Turkey opposition quietly optimistic ahead of ‘most important election in country’s history’

Incumbent called early election to cement power, but growing signs of ‘Erdogan fatigue’ 

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 19 June 2018 19:40 BST
People wave a banner with a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a gathering of supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul, Turkey, 19 June
People wave a banner with a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a gathering of supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul, Turkey, 19 June (EPA)

With just days to go before one of the most important elections in Turkey’s modern history, there is growing hope among the opposition that they may be able to stop Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s march towards unprecedented power and domination of the nation’s political landscape.

Victory will mean that Mr Erdogan remains president until 2023 – the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, rightly cementing his role, say his supporters, as a great leader of his people.

His opponents fear that the polls, which have been already besmirched by tens of thousands being put in jail, may be the last relatively free elections before a further descent into authoritarianism.

The result on 24 June will have great resonance not just for Turkey, but the region and beyond.

The Erdogan government is engaged in a conflict against Kurdish nationalists internally and across the border. Its forces have been active in Syria for more than a year and have just started going into Manbij, a town which used to be held by the Kurds.

The operations are spreading further, with Ankara announcing air strikes in northern Iraq, close to Iran, on PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) bases in Qandil in which 26 fighters were “neutralised” late last week.

Meanwhile, the crackdown following the failed putsch of two years ago continues.

More than 100 new arrest warrants were issued just this week for those allegedly involved in the plot which had been blamed by the government on the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Those named as wanted in this latest round include diplomats, army imams and academics, including Mehmet Kanter, a professor, whose son Enes is an NBA basketball player with the New York Knicks.

More than 50,000 people remain detained; another 140,000 have been fired or suspended from their jobs.

It is the volatile political and security situation, as well as the economic situation, which Mr Erdogan says has led him to call an early election to ensure that the country has a firm and stable government as it passes through troubled waters.

A referendum passed last year changing the constitution will concentrate authority in the office of the president, at the expense of parliament and the judiciary.

The president has called the election “a milestone” in which victory will enable Turkey “to take the stage as a global power”.

Problems at home and abroad meant “that it is paramount for Turkey to overcome uncertainty”, with the polls called 17 months before they were scheduled.

There are, however, signs that Mr Erdogan may have overestimated the desire of Turks to be saved by him.

Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since 2002 (Getty)

The referendum result last year was narrower than expected and the opposition is buoyed by what they see as increasing signs of “E-fatigue”, brought about by a turbulent few years which has seen the short-lived coup followed by ferocious retribution, as well as terrorist attacks, the restarting of the Kurdish wars, and a president following a Trump-like policy of confrontation with his domestic and international opponents.

The opposition parties, slowly coping with the shock of the draconian measures, with many of their members in prison, are showing a hitherto rare willingness to cooperate on strategy.

There is now a chance that Mr Erdogan will not get the 50 per cent necessary for an outright victory, forcing him into a second round run-off.

There is also the distinct possibility that the coalition of opposition parties will be able to loosen the grip of the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in parliament and push back on some of the measures it has enacted.

The opposition parties have decided to embrace the few opportunities they have been allowed on the airwaves.

Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate for the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) has been running his campaign from prison where he has already spent 20 months on security charges which carry a sentence of 142 years on conviction.

In a 10-minute address through state broadcaster TRT, to which he is entitled to under election law, Mr Demirtas said: “The only reason why I am here is that the AKP is scared of me. They think tying my hands here and going from square to square spreading accusations about me is being courageous. They are openly violating the constitution by declaring me guilty, even though there is no conviction against me.”

“In this election, give light, hope, peace and confidence a chance, not darkness, fear or nightmare. Let’s believe we can do this, and do this together.

“I have no doubt that I will be acquitted in front of the law as soon as possible, as long as the judicial authorities follow the law and not the government’s expectations.”

