Turkey is a country with a long experience of cooperation among parties both in the government and outside of it. At the same time, Turkish politics is deeply polarized. The party system is dominated by AKP, the Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president. AKP is supported by the so-called People’s Alliance. The opposition party with most governmental experience is CHP, the Republican People’s Party. CHP leads the Nation Alliance, which is also called the “Table of Six”, having currently five other members. The Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, HDP, is at the head of a third, smaller alliance. The parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled to take place on 14th of May, six weeks from now. In this episode of the party cooperation series, Zsolt Enyedi talks with Murat Somer, professor at Koç University working on polarization, religion, ethnic conflicts, democracy, and democratic erosion. He is an advisor to various civil society organizations and opposition political parties.
Zsolt Enyedi: Please introduce us to the Turkish party landscape and describe the ideological and the social profile of the most relevant parties.
Murat Somer: Turkey has been a multiparty democracy since 1950, with some legacy of multi-party politics and constitutional monarchy during the late Ottoman times. Politics is structured around four cleavages. The first one is the left-right axis. This one is familiar from other countries, although in Turkey, the cultural aspects of left-right are somewhat more pronounced than the social class and political economy aspects. The second is the religious-secular axis. This one used to be called the center-periphery cleavage, but I think this label is outmoded by now. It pits forces that support the rapid secular modernization of Kemal Ataturk against right-wing religious forces. The latter parties are not conservative per se, they may be quite open to change, but they are inspired by Turkey’s Islamic and Ottoman legacy. The third cleavage is the one between ethnic Turks (in reality, a multi-ethnic group) versus ethnic Kurds. The last cleavage, the democracy versus autocracy cleavage began to emerge during the 2000s, and it grew especially after 2018, when an authoritarian hyper-presidential system replaced the parliamentary system based on a controversial referendum that took place under emergency rule. This divide is an outcome of a particular type of incremental autocratization, orchestrated by civilian, popularly elected governments. The leading force of this process, the Justice and Development Party, claims to uphold democracy, but through various quasi legal methods it, in fact, gradually erodes democratic order. The very active resistance against the AKP-led autocratization led to the fourth cleavage.
Before discussing the current developments, let’s go back a little bit in time. As you know, this podcast series is primarily about party cooperation. What would you say, how are elections typically structured in Turkey? Are they structured around alliances or Turkish parties compete autonomously and then decide after the election what kind of coalition they form?
Traditional Turkish politics is rather competitive.
Usually there exist some pragmatic/strategic pre-electoral alliances, and after the elections often new, governmental coalitions form. For example, in the past the strongly pro-secular Republican People’s Party, CHP, was able to form a coalition with the political Islamists.
This pragmatic readiness to cooperate was important for the functioning of democracy but did not translate into substantive and programmatic alliances. Substantive alliance-building necessary arguably for democratic consolidation has not been the forte of Turkish politics. Personal and ideological differences often led to the collapse of the pragmatic alliances. From this perspective, the current cooperation within the opposition is rather novel and potentially path-breaking.
Indeed, in your work, you contrast normal Turkish politics with current-day, extra-ordinary politics. Could you elaborate on that?
Yes. The problem is that political parties as well as ordinary citizens understand conventional authoritarianism, i.e., when democracy is suspended, much better than the incremental erosion of democracy. AKP, in fact, started with democratic reforms in power and it has never denied the need for an opposition. But it has established control over the entire state and over the overwhelming majority of the media and it has established a pro-government ‘civil society’ to divide and silence the opposition. In the framework of ‘normal politics’, the opposition can try to combat autocratization by appealing to the judiciary. But this option is weakening as the courts are also taken over by the government-supporters. Besides, when a court strikes down some governmental decision, the opposition is blamed for trying to override the people’s will with the help of the judiciary. The opposition can also try to rely on issue-based protest actions, but we see that the government is able to oppress them quite easily, while mass rallies can be criminalized again by the government as coup attempts. Single political parties simply cannot amass sufficient power to override this kind of authoritarian power. So, you need to unite forces and mobilize people with unconventional methods, reminding them that this is an extraordinary situation. This is, however, tricky. If you say that the system is autocratic then people may no longer believe that elections can make a difference and they may not want to take risks. People continue to act as if the regime were a democracy, and this may need to be taken into account to defeat incremental autocratization.
