Opposition in pieces as Erdoğan eyes presidency

By Yörük Bahçeli

While President Erdoğan indicates that emergency law will remain intact indefinitely with his eyes on the proposed presidential system, Turkey’s opposition is marred by infighting and a crackdown on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that deems its future uncertain.

Source: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey

Source: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey

Already fuelled by the Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) support for an AKP-led transition to a presidential system, the HDP’s recent decision to boycott parliament has rendered a presidentialism referendum all but inevitable.

Presidentialism at the doorstep

The post-coup attempt turmoil has provided the AKP an unmatched opportunity to steer the country’s political climate towards a presidential system.  On Friday, the government announced it expects that a constitutional amendment enacting the change would receive the necessary support in parliament and will be put to a referendum soon.

“Why should the state of emergency be terminated right now?… Everybody goes about their business with ease,” President Erdoğan said in a statement on Sunday, signalling Turkey’s transition to a presidential system is likely to occur under emergency law.  On Wednesday, Erdoğan added that continuing to require the president to cut all ties with his political party would not be right.

“Walking down this path and managing this process with his party will render both his party and the president strong and enable them to take determined steps in solidarity,” Erdoğan said, clarifying that the envisioned system would be fully presidential.

Without the support of the MHP, these ambitious plans for a presidential system could not be announced with such confidence. The party has often been accused of providing support for the AKP at critical junctures over the last decade, but given the potential ramifications of the proposed systemic change, this appears to be the most crucial point of support yet. Last month, leader Devlet Bahçeli called on the AKP to put an end to the unconstitutionality arising from the de-facto imposition of a presidential system by President Erdoğan.

“There is a de-facto situation in Turkey and it must be resolved. The governance of the country does not comply with the constitution, a crime is being committed,” he said.

The MHP leader’s statements accelerated the AKP’s plans and the two parties were quick to exchange ideas, resulting in what appears to be a deal to carry the AKP’s plans forward. Following his discussion with Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, Bahçeli said the plans for the transition communicated to him were “positive and reasonable”. “The very productive meeting we had with Mr. Yıldırım will result in beneficial and good developments for our country and nation,” he added, in a statement which has been read as supportive of the AKP’s moves.

In order for it to be put to a referendum, the constitutional amendment needs to be approved by 330 votes in parliament. The AKP, already holding 317 seats, needs a mere 13 seats to achieve this. The MHP, with 40 seats, can easily provide the needed support, though with clear opposition emerging to Bahçeli’s moves, the AKP-MHP alliance scenario may not fare as smoothly as expected.

Leading figures from the MHP have come out against the presidential system, including former leadership candidate Ümit Özdağ, who was recently expelled from the party in a series of purges against Bahçeli’s opponents.

Opposition in tatters

While Turkey’s initial post-coup scene saw unprecedented unity emerging between the AKP, the main opposition party – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – and the MHP, CHP criticism of the government’s handling of the situation led to harsh exchanges between the two opposition parties, which has only intensified since the arrest of nine HDP parliamentarians.

In binding the AKP and MHP evermore closely, the recent crackdown on the HDP has also provided the MHP an opportunity to discredit the CHP, depicting its criticism of the treatment of HDP MPs as support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Thus, while unprecedented crackdowns continue to send shockwaves across Turkey’s political landscape, the main opposition party has had to spend much of its time defending itself against these accusations.

Last week, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu demonstrated the extent of these allegations when he  called on the government to sue him. “The party that helps and supports terror organizations is the Justice and Development Party,” he said, controversially arguing AKP executives have supported the al-Nusra front and ISIS in Syria and the PKK and Gülen movement in Turkey.

“Why don’t they sue me? I am asking, sue me, please. Sue me so we can put forth all evidence. They’re scared. Because they know they’re guilty,” Kılıçdaroğlu declared.

Under such heavy accusations and perhaps fearing the extension of the crackdown to itself, the party has oscillated between a cautious and hard stance against Turkey’s fast-track transition to a presidential system. Initially, leader Kılıçdaroğlu took a conciliatory tone following news of the AKP-MHP alliance, stating that he could not comment on the constitutional draft before seeing it and expressed willingness to discuss it with the AKP.

However, just two days after, a strong condemnation came from Özgür Özel, the CHP’s parliamentary group leader. “It is not possible for us to say yes to, negotiate, or discuss even slightly any offer which includes the presidential system. Let alone a door, there is no keyhole through which the suggestion of the presidential system can pass at the CHP,” he said.

His words were subsequently reiterated by Kılıçdaroğlu, who attacked the AKP’s plans in a Tweet later in the week, writing: “presidentialism is a regime debate. We will not let by anyone who isn’t for democracy, but for dictatorship”.

