Aiming for coalition unity, Turkey’s opposition parties hit a fork in their roadmap
“I need to know, are you really with me? Some of you are silent,” Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said during his party’s Sept. 23 assembly. “We need to decide now. Are we defeating the enemies of the people or not?”
Kılıçdaroğlu’s remarks came as six Turkish opposition parties, dubbed the “Table of Six,” prepared for their second round of negotiations, set to start Oct. 2, this time with tougher decisions on the agenda like who the joint candidate will be and whether the coalition will turn into an electoral alliance.
The idea is to create a “transition roadmap” covering major policy areas. If the six manage to agree on it, a presidential candidate will be announced to execute this joint vision. For parliamentary seats, members are expected to form flexible alliances depending on the strongest performer in each district.
But the process is often overshadowed by internal competition, speculation and brewing rifts, most recently demonstrated by rhetoric regarding the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) role within the opposition bloc.
“I think these recent outbursts have very little to do with the HDP and a lot more to do with the bargaining power that parties wish to bring to that table,” Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of İstanbul-based think tank IstanPol, told Turkey recap. “There is disarray because the parties are fixated on what comes after the election. Who gets which role, who will manage the economy, who will be the president.”
During a Sept. 22 meeting with chief editors from major media outlets, DEVA Party head Ali Babacan said it would be “very risky” to reveal the candidate before reaching a consensus. “The independence of the Central Bank or the Turkish Statistical Institute. We can agree on those things, that won’t be an issue,” he said. “What matters to us is common ground on fundamental policy areas.”
Babacan was at the helm of the Turkish economy between 2002 and 2007. The 55-year-old- Kellogg School of Management graduate and former AKP heavyweight presents himself as a solid candidate for his old job. He says Turkey experienced increased wealth, rapid growth and democratization during his tenure.
At least part of the business world echoes similar sentiments. Last year, the highly influential business group, TUSIAD, published a report intended as a roadmap for future policymakers, clearly signaling the wishes of big capital. The report praised Babacan’s time in office, saying Turkey was once a reputable member of the international system and had access to international funds thanks to “substantial structural reforms.”
But whether the policy set of the AKP's early years could solve Turkey’s current economic troubles remains a heated debate among politicians and academics.
“Some high-profile scholars, like Daron Acemoğlu, consider it a successful episode of economic growth due mainly to institutional reforms. Some others, like Dani Rodrik, tend to assess it more cautiously and critically,” Dr. Emre Özçelik, an associate professor of economics at the Middle East Technical University Northern Cyprus Campus, told Turkey recap. “I am inclined to argue that the major economic problems and financial fragilities that intensified during and after 2002-2007 outweighed the relatively shorter-term positive outcomes.”
Özçelik continued, “The same period was also characterized by rising trade and current account deficits, surging external debt, increasing dependence of economic growth on foreign capital inflows and jobless growth. It was an approach that was preoccupied with what may be called neoliberal short-termism. It ignored or overlooked the badly needed, longer-term economic-developmental plans of action.”
Earlier in this year, the nationalist İYİ Party recruited its own star technocrat, Bilge Yılmaz, a Princeton-educated professor of private equity at the Wharton School of Business. With this move, İYİ also signaled strong intentions of having a say when it comes to economic management. Yılmaz got straight to work, publishing a 41-page-long “Urgent Action Plan” and caused a stir when he said: “I wouldn’t be here if I thought Mr. Babacan could do it.”
It remains unclear which school of thought the opposition bloc will choose in sculpting its economic package: A return to the so-called golden days with tried and tested methods or a novel program that would not place the recovery burden on low-income citizens. Previous austerity measures in Turkey entailed cuts on public expenditures and reductions in labor protections.
Yet while the coalition struggled to formulate a joint economic response, Kılıçdaroğlu saw an opportunity. He launched a personalized campaign by adopting rhetoric appealing to the broader society with hopes to solidify his candidacy and break away from a deadlock with opposition peers.
The effort visually materialized in April, when he refused to pay his electricity bill amid soaring energy prices and made a speech in the dark of his own home, announcing “the time is up for a system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.” He said neoliberalism was on its deathbed and repeatedly insisted the state should be obligated to take care of its citizens’ basic needs.
Özçelik said it was “not rocket science” to prepare a common, alternative, non-orthodox and non-neoliberal economic agenda for Turkey due to the abundance of international and domestic literature that can serve as guideposts, along with exemplary success cases.
“The challenging dimension of such an endeavor is mainly about the political will,” Özçelik said.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s remarks targeting poorer segments of society brought him a surge in popularity, yet his electability remains up for debate considering he has repeatedly failed to unseat Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in previous general elections. He continues to rank behind his own party’s İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş. Yavaş, who avoids polemics and political comments in general, usually leads polls.
“One thing I can say for sure, and I cannot stress this enough, the candidate with the highest rating in the polls doesn’t necessarily mean the right candidate,” Korkmaz said. “Against a populist leader, in an extremely polarized place like Turkey, a candidate vulnerable to polarization would lose the advantage in just a month.”
Yavaş’ nationalist background is potentially a problem when it comes to garnering support from Kurdish voters. On Sept. 13, jailed former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş gave a written interview to Ruşen Çakır and echoed a similar view.
“People who haven’t said a single word about the problems of Turkey might be higher up in the polls but that shouldn’t mislead anyone,” Demirtaş said. “Once they start talking about the pressing issues – and they will have to if they run for president – I’m not sure the support will continue.”
During a recent interview, Metropoll CEO Özer Sencar, whose surveys place Yavaş as the most favored potential presidential candidate, praised the Ankara mayor's integrity but noted, “Erdoğan would destroy Yavaş in a heartbeat.” Sencar also said the opposition should “stop dreaming” if they contemplate winning without the HDP’s support.
On a parallel track, some analysts believe Erdoğan would gain a major advantage if elections go to a second round, arguing the opposition needs a joint candidate that could attract a diverse pool of voters, which is a challenge in Turkey’s highly polarized climate.
“The ideal candidate should be able to win, obviously, but also keep the Table of Six together, secure a peaceful transition and most importantly, maintain relations with opposition parties outside of the coalition,” Korkmaz said. “In that regard, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have an advantageous position at the moment.”
Following the CHP leader’s open call for support Friday, İmamoğlu and Yavaş were among the first to declare their allegiance, tweeting that they stood with their leader no matter what. For now, this unified stance appears to reinforce Kılıçdaroğlu’s status as a potential candidate.
Yet there are still nine months to go until the expected 2023 elections date and the opposition bloc has yet to agree on much more than the hardly-contested fundamentals of a liberal democracy.
More bargains and fresh cracks are likely to occur. No one in Turkey doubts Erdoğan will put everything on the line to defeat his rivals and continue his 20-year-long tenure. The same level of clarity is likely required from the opposition if it plans to win.
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Batuhan Üsküp, editorial intern @batuskup