A new type of discourse and strategy [for the opposition] is needed, one that fits the needs of what I decided to call “extraordinary democratic politics” and “regime uncertainty”: the need to fight an incremental autocrat with unconventional politics and without calling the regime an autocracy. I first published an exploratory academic article on this in Turkish in 2021, and then penned a joint article in English with my co-author Jennifer McCoy and Özlem Tuncel next year. A book is also in the making together with Jennifer. I think the main opposition alliance in Turkey went in this direction by including both right-wing and left-wing parties.
The largest party of the Nation Alliance, CHP, is a secular and left-wing party, while the other parties are right-wing. The alliance even includes two splinters from the governing Justice and Development Party. In general, party alliances have never been as relevant and as transparent as today. They have jointly signed a number of programmatic documents, very explicitly specifying and announcing certain principles and policies. Of course, some issues had to be left out from the common platform. Some details are missing on, for example about women’s rights, Kurdish rights or economic rights. But the stake is to rebuild democracy, and therefore some maximalist demands, disagreements and legitimate grievances need to be set aside for now.
Nevertheless, if I understand well, the Turkish opposition parties went beyond simply saying that we want to restore democracy. They have now a political program on which government can be based.
Yes, this is indeed an important new element. We must remember that in the context of democratic erosion there are popularly elected governments – even if elections are not really free and fair. These governments enjoy the support of significant portions of society. Their support is often based on resentments against the shortcomings of the previous system. Today many Turkish citizens are unhappy about the erosion of the democracy of the last two decades, but they don’t want to go back to the ancien régime. The opposition parties are trying, therefore, to come up with some kind of substantive agreement that amounts to building a better democracy and to transcend what has existed previously.
This is not easy, and the success depends not only on how to bring together different ideologies, but also on how to bring together different party organizations. You’re trying to achieve democracy, but the vehicle that you have in your hands is political parties.
In Turkey, parties are not paper tigers: they have massive organizations, long legacies, and millions of members. Widespread clientelism is also a fact. These gigantic organizations need to be persuaded about the cooperation and the new program if they will work hard in the campaign.
Let’s talk a little bit about the technology of cooperation. You mentioned that the convergence within the Nation Alliance went deeper this time than during some of the previous elections. And yet, a couple of weeks ago, it looked as if the whole alliance was falling apart, there was a major dispute about who should be the presidential candidate. I wonder how these conflicts were solved. I heard that some of your ideas played a role in finding a technical solution. So, please, say a few words about what is the actual formula that the opposition will be using during the upcoming election.
Whenever there are alliances, you need conflict resolution mechanisms. These are often non-formal, context-specific techniques, often concerning the language of communication between the partners or some local cultural patterns. What was this last conflict in Turkey about? The members of the Nation Alliance agreed to have one presidential candidate. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the leader of the largest party and the person who brought the alliance together was an obvious candidate, but he is not a very charismatic politician. He has a rather bureaucratic kind of personality. And he has a baggage: he has been the leader of the opposition since the 2010s, and consequently, he has been blamed for electoral failures. The 2019 local elections brought to the scene new political personalities, for example Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş. Both are charismatic and popular and Imamoğlu is younger and has a better rapport with young people. Both are CHP politicians, but Yavaş represents the right-wing of the CHP.
Nationalist, indeed. So, I proposed that they run on a joint ticket, as a team. They could complement each other well and they could generate excitement. I wrote some opinion pieces and conveyed this solution to İmamoğlu, Kılıçdaroğlu and their close advisors. So, party leaders discussed it and the idea was on the table but it was not accepted first. Then Meral Akşener, the leader of the second largest political party, IYI, left the table, being unhappy about the nomination of Kılıçdaroğlu. This created a crisis, but also an opportunity to revisit the idea of the ticket, which was finally accepted. Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş became the running mates of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu’s forte was that he was very calm from the beginning. He didn’t say anything that he could not take back afterwards.
The Turkish Gandhi.
Exactly. The members of the alliance also agreed on making the leaders of the other five parties to be vice presidents after the election. I am not entirely sure whether this was a good idea. On the one hand, this is an attractive, collegial formula, used also in Uruguay in the past. On the other hand, it may cause difficulties for governing.