Muharrem Ince, the candidate for the CHP (Republican People’s Party) of Kemal Ataturk, broke with his party’s hierarchy when it voted with the government to lift parliamentary immunity in 2016 from Mr Demirtas and other members of the HDP, for its alleged link with the militant PKK.

“How could you eliminate immunity in such a climate in which the judiciary has become subservient to the government?” he asked recently, while pointing out that his forecast, that members of other parties would follow those of the HDP to be persecuted, has turned out to be true.

He has visited Mr Demirtas in prison to show solidarity and discuss tactics for the campaign.

Mr Ince, a former physics teacher, has challenged Mr Erdogan’s narrative that he alone represents Turkey’s working people against a feckless, Westernised elite, sometimes referred to as the “White Turks”.

The CHP candidate’s family comes from a village away from the urban elite and some of the female members wear headscarves.

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“Erdogan is the White Turk, I am the coloured of Turkey, Erdogan is from the palace, I am from the poor,” he said at a rally in Istanbul.

“I am the man who fights the bosses, I am the reformer, while Erdogan is the supporter of the status quo.”

Mr Ince has also repeatedly accused Mr Erdogan of calling an early election because a devastating economic crisis will unfold in the near future.

“What is he afraid of? Why did he call a snap poll? Because an economic crisis is at our doorstep and he knows it. This tired man cannot weather this crisis. We will go bankrupt, Turkey needs fresh blood,” declared Mr Ince.

Mr Erdogan and his ministers have sought to blame the economic travails, and especially the steady fall in the value of the lira, on an international conspiracy.

This has been effective to an extent, certainly among his followers. A recent poll shows that 65 per cent of AKP supporters believe that the decline of the national currency was due to “an operation against Turkey by foreign powers”.

Mr Erdogan had urged his supporters to defend the lira by selling dollars, euros and gold. This was enthusiastically followed up by some. A district mayor gave a week’s holiday to municipal workers who sold more than 500 US dollars; a carpet dealer offered free rugs to anyone who exchanged more than 2,000 US dollars, and a surgeon offered, not free treatment, but free horse rides to anyone who presented a receipt from currency-exchange offices.

What is he afraid of? Why did he call a snap poll? Because an economic crisis is at our doorstep and he knows it. This tired man cannot weather this crisis

Muharrem Ince, CHP candidate

Mr Erdogan has been repeating his argument for popular economic defence, saying at a recent gathering: “We’re aware of the games being played against us... Here is my request to the people, do not believe in rumours and protect your currency.”

But many of those who made the foreign currency gesture now face acute hardship with the lira’s collapse.

Cenk Katirci, an Istanbul businessman in the construction sector, changed “a big amount” of US dollars because he felt “patriotic and wanted to help my country”.

But his building materials are linked to imports denominated in dollars and costs have sky-rocketed.

“I take a hit, but I need to pass on some of these extra costs to my customers and they don’t want to pay, so business is not good,” said a dispirited Mr Katirci.

“People don’t have so much money and they have been affected by what has been happening now for the last two years.”

An AKP voter in the last two elections, he remains undecided this time.

“I like what Ince is saying, he seems to speak for ordinary people. But this coalition of theirs has parties with different ideologies, will they speak with one voice?”

In the second round, for the sake of our democracy, our country, the opposition should leave aside its bickering and support the opposition candidate, whoever it is

Meral Aksener, Good Party candidate

Meral Aksener, the candidate for the iYi (Good Party) points out that the opposition coalition is unified on fundamental issues of preserving essential freedoms and civil rights.

“We are making an effort to make the law operate in an equal, impartial and objective manner for everyone,” she said.

“We think the pre-trial detention of politicians, intellectuals and journalists is not right and this is something we are fighting against.”

“In the first round, everyone should vote for their own candidate. In the second round, for the sake of our democracy, our country, the opposition should leave aside its bickering and support the opposition candidate, whoever it is.

“Let’s remember, this election is one of the most important in our country’s history.”

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