Even before the introduction of the executive presidential system of government in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main strategic goal for the last couple of years has been clear – centralization of all political power in the country.
In this process, he made the right calculation that going back to the politics of coalitions was the only way he could ensure the “50-percent plus 1” majority necessary to rule in the new system. Together with his junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been successful in a couple of election runs. However, this political synergy also produced a risky externality for Erdogan – it also pushed the opposition to strategize about forming coalitions, partnerships and tactical cooperation on their end. Ultimately, this was one of the main driving forces which helped the opposition win the mayors’ races in all major cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, in the local elections held on March 31.
Trying to predict a strongman’s move in the times of political turbulence, like the one Erdogan has been experiencing following the local elections’ loss, is not an easy task and often requires more of a psychological rather than a political assessment. However, based on what we know about what caused the turbulence, some educated guesses can be made. As an endgame, Erdogan is probably aiming to end the cooperation and informal alliances among the opposition, namely Republican People’s Party (CHP), the moderately nationalist İYİ Party and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The key for the opposition to win the local elections in the big cities of Turkey was the ability to work together, put their major differences aside and cooperate. It was quite notable that both İYİ Party, which split from MHP, and thus has a nationalist base, and HDP voters were able to vote for the very same candidates.
I interviewed HDP’s Ankara MP Filiz Kerestecioğlu before 31 March for Deutsche Welle and asked her about this unusual phenomenon of HDP’s support for a nationalist mayor candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavaş. She told me that HDP would give their unconditional support for all CHP candidates in big cities. They saw this as the best tactical approach to accomplish their main goals of hurting AKP and positioning HDP as a more effective player within the city councils in return.
This traditionally unlikely cooperation among the opposition which resulted in a number of successful local elections races may be the footsteps of the post-Erdoğan Turkey. In the new era, Turks, Kurds, Islamists, and Seculars may be pushed to work together. Turkey is in the midst of an economic crisis, a damaged rule of law, and a widespread deteriorated public trust in the institutions. Turkey is in dire need of transformation in the post-Erdoğan period. Its suffering democracy will have to be reinstalled so that the system can be inclusive for all segments of the society.
It can be argued that this message of an inevitable unity was given by the voters in 31 March elections. People were clear that they want their problems solved, and many were ready to cross their traditional voting boundaries in order to send this message.
Ekrem İmamoğlu, the winning CHP mayor candidate in Istanbul on 31 March, can be seen as one of the faces of the new era of Turkish politics. I went to cover his celebration rally, after he had received the credentials as the mayor of Istanbul. It took place in the Asian side of the city, at the huge Maltepe Square by the Marmara Sea.
İmamoğlu’s rally started with the so-called Mehter March. This musical choice shocked the crowd gathered in Maltepe. Mehter March is quite symbolic as it is a March which the Ottomans used to play once they conquered a city. With this march, the Ottoman soldiers made their symbolic entrance to the city. Traditionally, in Turkish politics, this march is usually used by the Turkish right. Trying to read the symbolism of the march at İmamoğlu’s rally, one can conclude that it either implied political conquering of Istanbul or sent a message of openness of the new establishment to all sides and everyone, either right or left.
The crowd at the rally mainly consisted of families. People were almost in a picnic mood, sitting on the grass and chatting. Some young people were having beers, hyped-up almost as if they were at a rock concert. After the Mehter March, Vivaldi was played, which continued to build the unique atmosphere.
Before İmamoğlu took the stage, an actual imam came in front of the crowd. He started reading verses from the Quran in Turkish and praying for İmamoğlu to be successful. People joined the imam and approved of his prayers by several loud “Amens”. Beşiktaş football fans were also among the crowd, and started chanting, so the crowd reacted to them, and warned them to be quiet while the imam was reading from the Quran. All of this created almost a surreal set of images for a traditional CHP rally.
Mehter choir continued playing the famous İzmir march, which is the symbolic march of the Turkish seculars. The unifying mishmash continued and the signs of depolarization of a transitioning Turkish society could be clearly seen.
It is obvious that the edges of the opposition’s politics are being smoothened, and rather than black and white extremes, different shades of grey are starting to dominate. The sides seem to be embracing the change, softening their policies which could lead to a reconciliation and a new set of principles.
On the other side of the Turkish political spectrum, Erdoğan often underlines that he, (and not so much his party) together with MHP won 52 percent of the total votes in the local elections, and in this way, trying to soften a suffered blow to his rule. However even he cannot deny a general unwritten rule that, in Turkish politics who ever loses İstanbul, in the end loses the rest. Opposition now controls the cities that produce more than 70 percent of Turkey’s GDP. Erdoğan and MHP managed to secure the votes from the rural areas but the cities have given the message that they want change.
Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of MHP, claims that his party won 18,81 of the votes within the ruling alliance. Although this might be an exaggerated guess, some independent polls suggest that there has been a significant slide of votes from Erdoğan to MHP. Additionally, majority of younger conservative voters showed a tendency to vote for MHP rather than Erdoğan.
Erdoğan is one of the most experienced populist leaders around. At the end of the day, he has been in power for around 20 years. He has learnt how to operate the state, observe the world trends and shape his policies accordingly. However, it seems more obvious that he may have become a victim of his own trap.
As the Arab spring turned into autumn, Iraqi people started chanting that they were fed up with sectarian policies etc. The ideal of a moderate Islam seemed to start failing. It was no coincidence, back then, that Erdoğan pushed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to resign and replaced him with Binali Yıldırım. Davutoğlu was the symbol of moderate Islamist foreign policy. His theory was the restoration. He meant the restoration of some sort of an Ottoman type, Islamic union. This vision failed miserably. Erdoğan sensed the winds of change and shifted from moderate Islam to Turkish nationalism. He is now trying to ornament his nationalism with a pinch of Ottomanism and some traditional Islam. Probably, from a certain point of view, Erdoğan has shifted at the right time, but ironically, he was, this time, caught in another trap. The trap of nationalism is limiting him. Younger voters from his actual base seem to be turning to the ‘real’ nationalist MHP rather than Erdoğan.
Opposition can be further successful as long as they stay united around a softer and constructive discourse. Turkish people seem to be tired of hate and anger. New faces of Turkish politics are likely to be successful with uniting rather than dividing.
At the end of the day, Turkey was one of the first countries lead by populism, it might as well be the first one to get rid of it.