Has it ever been seriously considered in Turkey that ordinary party members or supporters could be integrated in the process of selecting candidates?
While the alliance-building can be considered democratic in terms of its goals, it was also a leadership-driven, elitist process. Few people were involved in the actual negotiations, and the formal organization of the political parties were not necessarily consulted. The lack of bottom-up participation is a longstanding problem in Turkey. After the elections we need a new law that makes Turkish parties more participatory. But one must take into account that the current environment is quasi-authoritarian, there is always a possibility for some authoritarian governmental intervention. Furthermore, democratic, participatory candidate selection doesn’t always ensure success either, as the example of Hungary has demonstrated. But in the future more attention must be given to this aspect.
We talked a lot about the presidential candidate. But what about the parliamentary candidates? To what extent is there cooperation in their selection? How is it decided how many candidates are nominated on behalf of each party?
The nomination of parliamentary candidates is more complicated than the nomination of the presidential candidate. The current electoral system is, on the one hand, beneficial for alliances because the 7% threshold doesn’t apply to the members. On the other hand, according to the new electoral law, the members of the alliance would need to compete against each other in the districts if they run on separate lists. The opposition, therefore, needs to decide in every particular district whether they nominate a CHP list or an IYI list, or some other list. Otherwise, even with only 40 – 41% of the vote, the ruling People Alliance may get the majority in the parliament. So, the opposition parties must make very strategic choices, considering which party’s list and which party’s particular candidates are most popular in the given district.
So, I guess at the district level opinion polls will be used.
Indeed, opinion polls will be used. And they need to use local networks and knowledge about personalities and popular sentiments in smaller districts. One must also pay attention to the interests of the small parties who need seats in the Parliament, but the common interest is the most important one: to win the election. They have to do this through strategic negotiation. This is not something that can be done through primaries. Experts and political party members have the decisive say on these matters.
What do you expect, will there be a united campaign organization, or the opposition parties will maintain their separate organizations? Will they pool all the resources, all the money, all the information and all the campaign technology they have, or will they stick to their guns and preserve their autonomy at the organizational level?
I think there will be a multi-level solution. A complete pooling of resources will not be possible, not only because we are talking about separate organizations but also because the objective is to make the alliance able to appeal to the broadest possible segment of voters. Turkey is one of the most polarized countries in the world. This means that voters often vote not because they like very much their own party but because they don’t want another party to succeed. Some may be unhappy about AKP or the People’s Alliance, but they may dislike CHP even more. But such voters may consider voting for a small party even if that party is in alliance with CHP. Hence, the members of the alliance do not want to identify completely with each other. They will need to do some segmentation. Turkey is a quite large country, with a population of 85 million and with very diverse regions. In different regions different parties and personalities may attract voters. Parties need to have a division of labor.
But they also need to make sure that the different campaign efforts and campaign messages are compatible with each other. Otherwise, they will undermine each other. There is a need for a master narrative.
If this election is really a democracy vs autocracy referendum, then the opposition parties will need a joint discourse pulling it all together.
Separate messages should not conflict with the master narrative about what they aim to do together.
You used the ‘referendum between democracy and autocracy’ frame. My final question is what will be the outcome of this referendum?
This is, of course, the $1 million question. Under normal circumstances, and even in the context of this extraordinary politics, the opposition should win. It looks like they have a real chance of winning both in parliamentary elections and also in the presidential elections, although their advantage in the presidential elections seems to be larger, because the electoral formulas in the parliamentary election are favoring the incumbent. But given the trajectory of Turkish politics, and the very process of democratic erosion, I think the only way to win is to never think that you will definitely win. You always must be ready for surprises.
The opposition is doing the right things and seems to be also quite creative. This is important because under such circumstances there is no clear right formula. But the real question is not who will win the elections. In Malaysia, the opposition won but then it fell apart. In countries that underwent democratic erosion the real goal is not to win election but to overcome the erosion and to rebuild a strong democracy so that there will not be another democratic erosion.
In this respect, the upcoming election and its aftermath will be consequential not only for Turkey but also for other troubled democracies in the world.