reuters) - In the space of just five months the Turkish opposition’s dreams of coalition government have vanished, swept away by a resounding election defeat that could consign them to another decade in the wilderness.

Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu casts his ballot at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, November 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

When the ruling AK Party lost its majority in June’s parliamentary elections, opponents of President Tayyip Erdogan scented blood. But it rebounded back into single-party rule with a surprise landslide in a Nov. 1 snap election.

Opposition parties were unable to press home their advantage after June - when they collectively won 60 percent of the vote - because they failed to form an anti-AKP coalition, with the nationalist MHP refusing to negotiate with the pro-Kurdish HDP.

Instead their divisions were exploited by Erdogan. He presented the snap polls as a chance to restore stability to the country at a time of tension over Kurdish insurrection and after two bombings attributed to Islamic State, and as the economy faltered.

“The opposition had a chance and they blew it,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former MP for the leading opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) and non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Now, with a resurgent Erdogan seeking constitutional change to consolidate power in the hands of the presidency, the opposition could remain divided and sidelined for many years to come, according to political experts.

“They didn’t just lose the election, they may have lost the system that allows them to win elections,” said Erdemir.

The Islamist-rooted AKP took 50 percent of the vote and around 317 seats in the election, tantalizingly close to the 330 needed to force a referendum on giving Erdogan the executive presidency he seeks.


On paper, the biggest losers were the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), both of which saw their share of the vote drop.

However, it was the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that suffered the most. Although it increased its seats, the CHP lost the chance at a grand coalition with the AKP, which has faced little credible competition for Turkey’s large right-wing vote since its rise to power in 2002.

Although Erdogan appeared from the start to oppose a coalition, in the run-up to polls ruling party officials signaled they were open to the idea if there was another inconclusive result. The AKP’s resurgence left opposition hopes in tatters, with one CHP insider describing the outcome as “simply a disaster”.

Anti-AKP coalition hopes foundered on the MHP’s refusal to countenance any negotiations with the pro-Kurdish HDP; MHP leader Devlet Bahceli’s refusal to do business saw his party’s vote plummet, and led to some analysts dubbing him ‘Mr No’.

In the end, Erdogan was able to pick the opposition off.

CHP, which has struggled to extend its reach beyond its traditional base of secular voters who make up around 30 percent of the electorate, ran its election campaign on economic issues, promising wage rises for low-paid workers.

In the run-up to November’s poll, however, AKP abandoned talk of Erdogan’s presidential system, instead returning to one of its core strength of economic management and largely outbidding CHP in terms of election promises.

Following the collapse of a government ceasefire with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July and the surge in violence that followed left hundreds dead, AKP characterized HDP as terrorist stooges - and in the process won back nationalist votes and conservative Kurds who oppose the left-wing PKK.

“Erdogan cleverly opted for a security focused campaign, appealing to conservative voters’ desire for security,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House. “MHP’s Bahceli - or ‘Mr. No’ - simply showed his was a party of protest.”


Following the election, it looked briefly as if Bahceli - whose party shed more than 4 percent of its votes - would step down. Not now. A senior MHP official said a post-mortem on the party’s performance was underway.

“If that analysis shows we made mistakes, then we will take the necessary measures, but don’t expect a change in the party’s leadership,” he said.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has seen support for his party stagnate at 25 percent since he became leader in 2010. One senior party official has already said he will stand against him at the CHP congress due in February, with others privately saying they will follow.

“CHP’s direction should be towards the future, its method should gain the hearts of people, and a new management should be introduced,” CHP parliamentarian Mustafa Balbay told Reuters.

Nonetheless, Kilicdaroglu and Bahceli will likely survive, for now at least, said Chatham House’s Hakura. “There’s no culture of accountability in Turkish politics,” he added.

The HDP, meanwhile, will continue to be a major force in the mainly Kurdish southeast, although it has the task of differentiating itself from the PKK in voters’ minds. In an interview with Reuters, its leader accused Erdogan of fostering a climate of fear to win the election, and of trying to create a “constitutional dictatorship”.

All will not be plain sailing for the AKP - economic woes, the war in Syria, the problem of sheltering 2.3 million refugees and a crippled Kurdish peace process make it a difficult time to govern Turkey.

But the opposition’s weakness means it will struggle to exploit any mis-steps by the government, according to Soli Ozel, a politics professor at Istanbul University.

“They were so inept as a collective after June 7,” he said. “This opposition will not be able to pull itself together for a long time.”

Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ercan Gurses; Editing by David Dolan and Pravin Char