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The Challenges of the Opposition in Turkey

Murat Belge*

The shockwaves within the opposition caused by the election continue to reverberate, and it seems they will persist for some time. The situation is clear: the government, not because of what the opposition has done or induced but directly due to its own actions, has created a dreadful economic situation. Tayyip Erdoğan, with his claim of “I am an economist” and, even more so, with the phrase “What kind of situation is this, what’s happening to you and me?” has acknowledged his responsibility for this dire situation. So, the opposition thought it caught the government at its weakest – and it was probably right. The failure to achieve the expected election victory under these circumstances has led to a serious disappointment. In such situations, people start searching for the “culprit” responsible for their predicament. “I must have done what needed to be done, but apparently, there were those who didn’t do what was necessary, and that’s why we are in this situation. Now, the responsible party at this point is personified as “Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.” Meral Akşener’s statement of a “winning candidate” had already raised the possibility from the beginning. Now, some of the parties allied with the CHP (Republican People’s Party) are not only blaming the “anti-CHP sentiment” in society but also beginning to hold Kılıçdaroğlu accountable within the CHP.

Let me briefly touch on this issue. “Briefly” because it doesn’t seem to me like something that should be extensively debated: Would the current outcome have changed if someone other than Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had been the opposition candidate? Today’s debates are based on the assumption that they would have. I’m not sure about that. The topic is as “speculative” as it can be, as discussing what didn’t happen always tends to be “absurd.”

In situations like this, there is a broad consensus that the economy largely determines the outcome. It’s certainly not an easily disputable observation. But we can’t say it’s an absolute principle in every case. Indeed, I think our recent election showed that. Can you imagine a worse economic situation? Even in a society like ours, accustomed to living through “economc crises,” the conditions are significantly severe, and there is no easy way out in the debates that revolve around it. But the result is clear. A slight difference, here and there, but ultimately, the people went to the polls and voted for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Tayyip Erdoğan. Does this indicate an unwavering determination? I think not: this attitude can lead to some changes in the future – in politics, nothing should be seen as “absolute.” But this is the situation we are in at the moment.

There must be (or rather, there must be many) reasons for this. Why didn’t Turkey’s voters punish this government, which has performed so poorly in managing the economy and has put them in a very difficult position?

First, let’s take a look at those on the side of the government (I don’t have a definitive answer to the question I’m asking, and I don’t think it exists elsewhere): Since the first election victory, there have been “Muslim” voters who have become disillusioned with the AKP mindset and style of governance for various reasons. But they couldn’t bring themselves to vote in a way that would oust a government that claims to be “Islamic” by saying, “I’m not satisfied with this government, but I didn’t come here to overthrow a government that says, ‘I’m Islamic.'” So, they didn’t vote for the Muslim parties in the opposition, which they perceived as more amenable. Their opposition remained “within.”

They didn’t vote for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) either. One person who understands why they didn’t, in my opinion, is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. His effort to initiate a “reconciliation” process here stirred things up a bit, but it wasn’t enough to win the election.

So, the voting base, with its 52% and 48% calculations, decided to uphold its “Islamic identity.” Yes, they did. There’s no ambiguity in this decision.

If we want to examine how they came to this decision, we have to look at events and facts in our recent history, especially military coups. Those who were involved in these, who played their assigned roles, bear the responsibility for the rise of the Islamist line in Turkey. If they were to stop searching for what the “reactionaries” did and start asking themselves, “What have we done?” finding the answer wouldn’t take long.

Anyway, we have arrived here today. This isn’t a good place. A government that has consolidated power by accumulating numerous authorities has done terrible things, and there’s no reason to believe that what they do in the future will be any better. The AKP-MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) coalition will continue. This government can engage in actions that harm itself, as it has done so far, but ultimately, a credible opposition is needed to make sense of them. The current opposition, as it stands, does not inspire confidence. Everyone seems to be echoing the “we ourselves” formula, as we prepare for the local elections next year.

I’m not sure if sticking to this path will achieve what hasn’t been achieved so far. For example, will the Istanbul mayoral election, where each party competes fiercely as “themselves,” result in a defeat for the government? I highly doubt it.

I believe that the chance of success can be achieved not by breaking the established “alliance” but by strengthening it with some new policies. By “new” policies, I mean searching for and finding ways to engage in opposition actively and on the move, rather than passively. “Movement” is the correct word. We don’t live in a society where things are going smoothly. In the face of a government that violates legality with almost every action, fighting with a stance of just sitting and waiting is not a way out. At the same time, legitimate opposition must be demonstrated against a government that flouts rules with complete indifference.

So, our job is difficult, and there’s no surprise in that. After all these years, Turkey has reached a significant crossroads. Expecting to pass through this passage without pain would be overly optimistic.

*Murat Belge (born 16 March 1943) is a Turkish academic, translator, literary critic, columnist, civil rights activist, and occasional tour guide.

This article was first published in Birikim Magazine on August 21, 2023 and translated into English by Politurco.

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