What opposition?

By Yörük Bahçeli

As the implications of last month’s coup attempt continue to shake Turkey, opposition-government relations in the country are undergoing a complete shift. While much attention has been cast on how rapprochement between the opposition and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has created an atmosphere of unity in Turkey that could dissolve social polarization, little attention has been cast to the negative implications this may have.

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CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu spoke at the Democracy and Martyr’s Rally in Istanbul’s Yenikapı, in what many see as a sign of warming relations between the AKP and the opposition. Image: TRT World

Signs of national consensus

The Democracy and Martyrs’ Rally held on August 7 in Istanbul was deemed the largest rally in the history of the Republic. In addition to the AKP government and President Erdoğan, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) attended, following Erdoğan’s invitation. Controversially, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the pro-Kurdish opposition, was excluded. The party won slightly over 10 per cent of the vote last November and holds more parliamentary seats than the MHP.

Signs of reconciliation between the government and the opposition first emerged on the night of the coup attempt. Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli was the first to put his support behind the government, followed by Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who backed the AKP and President Erdoğan’s call on citizens to resist the coup on the streets.

“Embracing democracy is not the job of the AKP, the CHP or any other party, but of all citizens,” Kılıçdaroğlu had told Turkish news channel CNN Türk.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party had also issued a written statement against the coup.

The day after the coup, a four-party declaration was read during an emergency hearing in parliament.

“The parliamanet’s decisive stance against the coup attempt is very valuable in terms of democracy’s further consolidation in Turkey. […] Even though we have differing opinions, we are with the will of the people,” it stated.

However, the air of unity was rapidly tainted when President Erdoğan reached out to the opposition, inviting them to the controversial ‘Aksaray’ palace to discuss the steps to be taken in the wake of the coup attempt. While the CHP and MHP were invited, the HDP was excluded as at the rally. This meeting and the rally have demonstrated that, even if the thawing of relations between the AKP and the opposition might lead to political consensus, it is at the expense of the HDP and strictly tied to of a new, post-coup political order.

From criticism to cooperation

During the rally, both the CHP and the MHP embraced the AKP’s rhetoric, identifying the Gülen movement as responsible for the coup as well as the undemocratic practices that have taken place in the country during the AKP’s tenure. While the MHP has clearly supported the AKP in most significant disputes since the breakdown of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) peace process last July, the CHP’s transition is a newer phenomenon.

At the rally, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu emphasized 12 points the party sees as necessary for Turkey to overcome its political tensions.  His call included strengthening democracy in the country, the separation of mosque and state, upholding rule of law and freedom of press.

Interestingly, in none of these points did the CHP leader target the government or President Erdoğan directly. The CHP has always attributed blame to the ruling party with regard to the deterioration of the points it outlined at the rally as the main opposition party for the last 14 years. While references were made to the deterioration of rule of law and democracy in the country, these developments were not attributed to the ruling party.

Moreover, no mention was made of Erdoğan’s extension of the powers of the executive office, which the CHP has previously accused the president of doing at the expense of the law. Corruption allegations against AKP ministers, which have been a key topic used by the CHP in all of its campaigns since the issue came to the forefront in late 2013, were also not mentioned in its discussion of upholding the rule of law. This may be because it is widely accepted that they were brought up by Gülenist prosecutors.  Although it is understandable that the CHP attended the rally to demonstrate its support for Turkey’s freely elected government and democratic regime, a strong, pro-democracy stance requires acknowledging that recent events are part of a wider framework of democratic erosion in the country.

A particular case in point has been the party’s attitude towards the exclusion of the HDP from recent reconciliation measures. Prior to the rally, CHP deputy leader Veli Ağbaba, criticized the HDP’s exclusion.

“We’re against coups but we’re also against Turkey’s decomposition. We don’t find it right that the HDP was not invited to the rally. You might not like the HDP but you cannot exclude those who vote for it and throw them aside,” he said.

