Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, but now the country finds itself in a massive economic crisis and the president has never been this unpopular. With elections to be held within a year, the long-oppressed opposition is therefore eyeing a historic opportunity to get rid of Erdoğan and his increasingly authoritarian regime. But what is the state of the Turkish opposition, and are they ready to seize the moment? Kasper Ly Netterstrøm talked about it with Professor Murat Somer from Koç University in Istanbul.
Murat Somer is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Koç University, Istanbul, and an expert on polarization and de-polarization, religious and secular politics, ethnic conflicts, autocratization, and democratization. His recent publications include two special issues on polarization and democracy (“American Behavioral Scientist”, 2018, and the “ANNALS of the AAPSS”, 2019, both co-edited with Jennifer McCoy), and “Return to Point Zero: The Turkish-Kurdish Question and How Politics and Ideas (Re)Make Empires, Nations and States” (SUNY Press, forthcoming in June 2022).
Kasper Ly Netterstrom: How would you assess the state of the opposition in Turkey?
Murat Somer: There are two ways of looking at the opposition in Turkey. On one hand, and this is the dominant discourse in international media, the opposition has been very unsuccessful, because they have been defeated so many times by the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party). However, if you look at it from a comparative perspective, the opposition in Turkey has actually been tremendously successful. In countries that undergo this kind of democratic backsliding, what we see is usually a much more rapid weakening of the political opposition parties. But also, a quite rapid and serious depoliticization of the social opposition. People beginning not to vote, exiting the country, exiting politics etc.
During this whole time, the opposition has been able to maintain the support of half of the society, and keep them mobilized, political, and in a state of resistance to the government. If you interpret all this in light of the difficulties of democratic backsliding, it is actually a huge success.
Does it mean they are prepared for the next election?
Since 2018-2019 the opposition has achieved two things. One is unification. Before they remained unable to unite. They remained fragmented. In terms of political parties, but also the constituents. They have now taken big steps towards this, except for the inclusion of the Kurdish opposition. That is something that is being discussed currently. The second thing is that they have managed to agree on a program.
Parties that never came together before, because of ideological and historical reasons, they have now come together and sat around the same table. And they have actually signed agreements on what they want to do. Most importantly, switching to a strengthened parliamentarian system. They have basically agreed on a model of democratic transition.
The presidential system in Turkey is an authoritarian system. It is not democratic. It is officially a presidential system, but it is just the framing of it. The reality is that it is an authoritarian system. They basically want to replace that with a democratic parliamentarian system. These two things are a huge achievement. Also, from a comparative perspective, from the literature on democratic backsliding we know that these are some of the main challenges of the opposition.
The opposition still has not decided who should be the main candidate to run against Recep Tayyib Erdoğan. Why?
They don’t want to focus on the name, because they don’t want to be like the AKP; they don’t want to elect another political strongman. They want to propose a program. The principles, the program. That’s the most important thing. There are also strategic reasons for why they have not agreed on a candidate yet. They have made wrong choices in the past, which they don’t want to repeat.
How will they choose a candidate?
It will a be person from the CHP (Cümhurriyet Halk Partisi, Republican People’s Party), but it will be a unanimous decision among the different opposition parties. This is also important. Turkish democracy has been majoritarian, not necessarily a consensus democracy. They are trying to do things differently. If you look at the CHP in that coalition, it has 25% of the vote. There is also a party that has less than 1%. They have equal votes in the coalition, though of course the CHP will have more weight in reality. It is also sensible that the candidate will be from the CHP, the biggest party in the coalition. But they want to make a choice based on consensus and based on rational criteria.
Whoever will be the candidate must have demonstrated sufficient popular support so that they can win the presidential election in the first round and by a large margin. That is extremely important because democracy is suspended in Turkey – that’s my formulation of the situation -which means it is not a normal democratic election. The government cannot deny elections, because in principle Turkey is a democracy. Erdoğan does not have legitimacy to say that he doesn’t need elections.
On the other hand, AKP has a lot of power to manipulate elections. They can deny the election results, but not if the opposition wins by 10%. They don’t have that kind of power. So, the opposition has to win by a large margin. Therefore, they need to agree on the right candidate and are extremely careful not to make another mistake.
How do you know that AKP can only manipulate elections to a certain degree?
The local elections in Istanbul in 2019 have demonstrated it. And the referendum in 2017 (on a new constitution that introduced a presidential system) has also done that. In 2017 there was a small margin between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote, and AKP was able to use an authoritarian intervention to shift the result in their favor. They made a controversial decision to accept unstamped ballots and envelopes. We don’t know how many votes were shifted in one way or the other, but it showed that they were able to intervene in elections. In 2019, the first elections in Istanbul were won by the opposition by a small margin, so they were able to cancel it. But, when the second election was won by a large margin, they could not deny the result. They cannot change the result by 105%, only by 1-2%.
Popular legitimacy of any government in Turkey is still based on winning elections. You are not legitimate in the eyes of the public unless you can demonstrate or claim that you actually won the elections.
There are a lot of comparisons between Putin and Erdoğan in Western media. What do you think of this comparison?
The regimes are different.
Erdoğan and Putin have similar political styles, but Russia was never a democracy, whereas Turkey has almost 70 years of experience with democracy.
If you think about Russian history, we only have the short-lived example of the Duma before the Bolshevik revolution. The Turkish democratic tradition goes all the way back to the late Ottoman empire, and especially the 1950’s. The regime context is very different. In Turkey you have to somehow prove or claim that you are elected by the people in order to be able to govern.
Let’s go back to the question of the opposition candidate. What kind of person are they looking for?
There are several criteria, such as broad appeal to the public, and an ability to win Kurdish votes. But it also has to be someone that will not use the hyper-presidential authorities that Erdoğanhas created after being elected. He or she should accept the transition to parliamentarian democracy.
Shouldn’t it just to be someone who can win a landslide against Erdoğan?
There are a lot of paradoxes here. The elected president will have to use some of these presidential authorities, because there will be many important decisions to make during the transition that cannot wait. However, it should be a person who has such self-restraint and credibility that he or she will use these authorities based on consensus with the coalition that brought him or her to power, and not use these powers to aggrandize him or herself. There is a trust issue here. I think ideally the name should not be the most important issue.
The program and the principles and the fact that they have a good plan of transition to democracy and build a democratic system: that is the most important thing. However, the realities of politics also say that obviously the name is also very important.
Who do you think would be the best candidate?
My view is that what the candidate says and promises is the most important thing – whoever this candidate will be – and also in terms of winning, for example, the Kurdish votes. For example, Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara, has a nationalist background and he is suspicious to the Kurds. But on the other hand, if Mansur Yavas puts his signature on a piece of paper agreeing to certain things that are important for Kurds, and are agreed upon by this coalition, then the problem will be solved. The same is also true of the other candidates Ekrem Imamouglu, the mayor of Istanbul, and Kemal Kilicdarouglu, the leader of CHP.
In collaboration with Hannah Vos and Michał Matlak