President Erdoğan may have emerged victorious from Turkey’s constitutional referendum held on April 16, but the very close margin of victory — and a dubious one at that — has also exposed the cracks in his armour. Given that most of the new powers will not kick in until after the next elections in 2019, it is not theoretically impossible for the non-voters, who make up half of the population, to stay Turkey’s descent into one-man rule. Unfortunately, the current state of the ‘mainstream’ opposition parties increases Erdoğan’s chances of remaining in power.
The main opposition party is CHP, led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, CHP vehemently denounced the many voting irregularities and appealed to the Electoral Board to annul the results, only to be rebuffed. Yet the Electoral Board’s decision (with one brave member dissenting) could hardly have come as a surprise to the CHP leadership, considering that the Board itself was responsible for the greatest controversy of the referendum – the decision to include more than two million unofficial ballots in the tally.
Disappointing its supporters, CHP also cooperated with Erdoğan’s AKP in (unsuccessfully) opposing the re-insertion of Turkey onto the Council of Europe’s human rights watchlist.
This mirrors CHP’s most questionable decision to date: the vote by CHP MPs along with the AKP (and the nationalists) to lift parliamentary immunity back in May 2016, despite Kılıçdaroğlu having declared the bill unconstitutional when first proposed. The co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish leftwing party, HDP, and many MPs, were arrested after this vote and are still in prison, while Kılıçdaroğlu and several CHP MPs have been confronted with similar legal threats of their own recently.
This month also witnessed the public re-emergence of the ex-party leader, Deniz Baykal, who strongly hinted that CHP should support former president – and AKP founding member – Abdullah Gül in the 2019 elections, assuming he runs. If there is a thread that runs through all of these questionable decisions by CHP, it is the party’s status quo orientation. Though CHP self-identifies as centre-left, it has never shed the strongly statist/conservative bent of its past (after all, CHP was synonymous with the Turkish state in the early years of the republic, when there was only one party). Yet its mere presence blocks the emergence of a genuine leftwing party with mass appeal in Turkish politics.
Real opposition has thus been fomenting more along the periphery of Turkish politics. The preferences of Devlet Bahçeli, the current leader of the ultra-nationalist MHP, are entirely captured by Erdoğan, but poll results indicate that more than 80% of his base refused his injunction to vote yes in the referendum. This suggests that Meral Akşener, a charismatic female politician recently kicked out of the MHP, could easily capture the nationalist vote and possibly some of the disillusioned CHP base were she to run. A segment of the CHP demographic might have been captured also by HDP, the ‘little train that could’ party of Turkish politics, had its popular co-leaders, Figen Yüksekdağ and especially Selahattin Demirtaş, not been imprisoned. HDP will weather this storm in the long run, but for the moment they have been knocked down, if not out.
For these reasons, Erdoğan is not likely to face a serious challenge from the left, given that the centre-left party, CHP, is itching to support a right-wing candidate in the next presidential elections, and the radical left HDP is being persecuted by the state. None of this may not matter much in terms of elections, because there is also a high likelihood that Erdoğan will pull a Putin and limit who can run against him in 2019 (not that there is any indication that electoral conditions will be fair otherwise anyway). All of this suggests that chances of the opposition succeeding via the ballot box are rather low, but it is worth remembering that the increasing rigidity of the regime also makes it more brittle.