However, the HDP’s exclusion did not prevent the party from attending and the it did not bring up the party’s absence during the event, casting doubt on the extent to which it will prioritize freedom of speech and the right to political representation in the country’s post-coup scene.

Although the CHP objected the implementation of emergency law and rejected the bill sanctioning it in parliament alongside the HDP, it has made no significant criticisms as a party following its implementation. Where criticisms have been made, they were raised by lower-rank members of the party or in reference to specific cases rather than on violations of rule of law in the post-coup order more generally.

The toning down of the CHP’s criticisms against the AKP and Erdoğan dates back to April, when the party supported the AKP’s installment of a temporary article into the Turkish constitution paving the way for parliamentary immunity to be stripped. In a rather surprising move, leader Kılıçdaroğlu said his party would vote in favour of the article despite acknowledging it as unconstitutional. He said the party would support the measure to prevent the AKP from holding a referendum and scoring points over the issue, an explanation which did not convince many, including many deputies who voted against the bill, defying the party line.

The temporary article was a one-off measure to strip deputies about whom proceedings were ongoing at the time of the article’s adoption, a move criticized as highly selective. It put 138 politicians, the vast majority belonging to the CHP and HDP, at risk of prosecution. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has dossiers against him.

Semi-opposition

Given their recent track record, what role might opposition parties play in a new, post-coup political order in Turkey?

So far, Turkey’s post-coup politics seems to be defined by the total exclusion of the HDP and the attribution of blame for all the country’s ills to the Gülen movement, without attributing blame or holding the AKP and President Erdoğan to account for their role in facilitating the infiltration of the Turkish state by Gülenists or the erosion of democracy.

Having toned their criticisms of the government and president and embracing its framing of recent events, Turkish mainstream opposition parties are at danger of acting as a semi-opposition: a group not represented in the governing group but willing to participate in state institutions without fundamentally challenging the authoritarian character of its politics. This is worrying at a time in which human rights have been suspended and the AKP and President Erdoğan, who have already demonstrated an unwillingness to let go of power following last June’s elections, are consolidating their grip on the state further.

The way the coup attempt has created consensus around a national security question and legitimized enhanced state powers is worrying in terms of how responsive the opposition is willing to be towards abuses of power and legal violations that have been and are likely to be committed by the government in the name of tackling the coup plotters. Moreover, the AKP’s reclamation of its electoral support last November, in an election deemed free, although not fair, coupled with the government’s new found popularity following the coup attempt, raises serious questions as to how capable the opposition is of revitalizing in the future.

Widespread discontent

A wide range of actors have expressed concern at the CHP and MHP’s decay into the role of a semi opposition. HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, a long-time critic of the opposition’s convergence towards the AKP, stated: “Not only the armed forces, but the other parties have also been connected to the palace,” referring to the controversial presidential residence deemed a symbol of Erdoğan’s abuse of power by critics.

But criticism has not been limited to the HDP; figures within the CHP have also spoken out against the party’s recent stance. Fikri Sağlar, a former cabinet minister and prominent CHP deputy, said Kılıçdaroğlu’s decision to attend last week’s rally did not reflect the views of the CHP party organization and voters.

“Being there legitimizes what Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done till now and means allowing him to hide behind us by portraying himself as a coup victim,” Sağlar told Turkish daily BirGün.

Criticisms of last week’s rally and opposition behaviour have extended beyond political parties. A group of academics, journalists and artists announced an alternative rally to be held on September 4.

“We won’t allow those seeking to further repress the people through calls for national consensus to act opportunistically,” the group stated in a declaration.

It is difficult to forecast how the opposition will behave in the future; any analyst of Turkish politics knows that consistency is not the norm. However, it is beyond doubt that the opposition’s weak stance against the exclusion of a parliamentary party from national dialogue or the violation of constitutional norms is not promising for the future prospects of democracy in Turkey.

 

 

A previous version of this piece originally appeared on Open Democracy. It is re-published here with permission from the author.

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