On Friday, the party announced it would hold a series of rallies across the country under the title ‘We will not let Turkey be divided’, the first planned in Adana on December 3. But it remains unclear how effective these rallies will be given the party has failed to make a single meaningful electoral gain since the rise of the AKP, and its parliamentary support will not be needed as long as the MHP votes in favour.

An inevitable referendum?

But a second scenario indicates that even CHP/MHP opposition might not mean an end to the AKP’s presidential aspirations. On November 6, the HDP announced it would halt its parliamentary activities in reaction to the mass arrests of key party members. Though just short of giving up their seats, MPs will no longer take part in general assembly sittings and commission meetings.

However, according to parliamentary regulations, failing to attend the general assembly for five days within one month can lead to expulsion from parliament. If a parliamentary constitutional commission decides to expel the MPs, it would have to be approved by a simple majority in parliament. The AKP could easily take this course against the HDP given its majority.

The Turkish constitution stipulates that by-elections are to be held within three months if five per cent, or 28 of the parliament’s 550 seats are left vacant. As the HDP holds 59 seats, a by-election could also provide the AKP with the additional support needed to go forward with its referendum.

If by-elections were held, it is dubious how free and fair they would be, given the national state of emergency as well as the situation in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region which is now under the control of government-appointed trustees. The trustees have taken over with 34 mayors belonging to the HDP and the Democratic Regions Party, its regional affiliate, arrested since September.

Leaving aside the region’s situation under trusteeship, the fairness of Turkey’s elections have already been the subject of much debate. Under 14 years of uninterrupted AKP rule, Turkey has transformed into a system in which elections are free and competitive, yet not fair with conditions advantaging the ruling party asymmetrically.

Under this system, AKP candidates use their disproportional access to state resources to benefit their campaign. Legal proceedings have been widely used against the opposition, resulting in the silencing of critical media and restrictions on freedom of assembly. The additional support of the President and his resources as a leading campaigner for the AKP since Erdoğan’s election in 2014 have been particularly significant, as the AKP remains Erdoğan’s party in the eyes of many.  More traditional irregularities have also raised concern, such as power cuts, discarded, and overprinted ballots.

Kurdish politicians have been particularly vulnerable to the pressures of competing in unfair elections. Prior to the June elections last year, the HDP’s headquarters and election rallies were rocked by a series of explosions. By the end of the campaign, the party had faced nearly 200 attacks of various kinds, clearly preventing candidates from campaigning freely.

Things worsened for the HDP in August, when entry into several municipalities in the southeast was prohibited and curfews were implemented following the escalation of the PKK conflict, preventing HDP parliamentarians from entering their constituencies.

Finally, during its second campaign leading up to the November election, the party was pushed to suspend its campaign altogether, when a rally its candidates were attending in Ankara was bombed, resulting in what became the biggest terror attack in the history of the Turkish republic.

An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe delegation monitoring the November election had determined the campaigning process to be “characterized by unfairness and, to a serious degree, fear.”

“The violence in the largely Kurdish southeast of the country had a significant impact on the elections, and the recent attacks and arrests of members and activists, predominantly from the HDP, are of concern, as they hindered their ability to campaign,” delegation head Margareta Cederfelt had said, implying that the election was not truly democratic.

Since the election, things have undoubtedly worsened in the southeast, where most of the by-election seats would be contested. Armed conflict has prevailed in the region for over a year and the southeast continues to bear the brunt of emergency measures. Now, with those measures extending across the country, a fair outcome from a prospective by-election has arguably become less likely. The balance of power in parliament tipping in favour of the ruling party remains a possibility worth considering.

Public support unclear

Though a referendum appears inevitable, how much public support the amendment could garner in a freely-held referendum remains unclear.

Following the July coup-attempt, Andy-Ar, the only polling company to accurately predict the AKP’s unexpected landslide victory in the last general election, found that support for the presidential system had surpassed opposition to it for the first time, a change resulting from the ramifications of the coup attempt. They said that while support increased from around 35 per cent to 42 per cent, opposition fell from a range of 55-60 per cent to 38-40 per cent.

Two other surveys conducted thereafter by the Objective Research Centre and SONAR revealed significantly different results however. The former found 56 per cent support and the latter the same rate of opposition to the transition, though the Objective Research Centre came under fire for its questionable research methods.

 “This is a difficult time for surveyors. People are hesitant to clearly say what they think,” SONAR chairman Hakan Bayrakçı told Turkish daily Aydınlık.

The contradictions between the results of these various surveys demonstrate the unpredictability of the referendum result. With a close margin outcome in sight, the allegations of unfairness that have emerged from Turkey’s recent elections should not be taken lightly.

There are multiple avenues that could carry the AKP’s constitutional amendment to a referendum and no opposition can credibly stop it at this point. With its opposition parties co-opted, repressed, or stuck in between, there seems to be nothing left in the way of President Erdoğan making the most radical change to the Turkish political system since the establishment of the Republic.

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